For the next several weeks, our “Sermon Wednesday” feature will focus on Singing with Understanding (I Corinthians 14:15). We will take the time to examine the words of some of the songs we sing, and look at the Biblical ideas expressed in them so that when we sing them, we will truly “sing with the understanding also.”
In the church, most of the sermons you hear regarding singing are either about the use of instrumental music, or about singing unscriptural songs. I have preached on those topics, and they absolutely need to be preached on.
However, it has been my experience that far fewer sermons are preached on the positive aspects of proper singing. I’ve not heard many lessons on the importance of trying to improve the quality of your singing.
I know a man named Jay Rix who made it a point almost every time he lead singing to tell people to lift their songbooks up in front of them so that their voices could be heard (instead of it being sung to the floor).
I’ve not heard many lessons on the importance of trying to understand the notes and beats in our songbooks. Have you ever been completely thrown off-track when singing a song because the song leader is singing it one way, and no one is singing the same notes or the same speed, or in the same key?
I’ve been places before where the song leader didn’t lead very loudly, and so there were three or four people in the congregation who tried to take over the lead from their pews—all at the same time, and all in different keys. And you can picture the scene, each one sings progressively louder and louder, trying to drown out the others and make them change to the key HE (and sometimes SHE) singing in.
This inhibits proper worship—because it keeps people from focusing on WHAT they are singing.
It has happened to me more times in my life than I’d like to admit that the singing was so out of unison that I couldn’t concentrate at all on the words I was singing. It would be beneficial if we all could take a little time now and then and learn a bit more about the music and how notes work. After all, bad singing can be a distraction to proper worship.
In Midway, KY, back in the 1800’s, it is said that the singing in the Lord’s church there was so bad that it was called audio warfare. It was so bad that they brought in an organ—not to help the congregation learn the notes better, but to drown them out.
I’ve not heard many sermons about the importance of “singing with the understanding.” Of all the things involved with our singing of praises to God, this is the most important. Paul says, “what is it then? I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the understanding also” (I Corinthians 14:15). This is the idea of singing with the proper attitude, and knowing what you’re singing—and why you’re singing it.
Today we will be looking at what is involved in proper singing as worship to God.
Proper singing involves:
The proper songs (psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs)
The proper attitude (I will sing with the spirit)
The proper understanding (I will sing with the understanding also).
The proper songs (Ephesians 5:19).
The only songs authorized in praise and worship to God are: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Psalms – possibly a reference to the Old Testament book of Psalms, but it would also include any inspired song of praise to God (see I Corinthians 14:26). For example, The Lord’s My Shepherd (there are three different versions of this song in some songbooks).
Hymns – This word is also translated “sing praise” in Hebrews 2:12, and basically just means a song of praise. Some of the Psalms fit this category. For example, Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah!
Spiritual Songs – These are songs sung for the uplifting and edification of the members. For example, Are You Coming to Jesus Tonight?
Some songs can fit into more than one category.
There are songs in some songbooks that do not fit the description of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Precious Memories—though I like the song, it is a song about memories of your mother and father from when you were a child—not about God, Christ, the Bible, salvation, or heaven.
America the Beautiful is in more brotherhood songbooks then you might realize.
The Star-Spangled Banner is even in some of the songbooks.
As nice as these songs are, they have no business being sung during worship to God, because they are not what God has authorized in His word.
The songs we sing must be Scriptural.
These songs are supposed to be used to teach each other (Colossians 3:16). If the songs aren’t Scriptural, then by definition we are teaching unscriptural things when we sing them!
The most popular example of this is the song Jesus is Coming Soon. It has a great melody and a really fun bass-line to sing, but it’s not teaching the truth. It was written in 1942, and people have been singing it for over 70 years—yet Jesus still hasn’t come. It speaks of signs that will come to pass (the “troublesome times” from verse one) before the end comes—but Jesus said that there would be no signs before the end comes (Matthew 24:35-39). We could say “we need to live as though Jesus could come at any moment,” but that’s not what the song says.
Our singing must also involve…
The Proper Attitude (I Corinthians 14:15)
I will sing with the spirit (the proper attitude).
Some say that this is speaking of miraculous songs (songs directly inspired by the Holy Spirit), and that is possible in the context. But at the same time, we are commanded to worship “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24) and that applies long after the miracles ended in the first century.
When we sing, what kind of attitude are we showing?
Some people sing because they want to be heard—to show off their singing voice. They are sometimes loud, sometimes they intentionally add notes to their singing, and their purpose in doing so is to get attention for themselves. But where should the focus be?
Some people sing in a mumble, just doing enough so that they can say they were singing. Others sing half-heatedly, occupying themselves with their phone or something else. And still others sing loud and clear—but without giving a thought to the words they’re singing.
If you don’t think this can happen, I ask: have you ever sung along with the radio? Did you give much thought to the words of the song you were singing, or were you just singing with it because you like the tune and have heard it enough times that you have it memorized?
So many songs on the radio (and it’s been this way for decades) are about drinking and sex—yet often Christians are guilty of singing along with them, not even thinking about what the words are actually saying.
We can rattle off things that we’ve memorized without difficulty, but does that make us mean it?
We need to be giving thought to the words that we are singing. If you wrote a song for your one true love, and you then sang it to her, would you sing it with meaning? With feeling? With understanding?
When you sing a song to God, shouldn’t you sing it with meaning? With feeling? With understanding?
The Proper Understanding (I Corinthians 14:15).
I will sing with the understanding.
The Ethiopian Eunuch was reading the Bible—a great and noble thing to be doing—but Philip came up to him and asked, “do you understand what you’re reading?” (Acts 8:30). If Philip came into our worship service sometime, he might go up to one of us and ask “do you understand what you’re singing?”
Do you understand the words you’re singing?
Richie Valens was a famous singer from the late ’50’s whose biggest hit was a song he sung in Spanish, called La Bamba. The only problem? Richie Valens didn’t know Spanish. He sat and listened to the song being sung over and over until he memorized the words—the syllables—even though he didn’t know at all what the words meant. And I’d be willing to guess that more than a few of you have sung along with that song as well, having no idea what the words mean.
There are some great poets who have written songs…but many times those poets use words and phrases that make no sense to us. For example:
“Night with ebon pinion, brooded o’er the vale.“
“the panoply of God“
We’ve sung these phrases for years, but if a visitor came in and asked you, “what does that mean?” could you answer them? And if you can’t explain what it means, doesn’t that mean you aren’t “singing with the understanding”?
There are some songs that are steeped in Bible references, but some of them are unfamiliar. And the best example of this is O Thou Fount of Every Blessing, which says…
“Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’ve come”
What is an Ebenezer? Isn’t that the Scrooge guy from Charles Dickens’ book? I Samuel 7:12 says that after God had secured the victory for the Israelites, Samuel raised up a stone (made a monument) and called it Ebenezer, which means “The stone of the help” or “the stone to remind us of God’s help.”
So when we sing “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” we are saying “God has helped me, and I am setting up a monument in my mind to remind me of the one who has brought me this far.”
How do we make sure we are singing with the understanding?
Part of that falls on the song-leader, because he is the one who chooses the songs. He needs to make sure that the songs he leads are either easily understandable or that he explains the possibly confusing parts. Sometimes a song can be given a wealth of meaning and the congregation can focus on the words so much more with just a few words of explanation before the song begins.
One person said, “any time we sing this song about heaven, I think of _______ who lived her life always looking forward to her home up there.”
Another person said (about a closing song) “remember that this song is the one we’ll sing together to get us through the rest of the week” (it was “God be with you till we meet again”).
One song-leader would occasionally announce that the closing song was actually a prayer, and so that would also serve as our closing prayer. When he did that, it caused me to look more at the words and I came to realize that it really was a prayer. And then I had to focus on what was being said, because it was a prayer that I was saying to God!
Part of singing with the understanding falls on the one singing. If you don’t understand what the song is saying, then you need to do some asking or some investigating on your own. My kids have asked me on more than one occasion what something means in a song (“panoply” being the most recent one).
There’s no shame in asking someone “what does this mean?” It wasn’t until someone explained it to me that I finally figured out what “be of sin the double cure” was referencing (in Rock of Ages).
Let’s take the opportunity to put more thought and feeling into our singing. Let’s remember that proper singing involves the proper attitude and mindset—stop singing on auto-pilot. Let’s remember that proper singing involves the need to understand what you’re singing.