While I love Old School Presbyterian worship, there is one part of it that seems to a be a problem wherever you go or whichever congregation you visit, and that’s our singing.
We Reformed Confessional types do a lot of arguing over what we should sing. Should we sing only psalms, or psalms, hymns and spiritual songs? And even when we’ve agreed on that point, we can still argue over which psalms and hymns should we sing? Old hymns, new hymns, modern praise choruses? Should we sing psalms set to old melodies or psalms set to contemporary arrangements? But regardless of whether the congregation are exclusive psalmodists or contemporary choristers, they tend to both suffer from the same malady –
lackluster and unimpressive singing amongst the congregants.
While the Westminster Confession teaches us in chapter 21 that singing is part of the worship of God, it doesn’t merely say that “mere singing” is to be part of our worship but singing “with grace in the heart” and here many congregations fall short of that mark. In many cases members of the congregation don’t sing at all or when they do, they are merely reading and then speaking the words on the page or overhead, at no point is their heart actually engaged in the process. Often we sing as though we not only don’t believe the things we are singing, but that the things we are singing about aren’t very important. Thus our singing becomes a formality, a tick box that has to be endured before we can move on to the other parts of worship.
It amazes me that the godly in the Netherlands have so little desire to sing, and also engage in this very infrequently. It is true that singing little is consistent with the lackadaisicalness of our nation (compared to other nations). Nevertheless, worldly people sing quite a bit, but they sing vain songs which stir up the heart toward vanity and immorality. The godly are, however, generally silent in these parts. The one says, “I am too busy”; the other, “I have no voice”; the third, “I do not know any of the melodies”; the fourth, “I do not dare for fear the neighbors would hear me and deem me to be a hypocrite.” All of this is, however, not truly the problem, but it is a lack of desire. If the heart were more spiritual and joyous, we would more readily praise the Lord with joyful song and thereby stir up ourselves and others. I am here not only speaking of singing in church. (Even there many do not sing; and for some the very best they can do is read the psalm silently.)
It is thus needful that I stir up everyone to sing—not only psalms, but also spiritual songs. Therefore, believers, dispense with this listlessness. “Serve the LORD with gladness: come before His presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2).First, you must know that singing is not a neutral matter in which you may or may not engage. Rather, it is God’s command. As we have shown you before, God requires this from you and desires to be served by you in this manner. Consider these and similar quotes and impress them upon your heart as being mandatory. Begin to engage in this duty with an obedient heart; break open your mouth and your closed heart will open as well.
Secondly, God has created this ability in the very nature of man. This is to be observed in children of three or four years old. Take note of how they walk around the house while singing at the same time. Observe how even in nature the birds in their own way already praise their Creator early in the morning by way of singing. If you go outside in the morning, or if you have birds in your home, you will hear it. Will the birds and small children rebuke you, and would you, who have the greatest reason in the world to sing joyously, be dumb and silent?Thirdly, it is the work of angels, for they glorify the Lord in song (cf. Job 38:7; Luke 2:13-14; Rev. 5:11-12), and it is the work of the church upon earth and in heaven: “And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev. 5:9); “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne…and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” (Rev. 14:3); “And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty” (Rev. 15:3). If you have no desire to sing, then what will you do in church and in heaven? Furthermore, if you are desirous to magnify the Lord with an eternal hallelujah, you should presently begin upon earth.Fourthly, God is particularly pleased when His children praise Him in song. There where the Lord is sweetly praised in song, there He will come with His blessings. “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Ps. 22:3). It is noteworthy to consider what transpired at the dedication of the temple. “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one…that then the house was filled with a cloud…so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the LORD had filled the house of God” (2 Chr. 5:13-14). When Jehoshaphat, together with his army, lifted up their voices in joyous exclamation and song (2 Chr. 20:22), the Lord defeated their enemies. When Paul and Silas sang praises unto God in the middle of the night, the doors of the prison were opened and the bands of all the prisoners were loosened (Acts 16:25-26). Therefore, if you are desirous to please the Lord, and delight in having the Lord visit your soul and desire to experience His help, then accustom yourself to singing.
Fifthly, singing will move a heart which frequently remains unmoved during prayer. It can be that while singing the tears will drip upon the book. Have you not frequently experienced this? Have not you been stirred up by hearing the singing of others? Others will therefore also be stirred up by your singing. The Papists in France knew this, and therefore they strictly forbade the singing of psalms and meted out cruel punishment for this—even prior to massacring the church. Therefore, no longer be silent, but lift up your voices—in spite of the devil and all the enemies of God—to the honor and glory of your God, as this has done you too much good already (and still does) than that you would refrain from thanking the Lord with songs of praise. You must furthermore do so in order that you might stir up others to serve the Lord with gladness. It will then become manifest to all natural men that godliness is a joyous rather than a grievous life, and they will become desirous for this as well. And if you sing, sing with understanding, with a fervent desire, conscious of the presence of the Lord (and thus reverently), with a modest demeanor, and with both inner and external attentiveness, so that it may all be becoming before the Lord and to the edification of others who surround us.”
– Wilhelmus A’Brakel, The Christians Reasonable Service, Volume 4, Reformation Heritage Books