One of the most powerful influences in creation is music. Music has the ability to impress the mind, provoke the emotions of the heart, and activate the deepest recesses of our memories. In a real sense, music can achieve what no other medium can – prose, poetry, or drama. That is why music has become a means of communicating, interpreting, and expressing those things for which no other language seems sufficient. Given the powerful influence that music has, it’s not surprising that it has a prominent place in the worshipful expression of the Christian faith. Martin Luther once wrote: “The good news of Christ’s great deliverance tunes the heart to sing.”
I think this is why God has united his message with music. The Apostle Paul wrote: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Colossians 3:16). You see, it’s in the singing of the church that heavenly wisdom, gentle warnings, and doctrinal truth are harmonized for the building up and edifying of one another. Not to go on a pessimistic tangent but there’s probably enough in those words to chastise much of what passes for worship music these days. Where’s the wisdom? Where’s the warning? Where’s the teaching? God cares not only that we sing, but he also cares about the content of our songs.
What then shall we sing about? If you were to examine the better songs being sung in churches today, it seems that many of them focus on God’s redemptive work, his character and attributes, and some of the leading doctrines of the Christian faith. To be clear, I think those things are very important to sing about. But, if you can tolerate my suggestion, if that’s all the further our songs go then our singing remains unbiblically narrow. Why do I say that? Well, if we look at the songs that the Holy Spirit has given to his church – songs spoken by men from God as they were carried along by the Spirit – there’s a profound breadth to their content. Yes, I’m writing about the Psalms. The Psalms extol the redemptive work of God in Jesus, they proclaim his character and attributes, they contain the doctrines of the Christian faith, but they also include things that (to our shame) we’re probably not used to singing. If we use them as a pattern, what are some of the things that God wants us to sing about?
God wants us to sing about depression. Yes, even believers get depressed and the Psalms give us songs to sing in the blackness and ache of depression, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5) and, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (Psalm 88:3-5).
God wants us to sing about persecution. Jesus warned that in the world we will have many troubles and the Psalms give us words to express the troubles that come for bearing the name of Christ, “For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. I am weary with my crying out; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me with cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (Psalm 69:1-4).
God wants us to sing about children. Though many view children as an inconvenience in our culture, God delights in opening the womb and the Psalms instruct us to sing of their blessedness, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!” (Psalm 127:3-5).
God wants us to sing about death. Often death is viewed as an almost taboo topic and yet the Psalms give us language to sing not only of its dark reality but of our confidence in the midst of it, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4), and “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).
God wants us to sing about sleep. The rest that is given to us is traced even to the gifts of God, “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8), and “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest; eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).
God wants us to sing about atheism. The Psalms show us, in singing, how to interpret the world and its systems around us, even the system of unbelief, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is none who does good. The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:1-3).
God wants us to sing about prosperity. The Psalms demonstrate to us that God cares not only for our souls but also our physical well-being and blesses us in this manner, “May our sons in their youth be like plants full grown, our daughters like corner pillars cut for the structure of a palace; may our granaries be full, providing all kinds of produce; may our sheep bring forth thousands and ten thousands in our fields; may our cattle be heavy with young, suffering no mishap or failure in bearing; may there be no cry of distress in our streets! Blessed are the people to whom such blessings fall! Blessed are the people whose God is the Lord!” (Psalm 144:12-15).
God wants us to sing about enemies. It’s probably hard for the Western and contemporary church that has experienced little by way of outward and physical oppression to comprehend the way the Psalms invite us to sing over our enemies. But the Psalms are filled with warlike victory anthems, “I pursued by enemies and overtook them, and did not turn back till they were consumed. I thrust them through, so that they were not able to rise; they fell under my feet. For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me. You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the Lord, but he did not answer them. I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets” (Psalm 18:37-42).
God wants us to sing about missions. The scope of the gospel isn’t confined to the borders of any nation or people group. The knowledge of Jesus Christ knows no boundaries and we are to sing of the advance of the gospel to foreign lands and foreign people, “May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth” (Psalm 67:1-4).
God wants us to sing about alcohol. The Psalms celebrate that it is God who waters the earth causing vines to grow which produce wine to cheer the heart even of the afflicted, “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart” (Psalm 104:13-15).
God wants us to sing about sin. Not only are we to sing about sin’s pardon and forgiveness but the Psalms often emphasize the great danger that accompanies sin. We are to sing out these warnings and cautions, “For they provoked him to anger with their high places; they moved him to jealous with their idols. When God heard, he was full of wrath, and he utterly rejected Israel” (Psalm 78:58-59), and “Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death” (Psalm 107:17-18).
God wants us to sing about hell. Frightening, terrifying, and sorrowful as the topic is — to bear the unmitigated wrath of God is unimaginable — yet the Psalms direct us to sing even of this, “The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God” (Psalm 9:17), and “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me” (Psalm 49:14-15).
In the Psalms we sing of protecting the poor (Psalm 15:5), angels (Psalm 91:11-12, 104:4), political upheaval (Psalm 2:1-4, 135:8-12), frustrations (Psalm 73:1-3), history (Psalm 95:8, 106:32), the birthing of animals (Psalm 29:9), the keeping of vows (Psalm 76:11, 116:14), the failure of friendship (Psalm 55:14), family relationships (Psalm 128:3), false gods (Psalm 135:15-18), and so much more. These are some of the things that fill the content of the very songs that the Holy Spirit has given to the church. Now, that doesn’t mean these things should be sung disproportionately with some of the major themes found in the Book of Psalms. No, I don’t think the majority of our songs should be taken up singing about sleep! Nor does it mean that they are an end in and of themselves. We don’t sing of wine to simply proclaim the virtues of wine! Rather, all of the content is intended to better acquaint us with the fullness of who God is, the fullness of his promises, the fullness of his judgments, and the fullness of his blessings. And he himself has approved these things to be expressed through the gift of singing in order to impress them upon our minds, provoke the emotions of our hearts, and activate the deepest recesses of our memories as our tongues are loosened to sing the praises of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.