by Tim Hall
As I listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, my emotions are greatly stirred. But since there are no words that accompany the work, I receive no understanding from it. Any ideas that come into my mind as I listen were there before hearing the music.
When I listen to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The USA,” my emotions are again stirred powerfully. This time words have communicated ideas that led to my emotions. If the listener has no loyalty to the USA, perhaps their emotions are aroused in a different direction, if at all.
All will agree that music has the power to stir emotions. But does it also communicate understanding? That depends on (a) whether there are words that accompany the tune, and (b) whether the singers focus on the words or on the melody.
God’s desire for those under the new covenant is understanding as the result of our worship. Paul made this clear in 1 Corinthians 14 as he dealt with abuses of miraculous gifts. Some were “showing off” their ability to speak in languages they had never studied. They experienced a rush of emotions as they delivered a message in another language. Even those who didn’t understand the language being spoken likely also felt that rush, if they knew a miracle was unfolding before them.
As Paul contemplated such a scene, his advice was simple: Don’t do it.
“What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. … yet in the church I would rather speak five words with my understanding, that I may teach others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Corinthians 14:15,19, NKJV). Verse 28 brings to a close Paul’s remarks on the subject: “But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.”
God’s instructions on music for the assembled church of Christ is that praise be offered through singing. This is obvious from passages such as Colossians 3:16 where the emphasis is not on beautiful melodies but understanding: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Careful students will note that every mention of music in the Christian covenant specifies singing.
Worship in many churches has become emotion-driven. Some trust their feelings above what God has revealed. Granted, emotions are from God; they can be useful in many realms of life. But unless they come through the channel of understanding, emotions may not be appropriate. Our first priority is to understand God’s will, and then to obey (Matthew 7:21-23). Only then will the emotions of joy and gladness be valid.
by Tim Hall