Author: Phillip Jensen

The heroine is alone in a large house late at night: the background is dark and spooky.  Eerie discordant slowly builds in volume and intensity as our fears for her safety increase.  The chase begins as the heroine flees for her life to the exciting rhythms of the percussion.  Her rescue leads to the more gentle and relaxed romantic mood with the accompaniment of strings.

Consciously and unconsciously music is part of our environment; creating, evoking and reflecting our moods and emotions.  From bright jingles to selling Coca Cola to national anthems, we use music to express and stir emotions.

Within the Bible this use of music is well understood.  So Psalm 98:1, 4-9 speaks of the joy expressed in music, as we praise the Lord.  This is the most common musical emotion of the Scriptures.  Yet it is not the only one: mourning and lamentation is expressed musically (e.g., 2 Samuel 1:17ff, Matthew 9:23); David plays to relieve Saul’s troubled spirit (1 Samuel 6:14ff); and Solomon’s Song expresses love.  Furthermore joy and happiness are expressed musically about subjects other than God (Isaiah 5:12), even subjects opposed to God! The Scriptures do expect and command God’s people to sing the praises of God.  James 5:13 says: “Is anyone happy?  Let him sing songs of praise”.  Revelation 4:10; 5:9; 5:12, 13; 15:3; 19:1, 3, 6 perceive God’s people singing and shouting out God’s praises.

However, music as a language of moods and emotions needs careful understanding and interpretation.  A friend in the advertising business contacted me about a problem at work.  In a Board meeting it was suggested that the Hallelujah Chorus be used to back an advertisement for soap powder.  He felt it was inappropriate but could not really explain why.

Music gains its emotional meaning by a variety of associations.  It can be part of our cultural heritage; it can be the context in which it is played; it can be the words with which it is associated; it can be a community’s formal agreement over its meaning; it can be the tempo, volume, pitch, etc.  Thus for example, certain pieces of music, e.g., The Last Post and The National Anthem have a clear and precise meaning because of community agreements.

The words and context in which music is set are the most precise defining agents of the emotions aroused.  Sometimes the music fails because its form and fashion are inconsistent with the words and context (e.g. the mournful chanting of “Make Thy chosen people joyful”).  Yet the context of party going (Isaiah 5) or victory (Exodus 15) or idolatry (Exodus 32) can all be expressed musically.  Add to the context particular words which define, describe and explain the situation and the musical expressions become specifically meaningful.

So Paul knows that mindless, lifeless, wordless instruments have capacity for some meaning in the time they play and the call they can give (1 Corinthians  14:7,8).  However, it is essential for them to play their notes distinctly to communicate.  So he argues that mindless (i.e. glossolic) singing is like instruments playing indistinctly.  In contrast singing in your own language is singing with mind and spirit and is likened to instruments playing distinctly.

Thus to direct people to godliness the music we use must have (through associations, context, words etc) some meaningful expression of the Gospel.

In such a way music can be used for educational purposes.  So Moses in Deuteronomy  32 teaches a song to remind people of God’s salvation and their sinfulness.  So Paul speaks of people coming to church with a hymn in the same sentence as people coming with “a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue of interpretation, and under the same rule:  “all these must be done for the strengthening (edification) of the church.” (1 Corinthians 14:26).  And when Paul does give direction concerning singing (Ephesians 5:19-20; Colossians 3:16) he does so in terms of speaking to one another and teaching each other.  This is done as spirit filled Christians in whom the word of Christ dwells richly.  In both contexts it is done with thankfulness in our hearts to God.

So then music, singing in particular, is seen within the Bible as expressing emotions, through context and content.  As expression of emotions can be articulated meaningfully, music can be used to teach and edify people.

Sometimes music can be out of keeping with its context for both good and ill. Thus it was in prison for the sake of the Gospel that Paul and Silas sang hymns to God.  The very incongruity points to the power of the Gospel.  Sometimes people can use their gifts without love controlling such usage so that others are not served or edified.  Then their gifts are like the proverbial clanging cymbal.

Given this understanding of music what part should it play in our congregational life?

1. First and foremost the context of the music must be true to the word of God.  E.g., the words must be true and the emotions stirred must be appropriate.

2. The musical method must be honouring to God.  Thus those who play lead etc, must do so serving others, not just expressing themselves (unless that is for others’ service).

3. The reason for singing can be either/or educational and emotional.  It should never be emotional in a way that is untrue or unhelpful to the people, e.g., singing heresy or manipulating crowd excitement.  Yet it should never be thought that it can be unemotional as if singing dull, quiet, gentle music will not affect emotions.   To be of value it does not have to educate by teaching new things;  for remembrance of the old and reminders of old truths is of educational value.

4. However be it emotional or educational as its particular use, music must be edifying.  That is, there will be time to sing for emotional reasons, to declare God’s praise, to give vent to our thankfulness, to prepare ourselves for prayerfulness or to hear God’s word.  Again an item can be used to call upon people to hear and identify with the perspective of the singer.  It is like an emotional testimony. 

5.Therefore the music must set, reinforce, reflect or express the emotions consistent with the gathering or the part of the gathering at which it occurs.  For example the hymn with organ nearly always creates a mood of formality and importance as a chorus with guitar creates a mood of relaxed informality.  Thus without instruction people will usually stand for the organ and sit for the chorus.  It depends upon what kind of meeting we want to conduct as to what musical method we should follow.  Chanting creates a mood of old, other worldly mysticism as clapping can create a sense of exuberant joy (and also of crowd manipulating fanaticism).

6.The selection of music for a particular gathering must be both difficult and careful.  People’s reactions to music differ (Austria, House of Rising Sun, Dam Busters, Hernando’s Hidaway) and their perception of the meeting differ (e.g., desire for formality or informality).  However music is never emotionally neutral and therefore must be selected with care.

7.We generally need to work harder at using a congregation’s gifts for edification, both in the encouraging of people’s gifts and in channelling them into edifying patterns.  We also need to take more deliberate actions in the learning and selection of music that says what we want rather than what other more musically sensitive but theologically erroneous people are producing.

A paper originally developed by Phillip Jensen for the School of Christian Ministry (SOCM), part of Campus Bible Study (CBS) at UNSW where Phillip was chaplain 1975–2005.

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