This article was first published in 2019; it’s reproduced here with permission -Ed.
I grew up among people who loved to sing. They would sing at church on Sunday morning and at ministry times on Sunday night. During the week, they would often sing grace before meals, even though they knew perfectly decent spoken prayers. After dinner, they would sing their children to sleep. On many nights, I would fall asleep to “Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me.”
Sometimes, though, I would fall asleep to the sound of people in my parents’ homegroup singing in the lounge, accompanied by my father’s Yamaha acoustic guitar, which I would eventually learn to play and which, as I write more than three decades later, is five feet away, leaning against a wall in my study.
I also have memories of folk singing on the banks of the river as someone was baptised and people singing at baptisms inside the church building, including my own. The same people would sing at weddings, too, and at funerals, as if to ensure that the whole of life was framed by song. They would also sing to other people—people not perhaps inclined to singing themselves. On a Friday night, the Yamaha could sometimes be heard on Main Street, accompanied by half a dozen or so voices, or, on special occasions, even hundreds. During one week in the ’80s, the church met every night in a big tent in Trentham Park, Upper Hutt, and invited the whole city to join them. I am not sure how much of the city turned out, but, to my child’s mind, it was an enormous and highly significant event. It was also strangely comforting. The singing that went on in the four walls of a church building or in private homes was not just for Christians; it was something for the entire world. It was something that framed the world.
I suppose I had a strange childhood, although, to me, it felt not strange but charmed and beautiful. And I learnt many true and important things, not the least being that to be a Christian is to sing. This idea is deeply rooted in Scripture, which not only encourages and even commands believers to sing, but includes many instances of singing, and many songs and fragments of song. Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn, we are told, on the night he was betrayed. The angels sang when he was born. So, too, did Mary. And Zachariah. And Simeon. Jesus’s followers sang while they were in prison. There are too many songs in the Old Testament to mention here, even if we exclude the book of Psalms, with its 150 songs, and the Song of Songs. It is possible that the account of creation at the beginning of the Bible is itself a kind of song or at least that very similar thing, a poem. If so, it makes it all the more fitting that Scripture concludes with a vision of the whole of creation—“every creature in heaven and on earth, and on the sea, and all that is in them”—joined together in a song of praise (Rev 5:13). We are destined, it seems, to spend eternity singing.
It’s hard to read the Bible and not conclude that singing is a fundamental part of the Christian life. The Apostle Paul considered “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” to be a natural mark of a life filled with God’s breath, the Holy Spirit—the very Spirit who throughout Scripture encourages us to rejoice in God and to remember that God is the true end of all our joy. The sixteenth-century French reformer John Calvin equated such rejoicing with singing. In singing, he said, we joyfully lift up our hearts to God and are consoled by meditating on his inexhaustible virtue, goodness, wisdom, and justice.¹
That Calvin might talk of consolation here strikes me as both deeply humane and deeply Christian. Believers sing because they are joyful. They sing also because they are in need of consolation. We are prone, sometimes, to think of the Christian life in simplistically upbeat terms. Certainly, many of our contemporary worship songs are often stridently enthusiastic and joyful. This is not wrong, but it is a one-sided expression of a Christian faith that speaks of a joy that remains incomplete so long as we live this pilgrim life on earth. Alongside this incomplete joy, we also experience grief and sorrow, fear and doubt, hopes, cares, perplexities. Calvin found in the Psalms a reflection of all these experiences. He described the Psalms as “an anatomy of the soul.” By singing them, our thoughts and affections are laid open, “all lurking places are discovered, and the heart is brought into the light.”
Many of the songs I heard as a child were inspired by, or taken directly from, the Psalms. Perhaps this is why I found them compelling. They seemed to capture the whole of life, almost as if they were taking all the messiness of that life and reframing it in the context of the goodness and mercy of God. “Through the darkness be Thou near me” is a line I still find myself, all these years later, needing to sing. A line … I should say, a prayer. Although some theologians have thought of singing simply as a form of proclamation, Calvin considered it chiefly as a form of prayer—a warm, lively, and intimate activity in which we both acknowledge the darkness we experience within and without and call upon the One who is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. One day, we will sing without need of solace for there will be no darkness but only light. Until then, we continue to bring our messy lives to God in song, praying for his protection from the darkness that menaces us and finding comfort and joy in his infinite goodness.
On Calvin’s approach to the Psalms see Daniel Trocmé-Latter, “The Psalms as a Mark of Protestantism: The Introduction of Liturgical Psalm-Singing in Geneva”, Plainsong and Medieval Music 20 (2011), 145-63.