Singing a new song

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!

Psalm 96.1

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5.18-21

The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders.

Revelation 14.1-3

Singing together to God is one of the immense joys of the Christian. There is a pattern throughout scripture of men and women singing songs. Some are full of evil evidencing the curse (like that of Lamech in Gen. 4.23-24), but many are evidence of God’s grace in spite of that curse (Exodus 15.1-18, Judges 5, 1 Sam. 2.1-10, etc.) We get a fuller picture of the significance of song in the life of God’s people in the Psalter. We have 150 choice songs of all sorts of variety (and similarity) that direct our attention to Yahweh, the king of glory. Proper singing is essential and beautiful in the life of the people of God. One of the things that stands out is that the Israelites were never commanded to sing songs to YHWH in the Torah. If we were to survey the Torah’s instructions on singing songs, we would be lacking enough information to develop any sort of conclusion. But one of Israel’s lasting legacies is the Psalter. It is one of the most quoted books in the New Testament. In making these observations, we see that singing songs is a natural response to God and his works.

So in Psalm 96 we hear the words, ‘Sing to Yahweh a new song, announce his salvation from day to day.’ The rest of the psalm proclaims the majesty of Yahweh and his works in the world including his future judgment. What does it mean though, when it says new song? A commentator mentions that ‘beginning a new song is the reaction of an individual… after an act of salvation.’ We could say that Moses’ song in Exodus 15 is the first song: Israel was delivered from Egypt. This is the prototypical salvation for Israel, and it will only be overshadowed by the salvation from Babylon. So the psalmist says, sing to the Lord a new song. He writes this song to teach those who would sing it (i.e. the congregation) to look for new reasons to sing to their God. When Israel was in Sinai, it was easy to remember their salvation from Egypt, but now having been in land for years, it might not be so easy. Perhaps they had been brought into exile, or news of the deportation of the north had arrived and Assyria was at the gates of Jerusalem. The psalmist invites the singers to sing to the Lord a new song for his current work in their lives. Singing songs teaches and reminds us to remember the God’s work in the world.

We are often inattentive people. We go about our time without reflecting on our own created nature and God’s sovereignty over the world. Instead of singing songs to God and praying continuously to our Lord, our attention can be wholly focused on being productive, finishing our lists, finding comfort, being entertained, and the like. In other words, we don’t order our lives properly. There is nothing wrong with being productive per-se, but when it is done without a goal to please our God, it is vain. Being entertained isn’t necessarily evil, but when we have the perspective that we deserve a little entertaining as opposed to the idea that all that we have is a gift of God given to us, we disfigure creation for our own purposes. In other words, we fill our lives with things other than the Spirit of God. Paul drives this home: we ought to be filled with the Spirit and not with drunkenness. What is a natural outworking of being filled with the Spirit? Singing songs to God. We saw something very similar in the Old Testament. Songs are the natural response to being filled with God’s spirit. Songs are the natural response to God’s work in a person’s life. And think of this: the filling of the Spirit of God is evidence of God’s work of salvation in an individual.

The apostle John observes Psalm 96 in his visions. In Revelation 14, the 144,000 sing a new song. In salvation history, we can mark a few major points of God saving his people. Christ’s work on the cross is central, but in this book of Revelation, it seems that John is observing something in relation to the end times. In other words, these people are singing songs of praise to Yahweh for his future work in relation to the second coming of Christ. Amazingly, songs define the worship of God’s people in every age. Moses sings before the giving of the law, under the Mosaic covenant the Israelites write volumes of songs, and in this church age, we have had generations of rich new songs declaring the glories of our God, and in the end, there will continue to be singing.

When we vaguely think of heaven, we might think of people plucking harps and singing songs and we might be turned off by this. But if we reflect on history, we see that humanity can’t not sing songs. Even every non-Israelite and non-Christian culture has songs. This isn’t just an accident. Humanity has been drawn to sing songs throughout the ages. And it wasn’t a boring thing with people plucking harps and singing whistfully. Instead there has been one great movement of song to another. In Europe we move from Mozart to Bach to Beethoven to Sibelius. Obviously there are a plethora of folk songs, popular songs, and theatre music as well. What the church should always understand is that the greatest song is the church’s song. It might not always be the most technical or the most aesthetically pleasing. We do strive to sing songs well, but we all the more sing out of a conviction that it is the greatest thing we could sing. Church music grounds us in something greater than ourselves. It reminds us of our salvation from sin and death. And just as we have sung in our congregation together for years, we hope to continue to develop a deeper and deeper joy in singing songs to our creator.

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