OCTOBER 8, 2017
Souls Need Songs
How God Shapes Us Through Singing
Article by Hayden Nesbit
this article first appeared at desiringGod.org www.desiringgod.org
I don’t sing well — and that’s putting it generously. I can’t “carry a tune.” I can’t even hum the melody of a familiar song well enough for someone to recognize it. But nothing seems to draw out my heart’s emotions like singing. There are few things that refresh my soul like singing the doxology around the dinner table with my family, or singing catechisms and hymns to our daughter at bedtime.
God made our souls for song. Scripture brims with God’s call for his people to sing his praises. Something about singing refreshes and reorients our souls.
Teach and Admonish
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he instructs the church to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16). Paul desires the church members to instruct each other through various means, including through singing. But how can singing instruct?
Here’s where the transformative power of Scripture is crucial. Paul urges the believers to sing psalms — the inspired, God-breathed collection of praises and laments. He also advises them to sing hymns — a term that probably describes songs rich with theological truth. Finally, Paul even wants the Colossians to sing spiritual songs — which likely refers to spontaneous praises that overflow from the heart. All of which are able to instruct.
The Spirit-inspired Scriptures burst with power to convict us of sin and to build up our faith in God. I love that our church makes the effort to sing psalms. Nothing is more powerfully instructive than the word of God, and a beautifully engaging melody readies the heart to receive the word. When we sing hymns that artistically display the truths of Scripture, or spontaneous songs that arise from a deep indwelling of that truth, and especially when we sing the very words of Scripture, we draw on the teaching, reproving, correcting, and training ability of the word in a way that engages both heart and mind (2 Timothy 3:16).
Soften the Soul
Paul wanted the church members to sing to one another from overflowing hearts affected by scriptural truths, rather than from rote or ritualistic motives. Music isn’t spiritual because we’ve used certain words or notes; music becomes spiritual when the Spirit inspires it. And when we sing Scripture — the Spirit’s very words — God often uses his word to soften our souls.
God thinks singing is so important that he commissioned groups in Israel to ministries of music. For example, the Korahites’ sole job description was to sing to the Lord. In 2 Chronicles 20:19, they “stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.” The Korahites’ singing wasn’t just for show; their ministry had a purpose. Singing serves to refresh and reorient our souls in ways that other forms of instruction simply don’t. Singing helps us love God not only with our minds, but also with our hearts and souls and strength (Mark 12:30).
Our souls need song. So God ordained a ministry of singers to drive theological teaching deep into the hearts of his people. As believers indwelled with the Holy Spirit, we now possess this gift of singing for our own and others’ benefit.
Singing combines the instructive seeds of biblical truths with the soul-softening ministry of music.
Raise a Song
How, then, can we grow in this ministry of singing? How can we sing so that our minds are instructed and our souls softened? We can start by letting “the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Colossians 3:16) as we memorize psalms and hymns.
The Bible’s Songbook
Memorizing Scripture brings myriad benefits. One of the more transformative advantages is being able to speak or sing the words of Scripture directly into someone else’s life.
Biblical counselor David Powlison says we should use psalms in at least two ways. First, we should use the psalms like classical music. This is the technical, detail-oriented, word-for-word storing of psalms in the heart. When we do this, we can powerfully speak the living word of God into our own hearts and others’. Second, we should use the psalms like jazz. When we tuck away the words of the psalms in our minds, we’re free to improvise on them — adding refrains or adapting them to a certain melody — in order to drive them deeper into our hearts.
Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne suggested singing all of the psalms in a year in addition to regular, systematic Bible reading. If we heeded his advice, we’d quickly become familiar with many of the psalms and be able to “play” them like jazz as they mingle down into our hearts through melody.
Memorizing Scripture, especially psalms, enables us to instruct both the mind and hearts of others in powerful ways.
An Arsenal of Hymns
During a week of seminary classes, I and some of my classmates stayed with a pastor friend and his family. I’ll never forget what I heard when we walked through the door into their home. Soaring from the back bedroom was a booming, unpolished voice singing verses from “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” interspersed with his young daughters’ giggling.
I don’t remember a lot from the classes we sat in that week, but this friend’s singing with his children stuck with me. There was no pulpit; there were no hymnals or handouts. Just a father instructing his children with the theologically rich verses of a hymn, and overflowing with emotion within the walls of their own home.
Having an arsenal of theologically refreshing and reorienting hymns in your heart can help you minister to your own soul and the souls of others in beautiful ways.
The Singing Savior
No one knows the ruin that marks the souls of men like Jesus does. And no one knows the remedy for such devastation like the Savior of man himself. Everything Jesus does matters, and that includes his singing.
Jesus sang. He sang with people and to people. At the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn together (Matthew 26:30). This was most likely a portion of what’s known as the Hallel Psalms — Psalms 113–118. Jesus, the Word, led these men in singing the very words of Scripture he embodied. The very next day, Jesus died with a psalm on his lips. He bore the wrath of God on the cross whispering a psalm, so that we might one day sing those same psalms with joy as God’s children.
It matters that the Savior of souls was a singer to souls, and a singing soul himself. It matters that the one who turns hearts of stone into hearts of flesh gave us the gift of song to drive that gospel reality and its instructive implications deep into our souls.
Singing matters. Souls need songs.
Hayden Nesbit lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky, with his wife, Megan, and daughter, Ruth. He works for Campus Outreach.