Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.
As 2018 swivelled into 2019, I was gripped by my devotional reading in Deuteronomy 31, 32. These chapters challenge the popular idea that congregational singing is the same as worship. Walk with me through these Scriptures:
After Moses has preached eloquent sermons in chapters 1-30, God had told Moses, aged 120, that he was about to die. He must transfer the leadership of Israel to his successor, Joshua.
Moses and Joshua went together into the Tent of Meeting. There they watched in awe as the Lord appeared in a pillar of cloud, an ultra-solemn moment. The Lord said: After you die, Moses, the people will lust after foreign gods, and forsake me. Then I will forsake them, and many evils and troubles will come upon them, and they will admit that our God is not among us. — Deuteronomy 31: 16-18
So what must Moses do? The Lord gave him an unusual command: Write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. — Deuteronomy 31: 19
When Israel prospers in the Promised Land, and they turn their backs on the Lord to worship other gods, then (God said) this song shall confront them. Through the generations to come, this song will not be forgotten. It will nag them, nipping at their heels. It will hum in their heads, reminding them of who the Lord is. This song will disturb them, for they will feel the guilt of their sins.
The lyrics of this song will be Moses’s legacy, embedding themselves into the national consciousness. Read these lyrics in the song of Chapter 32.
The song begins with the prayer that Moses’s teaching will fall like rain on tender grass, like gentle showers on young plants, resulting in full and luxuriant growth (32:2).
These days Christian song is equated with worship — but here it is equated with teaching, forming and growing our Christian life.
In fact Bakers Illustrated Bible Dictionary article on worship draws on 53 Scripture passages. Not once do these worship Scriptures refer to song or singing; though the Psalms were songs, only seven references are from the Psalms. The main purpose of song in Scripture is to teach. Worship is inferentially implied, not directly explicit in the Bible’s reference to song and singing.
In the New Testament the only two Scriptures that command us to sing are Ephesians 5:18,19 and Colossians 3:16. In Ephesians, the source of our song is the Holy Spirit filling the believer. In Colossians, the source of the song is the Word of Christ. In both Scriptures the direction of our singing is primarily to one another. This excludes worship because we do not worship one another We worship God. Both Scriptures add that our thanksgiving in song is to the Lord/to God, so there is a God-ward worship aspect. But the main purpose in singing to one another is to teach and admonish
This harmonises with the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In that song, Moses teaches about God, who has redeemed them from slavery. He is their Rock and the only God they must serve. In that song, Moses admonishes them not to be seduced by the Canaanite culture around them to worship other gods. Moses’s song threatens severe national punishment on Israel if and when they ever turn from the Living God their Rock, to worship heathen gods, which neither they nor their ancestors had ever known. There is no God beside Me (v39). All other gods must bow down to the true and living God (v43).
We should absorb this understanding of singing now in our churches, because in Heaven we will sing this song of Moses, blended into the song of the Lamb. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29) by His atonement on the cross.
Is singing the same as Worship? The Old and New Testaments say not usually. The main purpose of congregational singing is to teach in music the message of God’s Word. Sermons and songs have the same purpose … and songs will live unforgotten (31:21) long after the preacher has died.
The important role of worship is the theme of the March column. (If you are not the pastor or song-leader, show this column to those who are.)