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24 July 2022

Meditation – The Gift of Music

by Isaac Overton

I have often thought that the existence of music poses a problem for atheists. They say that they believe only in the existence of a material universe, often promoting such notions as “survival of the fittest” in the natural world. This idea of the survival of the fittest supposes that life works on the basis of a kind of pragmatic survivalism, and that all the forces of nature and the workings of biology naturally incline to display this kind of pragmatic survivalism. As we evolve down through the eons, supposedly, our race has shed that which does not help us to survive, and has developed qualities, abilities, and traits that tend toward survival. Music, in both its existence and power, does not seem to fit with this narrative. Why should a tightly strung set of strings, such as those found within a piano, be able to harmonise and dance together so beautifully? Music seems to be a glorious world of wonder where the material intersects with the spiritual, and has such an ability to pierce our souls that nobody can deny it.

But how then do we, as Christians, approach this divine gift of music? It is one thing to critique another view, but unless one offers a productive alternative, there’s not much point to it. How ought we to think about music then? What is the Christian vision for the design and use of music? In the first place, we know with certainty that music was made for the glory of God. In 1 Corinthians 10:31 we read “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Music then exists, as do all things, to glorify God. But how? Perhaps we should begin by clarifying what exactly we mean when we use this word. I think Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary does well when he defines music as the “science of harmonical sounds.” Building on that, we might say that music is the discovery and skillful use of vocal and instrumental sounds, which have been laid out in the natural order by God, for the expression of his glory and our enjoyment thereof. When we enjoy music rightly, we are enjoying the glory of God. And even unbelievers, though their music shares the fallen condition of their own souls, are seeing and tasting God’s glory in music – though it will be a witness unto condemnation if not coupled with repentance.

One further thing we might add here is to say that because music includes vocal sounds, it also has the ability to function as a vehicle of language. All the qualities then of language can be incorporated into music, as is richly attested by the Psalter in scripture, which is both musical and didactic. But we still haven’t answered the question: how does music glorify God? We have a few of the puzzle pieces now, so let’s try and put them together.

When the scriptures address the topic of music, they give a clear and primary emphasis on music being a gift to help us in worship and prayer – especially in communal worship, but also in family and individual settings. In Exodus 15:1-2, as God delivered Israel from the Egyptians, we read that: “Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation”. Psalm 5:1 is an example of prayer, music, and song all blending into one: “Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning”. Echoing the salvation song of Exodus, the Prophet Isaiah writes: “The LORD will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD.” In the New Testament we are likewise instructed to “make melody to the Lord” with our hearts (Eph 5:19) as we worship together. The primary way that music glorifies God, then, is that it provides a way unlike any other for us as God’s people to express our worship to him in sweet and holy spiritual communion.

In addition to this main purpose of music, Scripture shows us that it also serves other secondary purposes as well. Let’s explore some of these secondary purposes for music. Music is a means of mutual encouragement among believers, and thus we are called to be “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5:19). Spiritual communion with God in song thus has the added feature of being a means for spiritual communion with each other. I was at one of the synodical gatherings of elders in our denomination, and each day at Synod we had a time set aside for worship in song and the preaching of the Word of God. At one point during the worship, I felt so overcome by my own weakness, and my heart was so broken that my voice faltered and I could not sing. But as I stood with my head bowed in weakness, I opened my ears and listened to the sound of 70 strong voices singing words of salvation and praise, and it was as though in my moment of weakness that the brothers in the room were upholding me up when I had no strength. And throughout the proceedings at the Synod, I felt a keen awareness of the gospel partnership that I shared with these men. I give thanks to Christ for them! It was a moment of sweet spiritual communion with God’s people.

Music also serves the purpose of helping us to process and ingest truth, and to muse further upon it that we may live wisely. This kind of activity does not need music to happen, but when couple with music it may weld truth to the heart and affections in a stronger way than it would otherwise. As the Sons of Korah begin their song in Psalm 49, for example, they sing: “Hear this, all people! Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together! My mouth shall speak wisdom; the meditation of my heart shall be understanding. I will incline my ear to a proverb; I will solve my riddle to the music of the lyre.” It’s almost as though Proverbs 1:1-6 has been put to song! And a potent mixture it is. As a carrier of language, music has the capacity to teach and to serve as a means of meditation upon the truth. Of course, this is in full flight in the communal worship of the saints, but it ought also to be used more generally in life as well. Put differently, we might say that music has a didactic function, and wonderfully combines truth and affection through its ministry. In Colossians 3:16, the Apostle Paul thus instructs us: “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”. The dual nature of the Psalter as song book and Scripture repeatedly exemplifies this for, as we know, all of Scripture is profitable for teaching, conviction, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16-17). The songs of the psalter are not excluded from this function!

Another secondary function for music is that it serves as an evangelistic testimony. In Psalm 57:9 the psalmist says “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations.” Similarly in Psalm 96:1-2 we hear the call to worship going out to all creation: “Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” The song of the saints goes out with joy, irresistibly attracting those whom the Father is pleased to call.

On a more personal level, music may serve for personal edification and enjoyment, for the righteous man sings and rejoices (Pr 29:6). Again in Psalm 77:6 the psalmist remembers his song in the night, meditating in his heart. Music is a way of expressing sexual love as well: “The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (Song 2:12). This gives us a small introductory taste to a broader truth: music is for the glory of God, and serves that purpose in numerous different ways. So too it may be used and abused by the godless as a means of idle and vain entertainment (Amos 6:5-7) – which we ought to diligently avoid.

Where does this all leave us? Well, firstly, it more clearly sets forth the fact that God has given music to us as a gift, an expression of his glory for us to enjoy. In that sense, take up the call of scripture and give voice to your heart! Sing to the glory of God! Enjoy this gift he has given. Secondly, however, seeing the primary and secondary uses of music in scripture, this helps us to order and moderate our use of this gift as well. It may be beneficial to listen to the music that we love, or to play and enjoy playing music. But we must always keep in mind that communal worship with the people of God is the highest and best expression and use of this gift. Our use of it toward that end, and perhaps in ends closely connected to that end (e.g. in family worship), should be a natural priority in our use of music. But the gift extends for the use in every area of life, and so too we ought not to drawback from that fuller blessing. Enjoy music, learn more of it, to the glory of God. SDG