The following essay will appear in © 2009 Small Things, Big Things: Inspiring Stories of God’s Grace (P&R Publishing, to be released November 1, 2009: a preview page and pre orders are available on the publisher’s page here).
And David assembled all Israel at Jerusalem to bring up the ark of the LORD to its place, which he had prepared for it. 1 Chronicles 15.3
Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, should direct the music, for he understood it. 1 Chronicles 15.22
I stood in the “green room” and prepared to walk up to the pulpit of the Cedar Falls Bible Conference. I had prepared the text, prayed over it, asked God to anoint the message. But as I stood there and listened to Diane Susek sing “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” I realized all over again just how important the role of music is in preparing hearts for the Word. In that place, where so many of our congregation of 1,200 or so that night were Iowa farmers, I thought about how the fields just outside of the “campgrounds” were metaphors for what her music was doing with their hearts. The Iowa summer fields that night were lush green fields of tall, healthy corn, standing stalk to stalk, row by row, and growing with visible vitality, soon to be harvested to feed the world. And as Diane sang the congregation was stilled by her voice. That human voice together with the ethereal strains of the organ, played with such skill, caused the powerful words and theology to be, not spoken, but sung into their minds and hearts. Someone said that if your theology doesn’t make you sing it is missing something. Her theology sang that night. And all of us there sang with her in our hearts. By the time I came up to open the Scriptures, pray and preach the unsearchable riches of Christ, the Holy Spirit had done some plowing in that place. And the plowing was accomplished through Diane’s music. Indeed, I felt that night that rows upon rows of human hearts were opened up by the spade of the Spirit’s anointing on the lyrics; souls were deeply plowed by the implement of a consecrated voice; and minds were cultivated by the holy tools of the organ and piano so that we were prepared to receive the implanted Word of the living God.
This is why David called for Chenaniah, the leader of the Levites in music, to come when the Ark was being placed in its holy destination. Chenaniah not only could “do” music. The Bible says that “he understood it.” The Ark was being brought back to its highest place in the community of Israel. The Ark was that divinely ornate chest containing the tablets containing the Ten Commandments written by the very finger of God, and Aaron’s rod budding: The Divine Word of God and the Divine activity of God among them. Music needed to reflect those two great themes: The Word of God come to us by His own hand, and the miraculous promises of God among us by His own presence. Some have put it like this: We sing hymns to God, using His very Word, or versifying His Word. The Psalms and Isaac Watts’ wonderful hymnody based on a Gospel expositional reading of the Psalms comes to mind as examples of this. But the budding rod of Aaron in that Ark reminds us of God’s never-failing promises and wondrous work among His people. And so we sing hymns and spiritual songs that encourage us and build us up in the faith based on the faithfulness of God among us, His promises, and the hope we have in the Gospel.
We need more musicians who understand that music in worship is deeply connected to the Word and to the presence and power of the Gospel. Music gives lyrical and melodic expression to “God with us.” It is not entertainment. It is not “warm up” for the rest of the service. It is not an emotionally manipulative instrument, as if in some primitive ceremony in which music is wrongly used to do that. Indeed, music in worship is not a replacement for the rest of worship. It is a part, an important part of the liturgical re enactment of the Gospel story, week to week, in the service of divine worship. And back to my point, it really is the accompanying act of worship in which hearts are prepared to receive the implanted Word of God.
David knew that Chenaniah understood it. Come to think of it, more pastors need to “understand it” too. For “the field of music,” rightly cultivated, can produce an unimaginable harvest of good grain in the Kingdom of God.