Paul’s word to the Colossian church is powerful: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16 ESV). We don’t often make this connection: teach one another by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The songs we sing together in corporate worship ought to be a means of teaching. As our collective voices join together in singing, we are proclaiming to one another the content of the songs we sing. This makes our song selection rather important!
This is what drives us in our choices for our Sunday gathered assemblies. We seek songs that teach us about who God is and what he has done. This is one reason there are many wonderful songs that are not appropriate for corporate worship. If a song does not aid us in teaching one another, the song is not appropriate for corporate worship. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad song! It means that while you may enjoy worshiping God by singing it in your car, it may not be the best way for the gathered assembly to worship God.
There are many songs, for example, that stir up our emotions and our affections. These songs often emphasize our response to who God is or what he has done, while not always actually proclaiming who he is or what he has done. As believers we have an understanding of our faith in Christ so when a song is a response to that, we can respond appropriately, yet the command to the church is to teach one another through our worship songs.
Early in our church’s history I recall a conversation with an older lady who remarked how Jesus-centered our music is. At first this struck me as an odd observation: of course it is! She was expressing that in her experience worship music was not always centered on Jesus. That served to really cement in my mind that we must be diligent about teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
It all comes down to this reality: what a church sings, that church believes. While God certainly uses my teaching and preaching in the lives of his people, when you’re sitting at your desk or on the assembly line and your boss is harping on you or you’re simply feeling the ordinary thorns and thistles that come with work, it is far more likely that song lyrics run through your head than the second point of last Sunday’s sermon. Better for those lyrics to point you to the glory of God in the face of Christ than some happy, feel-good emotional response! Emotions will not get you through a day of drudgery, but the power of God in Christ can.
It’s important, then, for us to sing songs that truly point us to the Lord and teach us about him. These songs must be intelligible, however. I immediately think of the song “How He Loves Us” by David Crowder.
He is jealous for me Loves like a hurricane I am a tree bending beneath The weight of His wind and mercy When all of a sudden I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory And I realize just how beautiful You are And how great Your affections are for me
These are beautiful lyrics. They are heavily metaphorical and can take some thought to comprehend in the moment as you’re singing along with the whole church: “God’s love is like a hurricane? Aren’t hurricanes destructive? Yes, but that’s because they are overwhelmingly powerful. Ah. God’s love is overwhelming powerful. Wow! Oh, wait. We’re already done with the chorus now…” It’s a great song, though it may not be appropriate in a corporate worship setting.
It is vital for our worship songs to be intelligible. For some heavily metaphorical and poetic song lyrics can be difficult. Sometimes, however, the obstacle is biblical knowledge. I was recently asked about the song “Is He Worthy” by Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive. The question centered on the chorus:
Is anyone worthy
Is anyone whole
Is anyone able to break the seal and open the scroll
The Lion of Judah who conquered the grave
He is David's Root
And the Lamb who died to ransom the slave
Is He worthy
Is He worthy
Of all blessing and honor and glory
Is He worthy of this
Break the seal? Open the scroll? One may immediately recognize the reference to Revelation 5. There John sees a vision of God seated on his throne holding a scroll with seven seals. He specifically notes the scroll was covered in writing on both sides of the paper. The question rang out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one was found worthy so John wept. Then one of the elders around God’s throne interrupted him and said this:
And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”Revelation 5:5 ESV
This doesn’t mean much to us, however. What is the meaning of the scroll? What is the meaning of the seals? Why would John weep when seeing a scroll that he could not read? Why is it so important that we would gladly sing a song worshiping the one who is worthy to open the scroll?
Scrolls were often tied with string and melted wax applied to the knot with a seal indicating the person who sealed it. Only the legally authorized recipient could break the seal and open the scroll. Because the scroll comes from God, it is clear that he is the one who sealed it. John rejoices because Jesus is the one who can open it. It’s clear that the scroll is important, but what is written on it? John seems to be alluding to other Scriptures. For example, we read the following in Psalm 139.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.Psalm 139:16 ESV
In God’s “book” every one of the psalmist’s days were recorded. We see something similar in Isaiah.
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”Isaiah 29:10–11 ESV
It’s interesting that the vision of the future was sealed in a book. The psalmist said every one of his days was written in God’s book. John would have been quite familiar with the book of Enoch, which says something similar.
And he said unto me: “Observe, Enoch, these heavenly tablets, And read what is written thereon, And mark every individual fact. And I observed the heavenly tablets, and read everything which was written (thereon) and understood everything, and read the book of all the deeds of mankind, and of all the children of flesh that shall be upon the earth to the remotest generations.1 Enoch 81:1
The scroll John sees the Lord holding while seated on his throne is God’s book that contains the history of the world, and not merely a history. It is the record of what God has done, is currently doing, and will do in the future! This is why the scroll is written on both sides. Ordinarily one would write only on the front due to the directions of the papyrus fibers. It would be difficult to write on the back yet because God’s work is so vast, the scroll is written on both sides.
In Revelation John rejoices when he is told the Lamb who was slain is worthy. He joins with “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” of angels worshiping the Lamb. The expression “myriads of myriads” would be like saying “a bajillion” today—who can count that high? What are they actually celebrating, though?
The scroll that only the Lord Jesus opens contains God’s plans for the world. These plans are realized fully and completely in Christ. It includes the restoration of all things, the re-creation of the world, the resurrection of our bodies, and eternal life with God on the new earth forever and ever.
The imagery John uses is important to feel the full weight of this vision. Using his common “I heard…then I saw” framework, in which what he sees is far greater in magnitude than what he heard, John hears the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered. The King is victorious, and because of his victory he is able to break the seals and open the scroll. However, when John sees the Lion, he sees the Lamb—the slaughtered Lamb. This is because the moment of Christ’s victory was the moment he breathed his last. His resurrection demonstrated the fullness of his victory, for even death itself was defeated.
This means that whatever is written on the scroll for us is ultimately for our good. Whether the scroll—God’s plans for your life—involve pain and sorrow or joy and gladness, though usually a mixture of both, the victorious Lamb can be trusted, for he endured great suffering and in this suffering was his great victory won.
What this really means is when you’re at work and you’re struggling or you’re at home and you’re struggling, you should remember the Lion of Judah has conquered the grave. There is nothing he cannot overcome for he faced the worst this life could do to him and walked victoriously out of the grave. Because of this you can trust him with whatever life brings your way, knowing none of it is a surprise to him and none of it is greater than he is. Your life situation is not greater than Jesus. When you consider your life is truly in the Lord’s hands, you can ask the question: is he worthy? Yes. Yes, he is.