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My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right. —Psalm 119:172
In the modern evangelical church, singing, praying, giving, and other congregational acts of worship are regarded at times as preamble to the sermon. Music, in particular, appears separate from elements of worship that seem to be more spiritual, such as praying and preaching. This worship dichotomy does not exist in Scripture, and our thinking is more biblical when we understand that musicians and preachers actually share in the ministry of the Word. Proclamation and interpretation of the Bible, and the edification and encouragement of the saints, with the ultimate goal of giving glory to God—these are also purposes of sacred music delineated in the Word of God and heralded by theologians and musicians throughout the history of the church.
Martin Luther (1483–1546) realized the significant role that music could play in the spiritual growth of the Christian. He declared, “Music and notes, which are wonderful gifts and creations of God, do help gain a better understanding of the text, especially when sung by a congregation and when sung earnestly”; and, “We have put this music to the living and holy Word of God in order to sing, praise and honor it. We want the beautiful art of music to be properly used to serve her dear Creator and his Christians. He is thereby praised and honored and we are made better and stronger in faith when his holy Word is impressed on our hearts by sweet music.”1 Paul Westermeyer, professor of church music at Luther Seminary, expands on these statements:
Luther was not simply fond of music. Luther thought music has a theological reason for being: it is a gift of God, which comes from the “sphere of miraculous audible things,” just like the Word of God. Music is unique in that it can carry words. Since words carry the Word of God, music and the Word of God are closely related . . . It almost seems as if Luther sees music in its own right as a parallel to preaching . . . But the weight falls on its association with the Word and words that carry the Word.2
With Johann Walter, Luther compiled and edited several hymn collections, and for many of these he wrote prefaces. One goal, Luther explained, was to properly educate the youth of his day:
Therefore, I too, with the help of others, have brought together some sacred songs in order to make a good beginning and to give an incentive to those who can better carry on the Gospel and bring it to the people . . . And these songs were arranged in four parts for no other reason than that I wanted to attract the youth (who should and must be trained in music and other fine arts) away from love songs and carnal pieces and to give them something wholesome to learn instead . . . It is unfortunate that everyone else forgets to teach and train the poor young people; we must not be responsible for this too.3
Luther did not invent the notion that music and the proclamation of the gospel are related. He found its basis in Scripture (see “Biblical Support” below). The Bible contains more than six hundred references to music, and we know from Scripture that singing is an eternal occupation. Singing should be a daily activity of the Christian. Luther believed that music should be composed to teach doctrine and to instruct young people—that by singing the Word of God, one’s faith can be strengthened.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) has been called a musical preacher, and his church music can be properly termed “hermeneutical.” (See chapters 25 and 26, “J. S. Bach and Musical Hermeneutics.”) Georg Motz, a German contemporary of Bach, added his voice in support of this idea when he compared composers and preachers: “You only have to look at an honorable composition to detect exactly what you find in a good preacher. For he takes as much care to guide his listeners toward what is good as a musician stimulates his audience toward the same goal through different variations and motions.”4 In fact, Motz posits that music may be an especially evocative type of sermon:
What is more, when such a composition is performed . . . you can also hear a charming and beautiful harmony, in which the great God grants His people on earth a foretaste of heavenly joy and the marvelous and sweet sound of the “englische Kapelle” (choir of angels), so that they can be reminded even better of the divine being . . .5
Motz maintained that good church music possesses the qualities of a good sermon. In his view, an excellent church-music composer is the equal of an excellent preacher. It may prove challenging to find many church-music composers of whom this is true, but in Bach’s case the claim is justified.
Within the context of proclamation, we expect to find elements of exhortation and admonition, of teaching and doctrine. Isaac Watts’s position on this was clear. According to Horton Davies, in Watts’s “belief in the didactic value of praise, as in his insistence upon intelligibility, his aim, like that of the Puritans, was edification.”6What does the Bible teach about the instructive use of music? We know that a number of the psalms record the works of the Lord so that these might be passed on by oral tradition from priests to people and from parents to children.7 Psalm 60 actually has the ascription “For Instruction.” But clearly all the psalms were meant to be taught and sung. A New Testament statement is found in Colossians 3:16: “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.” Music (singing in particular) is advocated for instructing and exhorting one another. The Bible is unambiguous in stating that sacred music has a spiritually educational purpose.
The idea that singing the Word of God will strengthen one’s understanding of it has biblical support. Singing should, in fact, be a result of hearing and meditating on God’s Word, as the psalmist said in the last section of Psalm 119, that great song of the Word: “My lips will pour forth praise, for you teach me your statutes. My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right . . . I long for your salvation, O LORD, and your law is my delight. Let my soul live and praise you, and let your rules help me” (vv. 171–72, 174–75). Psalm 119, which is also an extensive acrostic poem, earlier reads, “Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning” (v. 54). Since singing is a biblical response to God’s Word, it follows that the singing of psalms, hymns, or other musical responses rightly follow the reading and preaching of Scripture in our worship.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul again articulates the gospel, which he had preached and proclaimed to his Corinthian brothers. The euangelion, or “good news,” was the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection power over death is celebrated, particularly at the end of the chapter: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (vv. 54b–55). Here Paul quotes Isaiah 25:8, which is a song of praise, and Hosea 13:14, which delivers God’s Word through the prophet. Intentionally or unintentionally, Paul relates song and the proclamation of the gospel, something he does again in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Luther’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 15 summarizes the Pauline conclusion in this manner:
And now St. Paul appropriately concludes with a song which he sings: “Thanks and praise be to God, who gave us such a victory!” We can join in that song and in that way always celebrate Easter, praising and extolling God for a victory that was not won or achieved in battle by us . . . but we must . . . sing of this victory in Christ.8
And in his foreword to one of Johann Walter’s hymnals, Luther wrote, “We may boast, as Moses does in his song in Exodus 15, that Christ is our praise and our song and that we should know nothing to sing or say but Jesus Christ our Savior, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians [1:31].”9
Luther frequently employed the phrase “say and sing” or “sing and say” to describe the proper work of a believer. The content of the proclamation is always the gospel—the work of Christ. He wrote in his commentary on Psalm 118, “They [the righteous] praise only God’s grace, works, words, and power as they are revealed to them in Christ. This is their sermon and song, their hymn of praise.”10 One of his best-loved Christmas chorales, Vom Himmel hoch, states it this way:
From heav’n above to earth I come
To bear good news to ev’ry home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing.[Davon ich sing’n und sagen will.]
Musical proclamation can be broadly defined to include any text that teaches or sets a passage of Scripture, recounts God’s work, issues a call to repentance, or reminds us of God’s promises. Many proclamatory hymns focus on the basic tenets of the gospel—the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ—and the life available to us because of Christ’s sacrifice. Some examples of such hymns are these: “Arise, My Soul, Arise” (Charles Wesley); “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” (Edward Mote); and “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” (Isaac Watts).
Since the gospel can be preached through music, and since biblical teaching can be recalled through music and appropriated, then there is an obligation to ensure that this is done well. When music is like a sermon, it follows that it must have responsibilities and characteristics similar to those of a sermon. Many of the same criteria we use to define great preaching and teaching can be employed to define great church music. Church music needs to be well prepared and presented. It requires unity and coherence. It should make sense to the listener. It should evidence thought and skill. Church music should feed the people by teaching the Word of God. It is a work of the Spirit of God.
Thinking about music ministry in such terms today will change the nature of worship in the evangelical church. As Donald Hustad points out, “Though mainline evangelicals claim to be leaders in Scripture study, biblical research to determine worship practice seems to be at the bottom of their priority list.”11 It is time for that record to change.
1. Walter Buszin, Luther on Music (Saint Paul: North Central, 1958), 14, quoting Luther, “Treatise on the Last Words of David,” in vol. 15 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jeroslav Pelikan; and Martin Luther, “Preface to the Burial Hymns (1542),” in Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Ulrich S. Leupold, vol. 53 of Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 327 (italics added).
2. Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 144–46.
3. Luther’s foreword to the first edition of Johann Walter’s hymnal, the Wittenberg Geistliche Gesangbüchlein (1524), ed. Ulrich S. Leupold, vol. 53 of Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965), 315–16.
4. Georg Motz, Die vertheidigte Kirchen-Music . . . (Tilsit, East Prussia, 1703), 14–15, as quoted in Ulrich Leisinger, “Affections, Rhetoric, and Musical Expression,” in The World of the Bach Cantatas: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Early Sacred Cantatas, ed. Christoph Wolff (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 194–95nn10–12.
5. Ibid., 195.
6. Horton Davies, The Worship of the English Puritans (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997), 179.
7. Psalms 78, 105, and 136 come to mind. This was a form of instruction as well as worship, particularly tied in with the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. The Jewish feast of Passover and other high holy days also featured the use of songs in the celebration of deliverance and as reminder of God’s works. In addition, the 288 Levites set apart because of their special musical abilities were teachers of the other 3,712, who in turn taught their own sons and daughters.
8. Selected Pauline Epistles, ed. E. Sittler, vol. 28 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973), 213. See also Carl F. Schalk, Luther on Music: Paradigms of Praise (St Louis: Concordia, 1988), 39.
9. Luther, Geistliche Gesangbüchlein (1524).
10. Selected Psalms III, vol. 14 of Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958), 81 (italics added).
11. Donald P. Hustad, True Worship: Reclaiming the Wonder and Majesty (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998), 101.