Art in Christian Life (4)
“Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.” Deuteronomy 31.19
The pleasure of the old
Susie and I love the old hymns. What soaring pleasure and power for worship come from robustly singing “Lead on, O King eternal! We follow, not with fears.” Here is a hymn to focus us on Christ exalted, firm up our resolve in seeking the Kingdom, remind us of the power of the cross, and unite our voices to encourage one another, even in dark or troubling times.
I’m not opposed to contemporary praise songs, and some are very good. But it’s hard to match the old hymns of the faith for their ability to fill our worship with the joy and glory of the Lord.
Fundamental to God’s purpose in giving us the arts is their power to bring pleasure to our souls – our minds, hearts, and consciences. The lyrics of the old hymns stretch our minds with the majesty and glory of God, and the high calling we have received from Him. The melodies engage the heart so powerfully that it can at times be difficult to keep singing, because of the tears. And together, lyrics and melody drive a sound nail into our conscience, firming up and renewing Kingdom convictions and cherished truths.
If art were not pleasurable, it is doubtful it would be able to fulfill any of the other uses for which God intends it. But because God made us to know pleasure, and the arts can delight us in the depths of our souls, they also have power to form our souls in ways consistent with God’s plan to give us a future and a hope (Jer. 29.11).
Even – and perhaps especially – in our times of trouble. In the late 1830s, when the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from its homeland and marched along the Trail of Tears from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory, people who observed the cruel sight as it passed their homes reported hearing these Christian people singing, “Lead on, O King eternal! We follow, not with fears.” Joy and hope in the midst of deep injustice and unrelenting misery – this is the power of art, and in particular, the power of song.
The arts can teach and sustain us, and God intends for us to use the whole range of arts that He may instruct us in His truth. And of all the arts available to all the people of God at any moment, none is so powerful as song.
A song to remember
Consider only two examples. First, the Song of Moses: God had just finished giving His Law to a new generation of Israelites, people who had been born in the wilderness, and so had not seen His mighty works of redemption, or heard His voice speaking on the mount. At this point in Deuteronomy, God had strictly admonished the people about straying from His commandments, for it was in their best interest, and that of the surrounding nations, for them to hold fast to His Word. He was bringing His lessons on the Law to a conclusion, and He wanted the people to remember and take His words to heart, so that they would remain faithful to Him, as He would remain faithful to them.
To help ensure this, God instructed Moses to write a song. Evidently, God considered that the Song of Moses – which is still being sung in heaven (Rev. 15.3) – would serve His people enough by making a deep impression in their souls.
On a more contemporary note, William Billings’ (1746-1800) Chester is a powerful hymn of the American Revolution, capturing and declaring the faith of a people who firmly believed God was on their side against the tyrannical rule of King George III. British threats may abound, and the British army and navy may seek to impose their will on an independent people. But the colonists of New England rallied their resolve and renewed their faith by singing this powerful hymn, whether as part of Lord’s Day worship, or spontaneously, at town meetings and political gatherings. Chester reminds us that the foundations of this nation were laid on a Biblical worldview, and that governments can only expect to flourish as they follow the good purposes of the Lord.
Songs like these, and countless other great songs of faith, as well as the psalms of Scripture, can be wellsprings of joy, buttresses of faith, and words of witness at every moment, filling us with the delight and pleasure of the Lord, and helping us along whatever trail of tears we may travel.
Christians and the arts
Christians, from those hiding in Roman catacombs to the Celts in Ireland, medieval monks chanting to echo the music of heaven, Protestant clergy and laity declaring their faith with Luther’s A Mighty Fortress, countless missionaries of the Second Great Awakening, who left the comforts of home with the words of “Stand up, stand up for Jesus!” echoing in their ears, to today’s contemporary composers and musicians, have understood that the same art which delights us when we understand it, is also powerful to instruct us in the things of the Lord, and to carry us forward in our witness for Him.
God understands this as well, and He intends that we should make plenty of room in our disciplines of Christian growth for the arts, and not least of all, for singing. Our discipleship will be incomplete without the aid of this powerful tool.
1. Do you have a favorite hymn or praise song? Why do you especially delight in this song? How does it affect your soul?
2. The Song of Moses is still being sung in heaven. We don’t sing it, just like we don’t sing most of the great songs of faith our forebears composed, or the psalms God Himself has given us. Do you think this is a good thing? Explain.
3. How can you see that song has a powerful effect on people in our culture today? How does pop music, for example, affect people?
Next steps – Conversation: Talk with some Christian friends about how you might take better advantage of the art of singing in your walk with and work for the Lord.
T. M. Moore
It’s never too late to begin singing the great hymns of faith. The Ailbe Psalter offers all the psalms set to familiar hymn tunes. Order your copy by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.