So, how’s your Bible reading going? Oh, no! Not that again! But seriously, how’s your love for the Lord going? Are you still listening to Him and what He says to you in His word? Should you be spending more time on other things than on God? Is there REALLY any greater priority in life than your soul and your relationship with your Savior?
Singing in the Old Testament
When we think of singing to the Lord we probably think most often of a few New Testament verses: Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:19). Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16). And perhaps, Is anyone among you suffering? Then he must pray. Is anyone cheerful? He is to sing praises. (James 5:13)
Yes, those are all good verses (in case you are wondering, there are another 11 verses in the NT that also deal with singing) and they tell us much about what God wants us to do as we serve Him. But what about the background? Since so much of the Old Testament is written to point us to Christ, what about singing there?
MOST people only think of singing in the Old Testament to try and recycle the old arguments for instrumental music. I’m not sure why they don’t use the same flawed logic to advocate for animal sacrifices, but then people are not really being logical when they demand their way over God’s way, are they? So…
…what CAN we learn from singing in the Old Testament?
To begin with, there are well over 200 verses in the OT that refer to singing! That’s a LOT of singing and a lot of songs! So, can we learn something from all this? Let’s see.
The first of the songs to God is recorded in Exodus 15. When God led the Israelites out of Egyptian bondage things looked very much like it would be a very brief time of freedom as the mass of people suddenly found themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s now pursuing army and the Red Sea. God, of course, delivers them by parting the Sea and crossing His people on dry land before closing the Sea again over the Egyptian army.
It was then that the singing began: Then Moses and the sons of Israel sang this song to the LORD, and said,
- “I will sing to the LORD,
- for He is highly exalted;
- The horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea.
- The LORD is my strength and song,
- And He has become my salvation;
- This is my God, and I will praise Him;
- My father’s God, and I will extol Him.
You have to admit that must have been one rousing song of joy. And how could God’s people ever NOT sing of the strength, salvation and deliverance of our great God? Can you imagine someone sitting out the song while grumbling and complaining that someone splashed water and mud all over their new shoes?
That’s ridiculous, you might say. And rightly so! For as the song continues there’s a women’s solo as the people are urged to, as we might say, “sing it again!” Miriam answered them,
- “Sing to the LORD,
- for He is highly exalted;
- The horse and his rider
- He has hurled into the sea”
As the people travelled on into the Wilderness there were many times that they forgot their God and rebelled against both Him and their leader, Moses. One such rebellion came when, in the book of Numbers, the people again grumbled about their food and water. That grumbling led to the fiery serpents being sent among the people until they repented (Numbers 21:4-9). Apparently, the people had enough food and water, they were just complaining about what they had as not being up to their standards.
Now speaking of water in the desert, we tend to remember Moses performing a miracle to bring water from a rock. But do we remember when the people sang for their water? As Numbers 21 continues: From there they continued to Beer, that is the well where the LORD said to Moses, “Assemble the people, that I may give them water.” Then Israel sang this song:
- “Spring up, O well!
- Sing to it!
- The well, which the leaders sank,
- Which the nobles of the people dug,
- With the scepter
- and with their staffs.
” And from the wilderness, they continued to Mattanah. (Numbers 21:16-18)
Re-read that and notice what God is saying. The Lord calls the people together and the people sing as they dig! Have you ever heard the saying to “pray like everything depends on God and work like everything depends on you?” Apparently, there’s some truth to it. God is giving them water in the desert; they are singing for the miracle of water and they are also digging! There are some pretty important lessons in that for us, aren’t there?
Many years later, Moses’ work was done and God called him to make preparations for his death. Among those preparations was a transfer of authority to Joshua who would take over the job of leadership of Israel (read Deuteronomy 31:14ff). One of Moses’ great concerns had always been the faithfulness of God’s people.
Pause and think a moment about those preachers, teachers and elders that spend many years faithfully trying to urge God’s people to follow the Bible and God rather than worldly people and Satan’s whims. Many struggle valiantly to keep others faithful and often, when they are no longer working with and teaching those people, the work seems in vain.
One of the hardest jobs we have as Christians is to realize that, having done all we are called by God to do, we then have to let others make their own foolish decisions to rebel against God. Could there really be a place for song and singing to God in times of sadness like that?
As Moses and Joshua, the retiring and incoming leaders of God’s people, present themselves before the symbol of God’s presence, the Tabernacle, God tells them: Now therefore, write this song for yourselves, and teach it to the sons of Israel; put it on their lips, so that this song may be a witness for Me against the sons of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:19).
The song is a hard one: Then it shall come about, when many evils and troubles have come upon them, that this song will testify before them as a witness (for it shall not be forgotten from the lips of their descendants); for I know their intent which they are developing today, before I have brought them into the land which I swore. So Moses wrote this song the same day, and taught it to the sons of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:21-22)
God’s song taught to Israel as he prepares to die and hand over leadership to Joshua is a song of the price of unfaithfulness. And Moses and Joshua obeyed God’s command: Then Moses spoke in the hearing of all the assembly of Israel the words of this song, until they were complete:… Then Moses came and spoke all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he, with Joshua the son of Nun. (Deuteronomy 31:30, 44)
In a desert land he found him,
in a barren and howling waste.
He shielded him and cared for him;
he guarded him as the apple of his eye,
like an eagle that stirs up its nest
and hovers over its young,
that spreads its wings to catch them
and carries them aloft.
The Lord alone led him;
no foreign god was with him.
He made him ride on the heights of the land
and fed him with the fruit of the fields.
He nourished him with honey from the rock,
and with oil from the flinty crag,
with curds and milk from herd and flock
and with fattened lambs and goats,
with choice rams of Bashan
and the finest kernels of wheat.
You drank the foaming blood of the grape.
Jeshurun grew fat and kicked;
filled with food, they became heavy and sleek.
They abandoned the God who made them
and rejected the Rock their Savior.
They made him jealous with their foreign gods
and angered him with their detestable idols.
They sacrificed to false gods, which are not God—
gods they had not known,
gods that recently appeared,
gods your ancestors did not fear.
You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.
Sad songs obviously have their place in God’s lessons. But I would dare say that most folks prefer happy, joyful songs. I know David did. When he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem to eventually be housed in the Temple his son Solomon would build, David not only did a lot of singing but called on all of God’s people to sing with him: Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders (1 Chronicles 16:9).
- Sing to the LORD, all the earth;
- Proclaim good tidings of His salvation
- from day to day.
- (1 Chronicles 16:23).
- Then the trees of the forest will sing
- for joy before the LORD;
- For He is coming to judge the earth
- (1 Chronicles 16:33).
As the history of God’s people continues through the Bible there are many more songs. Psalms is, of course, the song book of Israel and one of the most frequent phrases of the songs of God is about singing praise to God. Many of the other OT songs are good and positive in praise to God for salvation, deliverance and countless other blessings. And there are also a few of those sad songs that remind us of wickedness and sin.
People sing, more than any other reason, to tell a story. Today we sing a song that says, Tell me the story of Jesus, Write on my heart every word. Some of the songs of Jesus, too, are filled with sadness such as
- Almost persuaded…
- Almost… but lost.
Because we are happy, we sing praises to God just like James said. And, sometimes, we sing of sadness and loss. But above all else, we sing!
Why? After all, some of us don’t sing as well as others. Some of us have voices that crack and croak and can’t hit all the notes. But we sing because God made us to sing. He’s always done so with His people. And one day, may it be sooner rather than later, we’ll join Him in the New Song in Heaven (Revelation 5:9; 14:3; 15:3).
Keep singing brothers and sisters! Keep singing!
—Lester P. Bagley