A NEW SONG Based on Psalm 96
BY Pastor Glenn Pease
It is easy for us to do what the psalmist urges us to do, "Sing to the Lord a new song." The number of new songs to sing today is enormous. Back in 1891 Dr. Julian in his famous Dictionary of Hymnology examined four hundred thousand hymns, and he did not cover them all. There are, no doubt, over a million hymns in the world today.
But the path to this abundance of new songs was not easy. It might be hard to believe, but the singing of hymns in church, now so popular, was once opposed. In the middle of the 18th century, a church in Aberdeen, Scotland hired a soldier they heard singing hymns with some troops to come and teach them how to do it. He was a great success, and so the church got him discharged from the army to be their song master. Students from the university flocked to the church to join in this novel practice of singing a new song.
As might be expected, it was too good to be true that such enthusiasm would go unopposed. Many felt that the church should stick to the psalms, and put an end to these new songs. They hired Gideon Duncan and two of his friends to sing very loud and out of tune. They succeeded in disrupting the service, but Duncan was hauled before the magistrate and fined 50 pounds, and imprisoned until it was paid. Many of us can be thankful not everyone who sings poorly in church is arrested. Just imagine, only two centuries ago hymns in public worship were such a novelty they were the center of violent dispute.
Benjamin Keach, the Baptist pastor, was the first man to introduce a hymnbook into a English congregation. It was a book of 300 hymns. 22 angry Baptists walked out of his church never to return. They felt that the Psalms were the only songs Christians should sing. The opposition held back the practice for years, but their delaying tactics could not stop the strong inner desire of men to sing unto the Lord a new song.
This longing for novelty in song is not a part of man's fallen nature, but is a part of his awareness that God is infinite, and therefore, only infinite creativity is worthy of Him, and adequate to glorify His name. It is also essential to keep joy alive in the worshipper. Variety is the spice of life, and a new song is like a tonic that lifts and enables us to feel afresh the love that is always there, but which needs rekindled.
Music is basic to worship, for music is a mover of emotions, and especially the emotion of joy. Out of joy comes praise, and this is a key element in worship. In Psalm 33:1-3 we read, "Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous, it is fitting for the upright to praise Him. Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to Him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to Him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy." By means of voices and instruments we praise God and establish the atmosphere of worship. Note, that the new song is emphasized again. The new song is the testimony that God is alive and is working now, and not just in the past.
In Psalm 40:3 we read, "He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord." Here the new song is the key to evangelism for it is a testimony that will have an impact on others.
But the new song is not just for out reach, it is for up reach, for God is delighted with a new song from His children, just as you would be from your children. In Psalm 144:9 we read, "I will sing a new song to you, O God; on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you." It may sound strange to think of singing and making music to God, but the fact is, all levels of love are enhanced and expressed through music.
Our love for, and praise of God will be connected with music for all eternity. The book of Revelation makes it clear that both vocal and instrumental music are to be a part of everlasting joy. In Rev. 5 we hear the harps, and in verse 9 there is a new song of praise to the Lamb, and in verse 12 the millions of angels sing His praise in a loud voice; then in verse 13 we come to the climax of this heavenly hallelujah chorus and we read, "Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: To Him that sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and forever!" There will be new songs to sing forever.
The point is, it is a God given craving to have a new song and He will satisfy that craving forever and ever. Music and song are eternal, and ten trillion years from now the redeemed will be singing new songs. That means the potential in music is infinite. We can never exhaust the potential for new songs. Leonard Burnstein , the conductor, composer, and pianist has written a book titled, THE INFINITE VARIETY OF MUSIC. He points out that there are only 12 notes in the chromatic scale out of which come all western music. The maximum possible melodic combinations comes to 1,302,061,344. That is a sizable figure, but when you add the fact that there is the same number of chords possible, and each chord can conceivably go with each possible melodic combination, Burnstien says, "We begin to smell infinity."
That is not the end, for each of these melodic combinations can be combined with each other. This takes us beyond the Milky Way, and he hasn't even taken in to account the whole range of tempo, speed, and the innumerable instrumental and vocal colors. All of which he says, "...Add galaxy upon galaxy to this musical universe, whose limits are by this time beyond calculation."
In the light of this potential, there is no need for the child of God to ever be bored with music. But Christians who sang nothing but the Psalms did get bored with them. Isaac Watts was bored with them and complained to his father back in 1692. His father said if you don't like them why don't you write something better. He did, and became the father of modern hymnology. His first hymn began like this-
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Before His father's throne.
Prepare new honors for His name,
And songs before unknown.
This song was sung the next week in his church. It started the avalanche of new songs that fill the world today. The people of his church were so delighted they demanded he write a new song for each Sunday. An 18 year old poet had broken a tradition of centuries. For two years he wrote a new song for every Sunday service, and he paved the way for Wesley, Newton, Cowper, and others to change the course of Christian history through song. He wrote over 650 songs, and now 300 years later we still enjoy singing many of them.
O GOD OUR HELP IN AGES PAST
COME WE THAT LOVE THE LORD
JOY TO THE WORLD
AM I A SOLDIER OF THE CROSS
I SING THE MIGHTY POWER OF GOD
ALAS AND DID MY SAVIOUR BLEED
WHEN I SURVEY THE WONDROUS CROSS
AT THE CROSS
JESUS SHALL REIGN
COME HOLY SPIRIT
WE'RE MARCHING TO ZION
These were once the new songs promoted by those who felt the latest is the greatest. Now they are the old songs promoted by those who say the old is the best. Of course, they are both right, for some music is the best when it is new, and some when it is old. The need for the new is greater in modern times because of the fast pace of change in our world which makes music, like everything else, obsolete faster.
John Innes, organist for Billy Graham said, "We need new music badly-music that will stir the heart and put new meaning into the faith." Don Hustad, the most famous of Billy Graham's organist's asks, "What's wrong with the old songs?" And answers, "Nothing, but evangelism should have a healthy influence upon culture in our time. Gifted converts to Christ need to give musical expression to their love as they grow in the Lord."
To maintain life and enthusiasm there is a perpetual need for new songs. But it is a mistake to try and sing new songs if they do not achieve the goal of leading us to praise God. The unknown poet has written,
"In union we rise and stand
And wish that we were sitting;
And listen to the music start
And wish that it were quitting.
We past our hymnal to a
Guest or fake a smoker's cough;
We drop our pencil's, lose our
Gloves, take our glasses off.
We move our lips to keep in
Style emitting awkward bleats;
And when the last amen is
Sung sink gladly in our seats.
Oh, Lord, who hearest every
Prayer and savest us from foes,
Deliver now thy little flock
From all those hymns nobody knows."
No matter how recent or how ancient a song is, it is irrelevant and impractical as a motivation for worship if it is not known, and not enjoyable.
That is why Don Hustad in his book, JUBILATE!, stresses the need for music to be functional. He points out that Christians have fought over what is good music for centuries, and will continue to do so, but most of the conflicts are foolish, for they revolve around people's taste. So much is a matter of subjectivity. People are on different levels in their appreciation of music, and they are conditioned by their exposure. Some are moved by Bach, but others are left cold and consider it meaningless. Who is right? They are both right, for to those who are moved, it is a gift of God; to those who are left untouched it is of no value.
Bach's music has blest millions of people for three centuries, and will go on blessing people till the end of time. Everyone should work at developing a love for music that has so lived. Bach was a dedicated Christian who wrote at the beginning of most of his scores, "Jesus, help me!" And at the end of all his scores, "To God alone the glory." But Bach was a musical genius who went beyond most people in his ability, and the result was even people in his own church could not understand him. He went beyond the people, and ceased at that point to be functional. Better is a piece of music far less artistic which moves you to praise God than a classic that does not do so.
That is why Hustad has taught his students for years that Christian music is best when it fulfills its purpose of moving Christians to praise God. Bach would agree, for he wrote, "The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing else but the glory of God and the refreshment of the spirit." Meaningful music is music that moves us to praise God.
Psalm 98 is very similar to our text. It starts the same way-"Sing to the Lord a new song," and in verse 4 it says, "Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music." It is clear that music is meant to be a moving experience. Music is for the heart, and a message is for the mind. A worship experience is to touch both the heart and the head. We are to both feel and to think in a way pleasing to God.
The psalmist gets very secular in his musical emphasis. He does not limit himself to human voices and instruments, but calls on the whole of nature to join in the song. In verses 11 and 12 he writes, "Let the heaven's rejoice, let the earth be glad; let the sea resound, and all that is in it. Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy."
In Ps. 98:7-8 We read, "Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy."
This is obviously poetic language, but it is poetry with a message. Music is a part of life, and we need to see all of the beauty and harmony of creation as part of the music of the universe that is offering up praise to God. Music is everywhere in God's creation. Madison Cowlin wrote,
"All things are wrought of melody
Unheard yet full of speaking spells
Within the rock, within the tree
A soul of music dwells.
A mute symphonic sense that thrills
The silent frame of mortal things.
It's heart in the ancient hills
And in each flower sings.
To harmony all growth is set,
Each seed is but a music-note,
From which each plant, each violet,
Evolves its purple note."
Every science and every field of knowledge add to the music of life, for they all have their harmony, unity, and aesthetic appeal. Broadly defined, everything lovely is a part of music for it has the potential of moving you to sing unto the Lord a new song in praise to Him for the gift of that beauty. Any part of reality which functions as God intended it to, is at that point praising Him. That is why Paul wrote to the Philippians and in the context of trying to reconcile two women in conflict he said in 4:8, "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things." Paul is saying the aesthetic life is a key factor in the spiritual life. You cannot be all God intends you to be without developing a growing appreciation of what is lovely.
We all have the same problem, lack of time. I got a kick out of Catherine Bowen, who was asked how she could have the time for so much music with 2 children, a house to keep up, and her responsibilities as an author and teacher. She replied, "It is managed by a shrewd system of neglect. Neglect is truly an art. There is just no end to the things you can learn to neglect if you really love music." All of us need to learn to neglect lesser values in order to develop that side of life that leads us to sing to the Lord a new song.
I am aware that there are many Christians who do not sing and have very little interest in music. Many of them are like Dr. Johnson who responded to a woman who asked him if he liked music, "No madam, but of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable." I have known Christian leaders who never sing, but I have never known anyone who claimed it as a virtue. It is considered a handicap, and not a blessing. Artemus Ward said, "I can't sing-I am saddest when I sing. So are those who hear me. They are sadder even than I am."
Like the blind who will not see until eternity, there are non-singers who will not enjoy singing until they join the heavenly chorus. But all Christians should work at enjoying some forms of music, for God Himself delights to sing. Zeph. 3:17 is a fascinating verse for it states clearly that God expresses His love and joy in song. It says, "The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing."
Jesus enjoyed singing. It is recorded that He did so with His disciples right after the last supper, and before He headed into the garden of Gethsemane. God sings, the Son sings, the angels sing, man sings, and all nature sings. The entire universe is one vast symphony of song. Shakespeare in MERCHANT OF VENICE said, "There's not the smallest orb which thou beholdest but in his motion like an angel sings." Albert Einstein admitted, "This world may consist of musical notes as well as of mathematical rules." Carlyle said, "See deep enough and you see musically; the heart of nature being everywhere music..."
The point is, the psalmist is not being merely wildly poetic when he hears music and song in all of nature. For the scientist, philosopher, and historian can also hear it. But the poets just point it out more often. Byron wrote,
"There's music in a sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears,
This earth is but an echo of the spheres."
Emerson put it like this-
"Let me go where'er I will
I hear a sky-born music still.
Tis not in the high stars alone,
Nor in the cup of budding flowers,
Nor in the red breasts mellow tone,
Nor in the bow that smiles on showers,
But in the mud and scum of things
There always, always something sings."
The whole of creation and the host of heaven are perpetually singing to the Lord a new song. All believers are to join this universal choir, not just when they get to heaven, but now in time. May God motivate us by His Word and by His World to make singing His praises a priority in our lives.