Worship as Rehearsal | Liturgical Function of Congregational Singing

As we continue to think of worship as gospel rehearsal, let us turn to look more specifically at the functions of the liturgy. First, lets take a brief look at congregational singing.

Throughout scripture there are examples of God’s people responding to God’s faithfulness through the use of song. I highly suggest checking our Cardiphonia’s Biblical Canticles project for more examples, you can do so here. For the purposes of this post,  I want to look briefly at the corporate song and dance led by Moses and Miriam in Exodus 15.  Exodus 15 comes immediately following the Israelites safely crossing the Red Sea. The beginning of chapter 15 reads:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:

“I will sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.

“The Lord is my strength and my defense[a];
he has become my salvation.
He is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.[b]
The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, Lord,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, Lord,
shattered the enemy.

And the song continues on ending with:

“Sing to the Lord,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.”

The song exalts the work of God: and recognizes our need of salvation that can only be delivered by God’s hand. Like the Israelites respond to God’s provision in song, we too when we gather exalt God through songs of praise. We declare that he is our salvation.

In his book, Desiring the Kingdom Dr. James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College argues that scripture envisions the identity and faith of the people of God as a song. I’d like to read a portion of that to you now. He writes:

“Scripture envisions the identity and faith of the people of God as a song. For instance, when Israel finds itself in exile in Babylon, the psalmist expresses the challenge of being faithful amid idolatrous temptations in terms of singing:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land? (Psalm 137:1-4)
Here singing is clearly tethered to identity; what we sing says something significant about who we are— and whose we are. Israel’s challenge unlike our challenge: how do we live as the peculiar people of God in a foreign land, given that every land is ‘foreign’ for the people of the city of God? Figuring out how to be faithful in exile is here tied up with learning how to sing in a strange land. And in such exilic singing, we already begin to hymn the ‘new song’ that will resound in the coming kingdom (Rev. 5:9, 14:3) as a redeemed choir from every tribe and tongue and nation. Embedded in this sung hope we se something of the kingdom implicit in Christian worship: a world of delight and festivity, of joyful song, as well as a world of racial reconciliation where the choir is a reconciled community. The practice of singing together in Christian worship- singing one song, with different parts, in harmony- is a small but significant performance of what we’re looking forward to in the kingdom.”  (Smith, James K.A.. Desiring the Kingdom. 172-3)

Corporate singing, like the rest of our corporate gatherings should help us in rehearsing the rhythms of the gospel. In our songs, we affirm the psalmists proclamations to “sing unto the Lord a new song,” we also join in the songs those who have gone before us, we sing about who we are and whose we are, we sing about who we are in the context of living as people of God in world that doesn’t know God, and finally we sing as preparation for what we look forward to, our ultimate hope. 

Past. Present. Future.

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