Why do we sing? We have heard some beautiful song this evening, and we’ve done some singing ourselves. Why do it? Why sing? We could justify singing right away from the beauty of it. Certainly singing can be done poorly, but no one who hears good singing calls it ugly, especially good singing to God, as the psalmist says, “It is good to sing praises to our God; For it is pleasant, and praise is beautiful” (Ps. 147:1). Beautiful things are pleasant, and so we want to engage in them and experience them.
But there are more reasons why we sing. Singing is natural to man, because singing is a gift that God has given only to men and to angels. We are among the few created beings who have the ability to combine words and melody, and that’s what it means to sing. The birds “sing” in a sense, and even Scripture speaks that way (Ps. 104:12). But when the psalmist says, “Oh, sing to the Lord a new song! For He has done marvelous things” (Ps. 98:1), it’s clear that singing in the true sense has words, especially words that recount the Lord’s marvelous works. We find ourselves among a very small group of creatures that can actually do this, and we are naturally drawn to exercise this unique gift. In short, we sing by nature.
But as with other things that we do by nature, like thinking and talking and reasoning and seeing and moving, the devil tries to corrupt singing. This can happen physically. Just as some people with eyes can’t see, some people with voices can’t sing. Though I will note, many more people think they’re tone deaf than actually are. Among the students I’ve seen several who thought they couldn’t sing, when in fact they just needed a little teaching. But the physical corruption of singing is not the devil’s chief corruption of song. Listen to much of the music produced today and you’ll hear what the devil’s about. He wants people to sing about fornication and spite and hatred and pride. He wants people glorifying themselves and the things of this world, as if the pleasures and riches of earth were more praiseworthy than the treasures that Jesus gives us. The devil seeks a theological corruption of singing, and he uses corrupt songs to teach false trust and false doctrine.
Songs teach. And this is another reason why we sing, so that we can internalize sound doctrine. Therefore we’re careful to sing songs that teach rightly. Whenever the Church has faced theological attack, there has been an explosion of good hymns that teach the truth. At the time of the Arian controversy in the 4th century, false teachers were preaching that the Son of God is not eternal, but came into being. Faithful teachers realized, first of all, that this is not what Scripture says, and second, recognized the danger of such false teaching. If a mere created being died for us, then we are still in our sins. The false teachers wrote little songs for their own followers to sing, and they would process through the city streets chanting them. Faithful teachers wrote hymns in response, hymns that taught the truth about the Trinity, and the Son of God in particular. One of these great hymns against Arianism we still sing today: “Savior of the Nations, Come” by Ambrose of Milan. We saw the same thing at the time of the Reformation. As the doctrine of justification by grace, through faith, apart from works, for the sake of Christ alone was under attack, faithful teachers wrote hymns like “Salvation unto Us Has Come” and “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word.” We sing these hymns because we want to know and remember and take to heart sound doctrine.
But there are other reasons why we sing, though time would fail us if we reflected on all of them in detail. We sing because we have the command of God to sing in both the Old Testament and the New: “Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises!” (Ps. 47:6), “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). We sing because of the example of our fathers in the faith: Moses wrote songs and taught them to Israel, and David likewise sang to the Lord and gave many psalms to the Church. Jesus himself and his apostles sang a hymn after the Last Supper before going to the Mount of Olives (Mk. 14:26). We sing because of the institution of corporate singing in Scripture. David inscribed many of his psalms with the words “to the choirmaster” or “chief musician,” meaning “Use this psalm in the public worship of Israel.” We sing because Christian song has power over the devil. When Saul was oppressed by an evil spirit, David played on his harp, and likely sang psalms at the same time, and the evil spirit would leave. Or when the Moabites and Ammonites and Meunites united against Judah, King Jehoshaphat received word from a prophet that the Lord would fight the battle for them. So he arranged his army with the Levitical choir on the frontline. As the army of Judah took the field, the choir sang, “‘Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever.’ Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated” (2 Ch. 20:21-22). Singing the praises of God is a powerful thing. We sing because we seek comfort. When Paul and Silas sat in prison in Philippi, “about midnight [they] were praying and singing hymns to God” (Ac. 16:25), and thus they found comfort and refuge in the Lord. We read in that same place in Acts 16 that “the prisoners were listening to them.” The beauty of the praise of God attracts people to the Word of God. For centuries now there have been people here and there who came to church for the music and stayed for the Gospel. We sing because there’s singing in heaven, and we desire to join in that song even now and warm up our voices, so to speak, for that great praise of God in eternity.
These are all reasons why we sing, and these are all good reasons why we sing. But none of these is the greatest reason why we sing. We might sing because Moses and David wrote songs for us to sing, but why did they write those songs? We might sing because congregational singing is instituted in Scripture, but why was it instituted? David teaches us the greatest and simplest reason for singing in Psalm 13, “I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps. 13:6). The Lord is merciful, and that’s why we sing. We recount his glorious deeds and proclaim the wonders that he has done. His salvation gladdens our hearts, and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt. 12:34). Except sometimes speaking isn’t enough. Consider the scene after Israel had crossed the Red Sea. On that occasion, as they stood on the shore and saw their former slave masters’ corpses washing up and had the full realization that they were free, Moses could have given a sermon about the Lord’s salvation, and it would have been a great sermon. But the hearts of all Israel were bursting with joy. Spoken words were not the most fitting response, and every heart there longed to cry out in praise and thanksgiving, glorying in the Lord who had worked salvation for them. So it is with all the great works of God.
It is at this time of year especially that the Church knows why she sings. Just read through the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel, the chapters that have to do with the conception and birth of Jesus, and you will find yourself surrounded by singing. There’s Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.” There’s Zechariah’s Benedictus, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for He has visited and redeemed His people.” There’s the Gloria in Excelsis, “Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” There’s the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy Word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou has prepared before the face of all people.” The Son of God came in the flesh, and it was like the whole world broke into one big sacred cantata. The silence of Zechariah’s mute mouth gives way to song. The silent night of Christ’s birth is silent no more as the multitude of the heavenly host appears with the herald angel and sings, “Glory to God!”
And this concentration of Christian song teaches us why we sing. “I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.” In particular, the Lord has come as a man to be our substitute, to fulfill the Law for us, to suffer the punishments of the Law that we deserved, to die our death, to forgive our sins, to overthrow our enemy the devil, to destroy death by his resurrection from the dead, to open to us the way of everlasting life. This Gospel fills our hearts with happiness, and, as the psalmist says, “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king” (Ps. 45:1). So why do we sing? To put it as briefly and completely as possible, we sing because Jesus has redeemed us. Amen.