Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
Our faith is a singing faith. There are many stories of how the faith of individuals has been sustained in the most difficult of times by the hymns of great writers like Wesley and Watts. In his Confessions, written at the end of the Fourth Century, St Augustine explains how in a time of crisis the congregation in Milan found encouragement by singing hymns, a practice that had come to them from the Eastern Church. Even earlier, St Paul encouraged the Ephesians to ‘speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:19).
For those who know the God revealed in and by Jesus there’s a lot to sing about, even in difficult times. In prison, Paul and Silas sang, even if it might have been the Blues to begin with. Songs of joy are a fitting response to the Lord who is the life-giver, the creator, the maker of all (v. 4) who is far above all spiritual forces and ideologies and ‘-isms’ that jostle for our allegiance (v. 3). In spite of the promises of advertisers and politicians, he is the one who truly saves from all that can hurt us (v. 1) and who alone is our security in an uncertain world (v. 1).
The image of God as shepherd is one of the recurrent motifs in scripture (John 10:14–18, 27–29). He provides and cares for his flock who in turn are to listen to his voice and follow him. And there’s the rub. Worship is more than just singing a few songs or feeling moved by singing a few songs. Worship is demonstrated in obedience, in listening to what the Good Shepherd says and in doing his will (in Hebrew, as in Greek, the verbs ‘to obey’ and ‘to hear’ are closely related).
The Psalmist refers to events around the Exodus. That was a time for celebrating and a time for dancing and for singing and playing tambourines (Exodus 15:20). The story of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt climaxes with the liberated people raising their voices in unison to proclaim: ‘The Lord reigns for ever and ever’ (Exodus 15:18). But a little while later at Massah those same Israelites doubted the God who had saved them (Exodus 17:1–7). Forty years later there was a similar crisis at Meribah-Kadesh (Numbers 20.1–13). The Israelites’ lack of confidence in the God who had rescued them from slavery and their lack of trust in the one who had fed them in the wilderness was not without consequence (vv. 10, 11). Psalm 95 says: don’t repeat that mistake!
We sometimes sing, ‘I’ll bring you more than a song / For a song in itself / Is not what you have required / You search much deeper within / Through the way things appear / You’re looking into my heart.’ The songwriter confesses his own culpability in confusing his own emotions with worship: ‘I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it’ before coming to his senses: ‘I’m coming back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you / It’s all about you, Jesus.’
The Psalmist would have understood and approved. Music is important but worship is more than music and is no substitute for an obedient heart.