Music has always been an integral and inseparable part of Christian Worship. From early Biblical times, through the New Testament and down the centuries to the present, Man has expressed himself in song whether praising God, celebrating the greatness of His love, or expressing trust in Him. In fact, the Christian faith is a singing faith, and though the rhythm and tempo may have changed, though instruments like the harp, lyre and tambourine may have given way to string or wind instruments and drums, or even to the high decibel electronic modern music, the underlying purpose is to “Make a joyful noise to the Lord” and “Extol Him with music.” It is as good as holding hands with those who have gone before in a common identity.
The Hebrews used both vocal and instrumental music. It must have been an awesome spectacle when Moses and the Israelites sang to the Lord in celebration of their deliverance, after they had crossed the Red Sea .
“The Lord is my strength and song. He is my God and my salvation.”(Ex 15:1-21.)
Or the beauty of Deborah’s song in which she commemorated a national victory over the Canaanite king.(Judges5:3)
Though instrumental music was invented by Jubal a descendant of Cain,
(Gen 4:21) it is to David we owe much of the Old Testament music. He was not only a musician but a song writer too, and his Psalms have been bequeathed to us as an invaluable legacy. The Book of Psalms became the Jewish hymnbook.
David appointed Temple musicians from among the Levites. The sons of Heman, Aspah and Jeduthan were trained and skilled musicians, who were directors of their own choirs. There were music guilds and schools to instruct prophets.
David surrounded himself with musicians both men and women, who could celebrate his victories, and bring joy during peace times. He taught the singers a special chant called the antiphonal or responsive singing. While the temple musicians sang, the people responded in chorus. Music directors had to oversee that the music was orderly. Instrumental music was used to control and lead such a large gathering. It can therefore be assumed that there must have been musical notations.
Music was played at marriages, birthdays, victories, coronation of kings and during their yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem . This arrangement existed even until they went into captivity. Then they hung up their harps on willow trees by the rivers of Babylon . But when Ezra returned from exile to Jerusalem , two hundred musicians went back with him.
The dedication of the wall of Jerusalem must have been an unforgettable event, with two large choirs moving on the wall in opposite directions, preceded by an array of musicians with instruments. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard many miles away.(Neh.12)
The New Testament too has many hymns of adoration, beginning with the angelic chorus that heralded the birth of Christ. “Glory to God in the highest!”
Mary’s Magnificat and Zecharias’ song show how people expressed praise and thanksgiving.
There have been times in history when music as a form of worship was disparaged. But the Reformers realized its vast potential in uniting God’s people. Martin Luther brought congregational singing back into the evangelical churches. Under his inspiration, sacred music became an important part of Christian worship. With the spread of Calvinism through France and Holland , open air singing became an effective vehicle for the spread of the Gospel.
The famous maestro of that age Giovanni Palestrina wrote music for the Masses based on the Gregorian chant. Purely vocal and unaccompanied by music, it has a characteristic, staccato rhythm. Deep in the Vienna Woods at a Cisterian Monastery, I listened to a group of monks singing the Gregorian Chants. It was simply out of this world, as though they were mounting stride by stride on to higher ground.
In the 18 th century, Johan Bach and Friedrich Handel wonderfully enriched church music. Bach is still lauded for his Cantatas and chorale preludes, and his ‘St. Mathew Passion,’ where art and religion are woven together in the Gospel narrative. Handel wrote church music too, and his ‘Messiah’ comes to life each Easter season.
After the Reformation, the growth of Puritanism saw the suppression of church music. The Puritans believed that such elaborate music didn’t edify the people but distracted them. Extreme simplicity and intolerance marked that period. Even traditional Christmas carols which had been sung since 15 th century were prohibited. They were merely telling the Christmas story.
But by the end of the 18 th century, Carols got a new lease. J.M. Neale was responsible for the revival. He spearheaded a movement to bring carols into the church, home and open air meetings.
Today Christians are still singing and making music. We sing when we are happy, we sing when we are sad. Probably no other religion has incorporated music into its worship services as Christianity has done. We have hymns for every occasion – birth, death, marriage, or daily living. We sing of hope, love, redemption, of Divine guidance and protection, and of our anticipation of heaven. We sing because of the joy of salvation and our personal relationship with a Holy God.
Many song writers and musicians are powerful instruments in the hands of God. Their messages are often based on portions of Scripture, skillfully set to music. John and Charles Wesley were pioneers in hymns and Gospel songs. Ira Sankey’s powerful hymns attracted thousands of people to D.L.Moody’s revival crusades. Gospel music still continues to be the banner for revival meetings.
Hymns can be born during trying times. “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” was written at a critical time in Martin Luther’s life. Fanny Crosby’s “All The Way My Saviour leads me,” was written when she was desperately in need of five dollars, and the Lord provided. The Negro Spirituals of the latter 19 th century were born out of the religious fervour of people in bondage. They saw parallels to their own conditions in biblical stories and sang of afterlife as liberation from bondage. Because they were written from the heart, they were so poignant. They still continue to move us, each time we sing those songs.
The religious Rock musicals of the 70’s did invite criticism from modern day Puritans. The music might have been different, but the theme was the glory of God.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” the musical portrayal of the last seven days of Jesus had beautiful lyrics like “I don’t know how to love You.” And “Godspell” brought its message “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” We Christians need to be tolerant and appreciative of different kinds of music as long as the lyrics do not contradict the word of God.
Christianity is a singing religion. Music and song are ideal vehicles to proclaim our spiritual heritage. Hymns in regional languages with meaningful lyrics are becoming very popular among the masses. Music from the harmonium and tabla make the tunes catchy. Worshipping in a village church can be an unforgettable experience.
“When words fail to express the exalted sentiments and finer emotions of the human heart, music becomes the sublimated language of the soul, the divine instrumentality for its higher utterance,” says Wendte.
But as Christians we must never forget that if we are to make music, we must ensure that we don’t lose the song in our hearts. This can happen when we fail to walk with God. Like the exiles in Babylon we will then cry out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song?” Martin Luther said, “The Devil, the originator of sorrowful anxieties and restless troubles, flees before the sound of music almost as much as he does before the word of God. That is why the prophets preferred music before all the other arts, proclaiming the word in psalms and hymns”
So let us walk with the Lord so that we always have a song in our hearts.
“Blessed are those who can make music to the Lord.”