Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: “Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the festival, so that you will no longer suffer reproach. Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord.
ZEPHANIAH 3:14-20 (ESV)
One of the most difficult things for people to do in church is sing. I’m sure some of you right now are shaking your heads in disagreement, but trust me on this one. I have nearly a decade of worship leading experience and countless services under my belt to confidently assert that people just don’t feel comfortable singing. It always takes time to invite a congregation to wade in the waters of participating in song, and most of the time, there remain significant numbers of holdouts spread among the seats.
Many churches go out of their ways to help people sing. They try to sweep away some of the fear of a less than perfect voice being heard by others. Churches will turn the music very loud, to drown out any off-key singing. They might turn the lights down low too, so people can’t see each other sing either. The idea seems to be that we sing best and loudest when we’re alone, and that creating that effect in a church service can help gather a choir out of soloists.
The logic here is sound. The theology, not so much. Scripture doesn’t seem to share or support our hesitation to sing.
Zephaniah records something remarkable for us. God sings. The Lord, the Israelites are told, is present and moving where they are, and the way He chooses to manifest His heart to them is with singing. And loud singing, at that.
We might be tempted to dismiss this as colorful, descriptive language, but Zephaniah means what He writes. God’s melody carries through the gathering of His people. And lest we remain skeptical, the voice of the Lord moves the same way in the New Testament, as Jesus and his disciples conclude the Last Supper with a hymn (Matthew 26:30).
God sings. Loudly. With his people. This revelation on its own should be enough for us to join the Lord’s melody. But we might go a step further today and ask why God sings.
Zephaniah’s vision of a singing God is tied to the context of a rejoicing, grateful people. The prophet has warned the Israelites to repent of sin, as the judgement of the Lord is coming. And rather than wallow in fear at such a proclamation, Zephaniah continues with a command from God for them to rejoice. Their hope in God is assured. Their future with Him secured.
It is here that the promise of God is given a tangible reality. The Israelites are told that God is in their midst, that His rejoicing and His love are moving in and through them. If their worship is to be inspired by God’s work, then they will need to observe the invisible and the transcendent. How is this possible?
God gives them a song. Think for a minute about the process in that. One does not simply mouth lyrics in singing. Real participation requires mental engagement with the words, full-throated praise in following the melody, and heartfelt response to emotional content. The melody that fills the gathering Zephaniah sees is joyful, triumphant, and loud. It’s the kind of song that is unmistakable, one that will not be ignored. It gives body to what can’t be contained.
The power of singing to “flesh out” what’s hidden is a gift from God to help us grasp His transcendent nature. In Zephaniah, the song of the Lord incarnates His love and joy to the Israelites. In this action, God is giving us a way to show what mere speech cannot contain. He’s revealing to bearers of His image another way to express their own joy and love.
The covenant we have with God, founded inside the new hearts given to us through the sacrifice of Christ, must pour out into physical expression. And from Genesis’ creation account to John’s revelation of eternity, songs of praise are a dominant external response for the people of God. This is why we are told over (Psalm 95) and over (Psalm 47) and over (Ephesians 5) in scripture to sing. Our praise is both proof and testimony of relationship with God. You betta tellll somebody!
To the gathering of His people, God embodies His heart. In the choir of worshipers, we embody our faith. Singing thus become a holy, joyful dialogue. God expresses Himself to us; we express ourselves to Him. And the more we participate, the thinner the line gets in communion with God. Colossians 3:16 adds that the words of Christ himself dwell in the songs of the church. When we sing, it’s as if Jesus sits beside us, relishing every note we bring to him.
That image has always encouraged me to join the congregation, especially when my song doesn’t want to come out. It’s so comforting! God doesn’t need my perfection. He doesn’t need me to hit all the notes or even clap on beat. God offers us His joy in a melody. All He really wants is for us to sing it.
(adapted from the hymn “‘How Can I Keep from Singing?,” by Robert Wadsworth Lowry.)
My life flows on in endless song / Above earth's lamentation
I hear your sweet, though far-off hymn / That hails a new creation
Through all the chaos and the strife / I hear your music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul / How can I keep from singing?
And though my joys and comforts die / I know my Savior lives
And though the darkness gathers round / I hear the song he gives
No storm can shake this inner calm / While to your hope I’m clinging
Since You are Lord of heaven and earth / How can I keep from singing?
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin / I see the blue above it
And day by day this pathway smooths / Since first I learned to love it
Your peace oh Christ makes fresh this heart / A fountain ever springing
All things are mine since I am yours / How can I keep from singing?
This post is going up on a Sunday morning. There’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in a gathering of believers somewhere today where singing figures prominently in the service. You might be sitting with friends or filed in quietly among strangers. Either situation carries pressure to embrace anonymity. Reject that temptation and embrace the promise of scripture. Do you want to see God today? Sing with his people. Joyfully. Freely. Loudly.