My goal in this series is to help believers apply the Bible to their musical choices in life and worship. My contention is, however, that believers today approach the issue of musical choices with certain errant foundational presuppositions that need to be corrected before they can rightly apply the Bible in this area. So my task in this paper is to address a few categories of thought that inform our approach when applying the Bible to music and suggest a few ways that we may need to correct our thinking.
Music’s function as emotional metaphor
Metaphor provides a means of expressing what cannot be adequately expressed through mere propositional statements. We may try to describe a sunset or a snowfall using mere propositional statements, but in order to more adequately capture the essence of their beauty and magnificence, we use metaphor. We may attempt to describe the love we have for a spouse through mere propositions, but in order to really capture the fullness of that emotion, we use metaphor.
Music provides man with a metaphorical language to help him express emotion that can never fully be described through mere propositions. This is why music is often called the language of emotions. It is not a language in the same way as a discursive language. It is a complex of metaphors — conventional and natural — that can give expression to illusive emotions. It allows people the ability to articulate what they are feeling when words alone are inadequate.
This is the primary benefit of music expressed in the Bible. Music is a way to express emotions:
How did Moses and the people of Israel express their joy in being delivered from Egypt? “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD : “I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted” (Ex 15.1).
When the Israelites defeated the Canaanites in Judges 5, they sang a song: “”Hear this, you kings! Listen, you rulers! I will sing to the LORD, I will sing; I will make music to the LORD, the God of Israel.
When David wanted to express a broken and contrite heart to the Lord, he did so through music in Psalm 51.
In Psalm 108, David specifically says that he will sing and make music with his soul, linking music and the expression of emotions.
Psalm 147 says that we should express our thanksgiving through song.
And of course the Psalms are filled with commands to express our affection and praise to the Lord through music.
Ephesians 5.19 says that we are to sing and make melody with our hearts to the Lord.
James 5.13 says: “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.”
Not only does music help express emotion, but it also allows for the study and evaluation of emotion so that it can be refined and even corrected. In this way music can be an educator of emotion. The emotional expression of music can affect human emotional states similar to how one person’s mood can affect another’s. Again, the Bible implies this effect: When Saul was in a terrible emotional state, David used music to change and mature his emotions (1 Sam 16.23). When Paul and Silas were in prison, they used hymns to lift their spirits (Ac 16.25). Colossians 3.16-17 specifically note the teaching power of music.1
Music’s role in the Christian life
Music is important in the Christian life, then, because emotion is an essential component of the life of faith. True, biblical religion, articulated first in the shema, includes at its heart an expression of the emotions:
Deuteronomy 6.4-5 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.
Intellectual assent to propositional statements about God does not define the Christian life; essential to Christian life is an inclination of the heart toward God, for that is what love is. Jesus Christ reemphasized this necessary component of biblical religion when he cited the shema as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28–34; Matthew 22:34-40).
Music is also important for worship, since in John 4 Christ essentially defined worship as an inward response to biblical truth:
John 4.21-24 “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.’”
Jesus contrasted with the idea that worship is essentially external by asserting that God desires those who would worship him inwardly in their spirits as a response to truth. Biblical worship is ascribing ultimate worth to God, and we ascribe worth to something by valuing it, a component of our emotions.
So music is a powerful tool in the life of faith because it gives us a language for the expression of our affections to God, and it can teach us what we should be feeling toward God.
- Some debate exists as to whether “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” qualify “teaching and admonishing.” However, the grammatical structure favors this interpretation. See David F. Detwiler, “Church Music and Colossians 3.16,” BibSac 158: 631 (July 2001), 358. “To assign these datives to ‘singing’ would create an overload of qualifying statements and destroy the symmetry of the two participial clauses. Also to assign them to ‘teaching and admonishing’ is consistent with the unambiguous parallel of Ephesians 5.19 . . .” [↩]