When it comes to places of worship, it’s not primarily aesthetic beauty that makes a sanctuary pleasing to God; rather, it is the holiness of His people and their devotion to Him. When it comes to prayer, God is more concerned with sincerity and repentance than He is with an impressive show.
Today, I want to look at the singing of God’s people and what makes it beautiful. Just as is the case with places of worship, God is not primarily concerned with outward glory. And just as is the case with prayer, our singing is only pleasing to the Lord when it is of a particular kind.
So what is God concerned with when it comes to our singing?
Several months ago, I was preparing to preach to our congregation on what we want the worship of our church to be characterized by. I found myself searching the Scriptures for how God Himself describes the kind of worship He wants. To my surprise, I searched in vain for biblical descriptions of worship as “beautiful” or “lovely.” This pushed me to examine what characteristics are associated with worship that God delights in.
The book of Revelation, naturally, seemed like a good place to start. I wanted to see what is focused on when we read of worship in heaven around God’s throne. Here are a couple of representative passages:
I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns.”
It seems that heavenly worship can be fairly described with two words: big and loud.
Even when the Apostle John describes angels’ voices, notice what he emphasizes:
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
How does he describe the angels’ worship of God? It’s big, and it’s loud.
In my search for descriptions of worship as beautiful, I thought I came across at least one scriptural reference to “beautiful” or “lovely” singing. Psalm 135:3 says,
Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good;
Sing praises to His name, for it is lovely.
I realized, however, that the loveliness spoken of here has little to do with the singing, and much to do with the object of that singing. It’s the name of the Lord that is lovely, far more than our voices. In fact, any voice that names the name of the Lord is made lovely by the object of its praise.
This isn’t to say that our worship shouldn’t be aesthetically pleasing. That’s just not what Scripture is concerned with. Yes, the praises sung to God’s name ought to be lovely, but we must understand that they are that way chiefly because they are praises to the One who is lovely. Furthermore, this loveliness only pleases the Lord when it is inward, and not merely outward. “Those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and truth” (John 4:24).
In certain theological circles, we place great emphasis on the importance of “artistic excellence” for God. But artistic excellence in our worship without faithful devotion to God means very little. There are many trained singers who get paid to stand in gorgeous cathedrals and sing beautiful songs written about the one true God. But when such a performance is just that—a mere performance—God is not impressed. The Lord takes much more delight in the faith-filled shouts of the tone-deaf little boy singing at the top of his lungs on Sunday morning. And we should too.
Singing in the Psalms
Seeing such a clear theme in the descriptions of worship in Revelation got me wondering how the Psalms describe worship that is pleasing to God.
The theme of loudness carries through, particularly in the Psalms’ frequent references to shouting. But apart from loudness, what else consistently marks the singing of the people of God in the Psalms?
Let all who take refuge in You be glad,
Let them ever sing for joy.
I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy;
I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord.
His anger is but for a moment,
His favor is for a lifetime;
Weeping may last for the night,
But a shout of joy comes in the morning.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones;
And shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.
Sing for joy in the Lord, O you righteous ones;
Praise is becoming to the upright.
. . .
Sing to Him a new song;
Play skillfully with a shout of joy.
Psalm 33:1, 3
O clap your hands, all peoples;
Shout to God with the voice of joy.
My tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness.
As for me, I shall sing of Your strength;
Yes, I shall joyfully sing of Your lovingkindness in the morning.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.
. . .
For You have been my help,
And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
Psalm 63:5, 7
You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy.
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy;
For You will judge the peoples with uprightness
And guide the nations on the earth.
My lips will shout for joy when I sing praises to You;
And my soul, which You have redeemed.
Notice a theme? That’s only halfway through the book of Psalms, and I skipped a lot of similar passages. And that was just noting the word “joy,” not even related words like “rejoice.”
It’s significant that Scripture’s emphasis is on the joy of our worship, rather than on aesthetic beauty. As I’ve mentioned before, the most beautiful and lasting cathedrals eventually burn to the ground. Similarly, the most beautiful voices wear out with age, or they go out of fashion after a decade or two. This is why, when it comes to our worship, joy is absolutely essential, and aesthetics are secondary . . . at best. Outward beauty comes and goes, but Jesus says that our joy lasts forever.
But why would we be joyful?
The Source of Our Joy
Take the time, right now, to read King David’s words in Psalm 145 to understand why God’s people have joy:
I will extol You, my God, O King,
And I will bless Your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless You,
And I will praise Your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised,
And His greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall praise Your works to another,
And shall declare Your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of Your majesty
And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate.
Men shall speak of the power of Your awesome acts,
And I will tell of Your greatness.
They shall eagerly utter the memory of Your abundant goodness
And will shout joyfully of Your righteousness.
The Lord is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness.
The Lord is good to all,
And His mercies are over all His works.
All Your works shall give thanks to You, O Lord,
And Your godly ones shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom
And talk of Your power;
To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts
And the glory of the majesty of Your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And Your dominion endures throughout all generations.
The Lord sustains all who fall
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food in due time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.
The Lord keeps all who love Him,
But all the wicked He will destroy.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord,
And all flesh will bless His holy name forever and ever.
King David overflowed with joy because of God’s salvation. In fact, more than anything else, this is what makes God’s people beautiful: the simple fact that He has saved them:
The Lord takes pleasure in His people;
He will beautify the afflicted ones with salvation.
The knowledge of this compelled David to joyfully praise the Lord.
Now think about this: King David didn’t even know Jesus. All he knew was that God had told him one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever. But he didn’t know when that would be, nor who it would be, nor what all this promised Son would do when He came.
But how about us? God has “shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). What King David knew from a distance, we know intimately.
When Jesus talked to His disciples about their joy, He refers to Himself as the source of it:
You have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.
Christ is our joy because of who He is and what He has done. And because the Lord is our joy, we are to set our mind “on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.” For we have “died” and our life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2–3).
Jesus keeps our life completely safe in God, regardless of anything that can happen to us on this earth. Then, “When Christ, who is our life, is revealed,” we also “will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Jesus Christ has made a way for us—you and me—to stand blameless in the presence of the God of the universe. And when this earth has completely passed away, we get to dwell with God and with all the saints in glory, because of Christ Jesus! We have every reason to be joyful.
And one of the main things joyful people do is sing, because singing is the irrepressible fruit of joy. But singing is not just the product of our joy. It’s also the kindler of our joy.
We not only express, but we cultivate, our joy in the Lord by singing. Even when our hearts are not feeling the joy we know we’re supposed to feel, we know in our minds that it is right and good to sing songs of praises to the name of Christ. And so we do. And our singing helps fan into flame the work of the Spirit of Christ within us.
Paul and Silas were “singing hymns of praise to God” while in prison, not because their earthly circumstances were pleasant. They sang in the midst of their affliction, because it’s then when God is most near to us, if we humble ourselves and call on Him. They sang because, by faith, they knew even imprisonment was nothing compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).
A godly friend of mine has made a habit of singing the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow . . .”) to himself in his everyday life. He does so at particular times, and it’s not when things are going really well and he happens to feel happy. Just the opposite, in fact. When things do not go his way, he disciplines himself and instructs his own heart by singing the Lord’s praise.
Do you know why soldiers sing and shout as they’re going into battle? Is it because they’re really jazzed about going to die? Generally, it’s because they’re afraid.
And it’s good to think about soldiers, because soldiers typically aren’t overly concerned with how beautiful their voices sound. When you’re marching to your death, the goal is not to look good; it’s to muster up your courage for the mission in front of you.
And that’s probably the best analogy for what Christian singing is supposed to be. It’s not putting on a show. It’s calling ourselves and one another to the faith, joy, and courage, that are necessary for the Christian life. This is why the Psalms so often command us to lift a joyful shout to the Lord. King David was a warrior, and there was no great disparity in his mind between the shout of battle and the shout of worship.
After all, Christ Jesus is a warrior, and there will be great shouting when He returns.
How’s the Church’s Music?
I think loudness is actually a decent criterion for assessing the musical worship of any church. But I’m not talking about how loud the speakers are turned up. It’s primarily the congregation’s singing that should tell us something, even more than whatever the musicians are doing up front. The worship recorded in Scripture is loud because of the voices of the worshipers. So let us sing loudly!
But loudness isn’t enough. We should also assess whether our singing is joyful. How can we tell? Of course, one good indicator of joy is volume. Think of any sporting event anywhere in the world. Do the fans exhibit their joy merely in their hearts, or is their joy audible? And how do they muster up their courage when things look bleak for their team? Singing and shouting!
Let us make the church’s worship beautiful through sincere, joyful, and zealous singing.