Architecture and musical style — Hugh Wetmore

Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.

Nebuchadnezzar had invaded Judah and demolished the beautiful temple which Solomon had built in Jerusalem. The important Jews were carried off into exile in Babylon, the demoralised stayed behind, eking out a living from the land.

70 years passed. Persia replaced Babylon, and inherited the Jewish exiles living there. Then God worked in the heart of Cyrus the polytheist emperor of Persia to issue an amazing decree: “Yahweh, God of heaven, has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem. Anyone who wants to go up to Jerusalem in Judah to build the temple of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God who lives in Jerusalem, may his God be with him.” — Ezra 1:1-3

God moved the family heads to respond, and the first contingent of Jews collected valuable freewill offerings and returned to Jerusalem.

They began by rebuilding the altar so they could offer sacrifices to God. Then they laid the foundation of the temple. They marked the occasion with a praise service, led by robed Levites and an orchestra. A moving ceremony, that brought tears to the eyes of the aged who remembered Solomon’s temple before it was demolished. (Ezra 1:12). In our imagination we can hear them saying “Isn’t it wonderful to see this new temple rising from the ruins! But, oh, Solomon’s temple was better. How we long for the first temple!”

There is a sense in which this drama is replayed in the music of the Church today. A new music style has replaced the old music style which older Christians remember, with nostalgia. “Our old style of singing was better! How we long for the hymns we grew up with!”

There is a parallel between architectural styles and musical styles. Compare the reproductions of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple of Ezra’s day — their architectural styles differ. The first temple was more ornate, with more gold, than the second temple.

But is the architectural style really that important? No! It is the function of the temple that is more important than outward style. Fortunately, Ezra ensured that the function of the new-style temple was the same as the function of the old-style temple.

“Ezra devoted himself to the study and observance of the law of Yahweh, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). The new temple architectural style did not change the function of the temple. The same law, the same doctrines which had been taught in Solomon’s Temple were taught in this Second Temple. Its “teaching” function continued.

The law not only “taught” the people about God and His requirements. It also “admonished” them to obey God’s Word, and called them to repent of their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God. See Ezra 9,10.

In the same way, though the style of our singing in church may change from generation to generation, and from ethnic context to ethnic context, our songs must still “teach” and “admonish” in line with the Word of Christ. The Function of Singing remains more important that the style of our singing.

According to Colossians 3:16, the function God wants to fulfil in our singing is five-fold:

  1. a) The lyrics must be rich in the Word of Christ
  2. b) The lyrics must teach one another
  3. c) The lyrics must admonish (correct, direct) one another
  4. d) The lyrics must have wisdom, and not be superficial.
  5. e) The lyrics must express the gratitude of our hearts to God.

Note that God does not prescribe any one style of music. He wants all styles to be sung during the course of any one service: “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”. Old, recent and today’s. Seniors, middle-aged and youth. Each generation has its favourite style. Each must participate in singing in every style. “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” — Philippians 2:4.

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