Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Odes

Colossians 3:16

February 4, 2018

Now, over the past month or so, we have been talking about worship: the why, what, and how…

The why is simple: God is deserving of worship. It is the only proper way to approach him, we are created to worship and thus the only way we can truly be fully human is by doing so.

The what is also pretty straight-forward: Worship is drawing near to God according to His word. It is not about us being spiritually recharged, though our longings will find their fulfillment in worship. It is not about what we get out of it, though, if we pay attention, we will get something out of it. It is not about us at all. It is about God from the beginning to the end. It is about his glory, his praise, his honor, and his word.

The how, too, is laid out in scripture. We are to do nothing but what the Scripture command and we are not to mix in the innovations of men.

And in light of those principles, we have talked about liturgy, preaching, the gathering of God’s people on the Sabbath Day, etc…

There is one more element of worship that I think we need to discuss and that is the role of singing in worship.

We are a people that sing. From our earliest years, children lift their voices in song. We express our emotions in music from our highest highs to our lowest lows. For example, there is Blues Music to express our unfulfilled longings, pop that expresses our joys, and there is even a place in music to sing of our anger and righteous indignation at injustices done — in my younger years this would have been something like Sabbath’s War Pigs or Edwin Star’s War.

And that is just the secular world

Perhaps one of the weaknesses, I think, of the Christian music scene i that while they do a really good job on promoting the joyous side of the faith, with few exceptions the songs of righteous anger are lacking, though Bride’s Snakes in the Playground might be an exception to the rule, though I don’t expect to hear that played anytime soon on the Christian radio stations. Know that this is not a dig against said Christian radio, that is a simple business decision for them…play what your audience wants to hear.

The Ancient Israelites had a songbook as well — the Book of Psalms (actually 5 books). Interestingly enough, songs of righteous anger and lament are the most common types of psalms in the psalter…a reminder of the human condition in this fallen world.

My point is simply that it is natural for us to sing and to make music. In fact, I have said before that any kind of instrument you might play can be broken down into three categories: percussion, wind, and string. And the human body contains all of these instruments. Our hands to clap and our feet to stomp making percussion sounds, our lungs to bellow like a horn and vocal cords to modulate the sound like a string.

And, though the line of Cain was the first to develop instruments (Genesis 4:21-22), our tendency to sing and make music is not a result of the Fall, but is a part of our imitation of God, for God sings too.

The prophet Zephaniah writes:

“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you with his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

(Zephaniah 3:17)

And, Paul writes, singing is to be a part of our worship.

In context, Paul is giving instructions to a community of believers in Colossae, a city in Asia Minor (Modern Turkey). In verses 12-14 he speaks of Christian virtues for which we should strive…virtues that culminate in Christian love (agape love). Verse 15 speaks of how our unity as a body is bound in peace and then comes verse 16 and to this body united in peace, Paul writes… (and notice the imperative at the beginning):

“You must let the Word of Christ dwell richly in you…”

Why must? It is must because the unity we are to have in peace can never happen unless we are first committed to the Word of God. Try as you might, with out that as your absolute standard, the best you will be able to muster up is friendship and most commonly just a matter of toleration.

But unity requires that you be genuinely concerned that the other person’s needs are met before your own needs are met. It requires that you, even if you don’t like the person very much, you choose to love them anyway because you are members of the same body.

Look, when I was a kid, I had big ears — I still do, but it seems that my head has grown into them a little better as I got older — but I hated having big ears and the teasing that went along with them… “dumbo” or being told I looked like a taxi with both doors open. But I never got rid of my ears, never chopped them off.

In High School, I broke my finger badly enough that it shattered the knuckle and never really healed right and it bends at an angle even today. It looked odd and I feel the pressure changes when the weather fronts come through, but I didn’t cut it off or have the doctor re-break it and force it into proper alignment.

When I had my stroke several years ago, I lost a good bit of flexibility in my left hand, particularly in my pinky finger…also in the left side of my tongue. It meant that I had to relearn how to type and also how to project my voice. It was inconvenient, I didn’t like it, but these are parts of my body, so I worked through them. Do you get the idea here?

Sometimes I think that we live in a world where cosmetic surgery is so common that we think if we don’t like a part of our body, we can just change it. And churches often do the same things, not with surgery but with other approaches, for example, by making “certain elements” feel unwelcome, by gossiping, by intimidation, by always doing something in the way it has always been done even if you don’t know the reason behind it. This is not Biblical and it ignores the Word rather than letting it live richly in us. It also destroys unity.

Which is the reason that Paul writes, once again…”YOU MUST…”

So, he continues…

“You must let the Word of Christ dwell richly in you, in all wisdom (that is thinking how God thinks) and teaching and admonishing (sounds a lot like 2 Timothy 4:2 that we looked at a couple weeks ago) singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes with thankfulness in your heart to God…”

He concludes the section in verse 17 by saying that whatever we do we need to do so in the name of the Lord Jesus. That means every event of the church, every conversation, action, and decision you make and any idea you hold, must be done or held in the name of Jesus. If it cannot be done, you are not acting in faith and that done without faith is sin (Romans 14:23).

But, I want to focus on the singing, so let’s double back to verse 16…

“Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

Let me say this up front because we have a bunch of Geneva students and alumni here…as deeply as I love our Covenanter brothers, their argument is that these three words describe the Greek Psalter. Perhaps on a level, but not exhaustively as I understand it. So, my point is simply that we should see these as three different kinds of music, something to which the Greek points as does the early church practice.

Three types of music:

Psalms are more or less self-explanatory — this is the word used to translate the Hebrew word for a psalm into the Greek translation of the Psalms. By the way, the Hebrew word is mizmor, which refers to a song sung while accompanied by a stringed instrument. Again, not to knock a cappella singing, but that is not how the Jewish church originally approached the psalms.

Hymns, like psalms is a Greek word that refers to any song that is written to give honor to a deity. This is used both in Christian literature and outside of Christian literature and thus pagans like Plato and Menander of Athens both use this term to speak of their pagan songs…

The third word is odes…one more Greek word that you know. These are songs for sacred worship, like hymns, but simpler in nature.

Three different kinds of songs, not unlike the three types of song we have sung or will sing in this service. We began with two “sacred odes” or praise songs. We continued with a hymn and we will close with a psalm.

Do we need all 3 types of music in every service? I don’t think so, but I would suggest that all three types of music ought to be a part of the life of the church if we are to honor Paul’s words here.

Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, fine, that’s nice, but I like this kind of music or I don’t like this particular kind of music.” I understand, I was there too.

Let me say this, and here I am especially talking to our younger members who might consider hymn-singing a snooze. I can say that because I was there too. I went through a season of my life when I thought that if I never sung another hymn in my life it would be too soon. I liked the praise music and the energy that it brought with it…particularly the more edgy, “Gen-X” type of music and avoided hymn singing in worship.

But that changed when I went to seminary. You see, Denise and I went to Jackson, Mississippi hoping to find a kind of edgy, contemporary service, but well, that was Mississippi. Let me just say that we were looking for Third Day but ended up finding Maranatha… Do you understand the distinction?

And so, we ended up at a church that was traditional in their style of worship — lots of hymns. But we stayed there, and we did so for three reasons:

First, they loved on us. Second, the preaching was faithful to God’s Word. And third, there were opportunities for us to serve in meaningful ways. And you know what, though it was not the style of worship we were looking for, we stayed for what I would argue are exactly the right reasons.

Funny thing, during that time, I fell in love with the hymns all over again, and I am grateful for that. You see, whole generations have grown up with these old traditional hymns…in reality, these hymns form a kind of common language that binds them together and that is good. One of my fears is that we have a generation that is growing up and that has abandoned the hymns wholesale and will thus lose the ability to connect with their grandparents’ generation or beyond.

This does not mean that I am opposed to new music being written. I have said many times before that I do not think that there are enough words in the human language or enough tunes possible in music to adequately praise our Lord and God and King. So, each generation has an obligation to add to the body of hymnody…let’s just not forget the other.

Finally, there is one more thing that Paul says about our singing…we are to sing with thankfulness to God. And, if we are guilty of one thing, I think this is most likely it.

Now, note that what I am about to say comes from a man who does not sing well, so I understand that it can be awkward because you don’t want to be accused of bawling over everyone else, specially if you are off key. I do understand. But not being able to sing well is not an excuse not to sing…or to sing in a low, dull, mumble.

Now, I especially want to address our men this morning with this. When it comes to not singing out, we are likely the greater culprits. And that is ironic, because if we really did sing out, we would fill this hall with sound in powerful ways. No offense meant to you ladies, but God has gifted the male voice with the strength to be loud and big.

Let me close with this. In Mississippi, it is still normative that churches have both Sunday morning and Evening services (Wednesday too, for that matter). Now, when we were in seminary, in the stage of our lives we were in, we had small children and thus evening services were ones that I typically went to by myself. And during those services I would sit with our “Uncle Neil.” Neil was not a biological uncle, but was a deacon of the church that kind of attached himself to us to ensure that we yankees from the north could find our way in the deep south.

Now, I don’t think that Neil would mind me saying that he was no Pavarotti, but he liked to sing and somewhere along the lines, he learned to sing parts. And so, Sunday nights we would sit together and sing out. I would sing the melodies and he would harmonize beside me. All I can say is that we were quite a pair. But, we sang out. And who is being more faithful to Paul’s instructions here? Uncle Neil and I or those who don’t sing? I’d say the answer is pretty obvious.

So, my challenge to you, especially men, is to sing out. Don’t be a non-singer and don’t be a barely-audible singer, but sing and sing out. Now, for those of you in the non-singing camp, I may not be able to change your mind this morning, bit I would put forth that if you sing, others will. And if others do, the whole church will and the sanctuary will be filled with sound…and, you might even just find that you enjoy singing in worship. I sure did.

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