RICHARD D. DINWIDDIERichard D. Dinwiddie is music director and conductor of The Chicago Master Chorale, and visiting professor of church music at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois.

How can our music harmonize with the music of the spheres?

God is not tone deaf. A perfect God must have truly “perfect pitch”—no variance of intonation ever escapes him.

He knows, for instance, whether or not the church’s sanctuary piano or organ is in tune and how close the soloist really is to the melody. All too often I can imagine him raising a divine finger before an errant singer and pleading, “G-sharp! His ear is better than the finest conductor’s. He understands fully the most sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic structures, and he hears whether or not our performances have stylistic integrity, appropriate phrasing, the right tonal color, correct tempos, and proper dynamics.

Our limited insights cannot possibly approach the musical understanding of the Master Musician. Yet, on any given Sunday, our practices show that we apparently assume we have unlimited freedom to indulge personal musical prejudices in the service of God without serious reference to his views—as if what he may have to say about music could not be important.

The results of this misconception have been far reaching and disastrous—in ministries and in individual lives.

Ministry must always be rooted in the Word of God, and the ministry of music is no exception. A proper theology of church music is centered in God, not man, and God is intensely interested in the music of his creation—especially that which is used to worship him. He has much to say on the subject, and when we understand his views more clearly we are able to use music in ways that are more effective, biblical, and acceptable to him. Then we can direct our music ministries in confidence, knowing what is expected, and we will not waste time needlessly “rethinking our position” whenever a new style or idiom appears.

God’S Musicianship Is Comprehensive

God is a performing artist. Each member of the Trinity sings.

God the Father sings, says the prophet Zephaniah: he will sing for joy over the restoration of his people (Zeph. 3:14–17). The redemption of man is a reason for God to make music, and the parable of the Prodigal Son strongly suggests that the Father actively participates in the rejoicing in heaven over the returning sinner.

God the Son sings. He probably sang on earth when he read the Scriptures in the synagogue, for it was the custom to chant the Scriptures when reading them in public. He sang at the institution of the Lord’s Supper: after they sang a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30).

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Jesus Christ is also singing today. When he is in the midst of those who come together in his name, he is not merely an uninvolved observer—he actively participates. Hebrews 2:10–12 explicitly states that in our presence, he sings praises to God. He is with the choir in its rehearsal as well as its performance, and he is with the congregation when it sings. If we were actually to realize that Christ not only listens to us but sings with us as well, we would see rehearsal as a spiritual activity in its own right. And we would place greater importance on our congregational music. We might act differently if we really believed that he was present in our rehearsals.

God the Spirit sings. We are to make melody in our hearts to the Lord, says Ephesians 5:18. The Spirit enables us to sing with grace in our hearts, and he, too, sings with us when we sing, helping us to sing acceptably to God with our inner voice. Singing and making music in our hearts to the Lord is a result of being filled with the Spirit of God.

God Is A Hymnwriter

God is the author of the biblical hymnal, the Psalter, as well as of numerous other psalms and hymns scattered throughout Scripture. The broad range of content and setting of these hymns indicates how pervasive music is in the Christian life and how important it is in our worship.

The psalms contain many musical references, and they describe performance that involves not only the voice, but also the complete range of orchestral instruments—Psalm 150 is a dramatic example. The Psalter was meant to be sung, not just recited or silently verbalized. Also, the psalm headings carry many instructions for musical performance. When Christ accepted the canonicity of the Jewish Old Testament Scriptures, he accepted these headings as authentic.

Since the Bible records only the words, not the music, the importance of what we sing is emphasized. God also places a high priority on singing his Word, the hymns he has given us. Paul twice lists the psalms first when he comments about a balanced, full-ranging music repertoire in Christian worship (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:18). Yet the average congregation’s repertoire today minimizes scriptural settings. We should remember that along with our new songs, we will continue to sing Scripture in heaven (Rev. 15:3).

The hymns in Scripture should be models for our own writing. We are obligated both to express a living faith in our new songs and to keep alive the heritage entrusted to us, often at great cost. Ignorance of this heritage robs us, then our people, and finally God of some of our richest expressions of Christian belief and experience.

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In recording only the words, the Bible gives us great freedom in using our individual talents to create music in a wide range of styles. Had melodies also been included in Scripture, people might contend these were the only ones acceptable for use in worship, or that they were of greater spiritual worth than anything written since then. But if that were the case, we would find ourselves restricted to music characterized by a middle-Eastern type of Oriental chant and folk melody, and we would be deprived of musical styles developed through centuries and varied cultures. The greatest musical expressions of our faith, the treasures of J. S. Bach—probably the greatest musician since King David—would be even more hidden from many people than they already are.

Merely using Scripture as a text, however, does not automatically give artistic value to a piece of music. The music must be as good as we can make it. Just as a fine painting can be hung in a wretched frame and displayed in a tawdry setting, so also great texts can be set to shoddy and inconsequential music. The most effective music weds Scripture to the finest music our talent can offer God.

God Is The Perfect Music Critic

It is a rare music critic whose opinions are respected by discriminating artists. But God’s musical discernment far exceeds our limited taste. His opinions are unerring and deserve our attention. He distinguishes excellence from mediocrity. Time and again the Bible notes that musicians were selected for ministry because they were skillful, trained, and willing (1 Chron. 25:7). Mediocrity never is spiritual. God knows when a performance is diligently prepared or carelessly “thrown together”; he notices every detail, and nothing escapes him. He knows when the music has something of value to say, and he knows when it reveals the creative impoverishment of the author, composer, performer, or all three. That he not only accepts, but even desires, our imperfect sacrifices of praise is a wonder of his love and grace. We abuse his generosity when we presume that anything we bring to him, regardless of its condition, must be received with gratitude—or assume that he can like only what we like.

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One of the marks of a good and faithful servant is that he performs his service with excellence. We can never go beyond the call of duty (Luke 17:10). Of all musicians, the Christian artist has the greatest obligation to manifest the highest degree of excellence possible, both in repertoire and in performance. We should intensely desire God’s applause, his commending “Well done,” his “Bravo!”

God Is The Expert Acoustician

God built the very possibility of music into his creation and into us (John 1:3), for music and acoustics were part of the perfect creation that he proclaimed “very good.” He created the varying acoustical properties of the materials from which we make musical instruments. The laws of acoustics also apply to our bodies, and God makes it possible for us to enjoy music as well as make it. We internally transform physical wave forms into aural sound, and we produce sounds with our voices according to these same acoustical laws.

Music in nature, too, is part of his creation. The science of bioacoustics has discovered that natural music is far more comprehensive and complex than the existence of a few-score bird songs. The discovery that the humpbacked whale sings made that creature into something of a recording artist! New research into infrasonic sound has broadened our awareness of a far greater musical spectrum in God’s universe than we had suspected, yet we still have much to learn about music in nature. Some of what we currently believe needs to be corrected—such as the persistent myth that all creation sings in a minor key because of the Fall. The truth is that what we know as major tonality seems to occur in nature as frequently as any other scale system.

Without the laws of acoustics we would not have the freedom to create music. Nothing would be orderly or predictable; we would have only sonic chaos. Music is in part a mathematical science—at one time, it was considered more science than art. The harmonic series we find in nature and that lies at the base of the laws of acoustics follows a mathematical logic and consistency.

The properties of sound can extend beyond music, however, and they can easily be abused. High frequency, ultrasonic sound is used without water or detergent to clean materials. If sufficiently concentrated, somewhat like a laser beam, this sound can be destructive. For example, a ball of cotton placed in the path of such a high-energy sonic beam will ignite, and an insect will disintegrate.

High-decibel-level sound can cause psychological disorientation and make it impossible to think logically. It can produce severe pain. If prolonged long enough, it can cause permanent hearing loss. Rock music studio engineers tell me they have suffered permanent hearing impairment because of overexposure to high-decibel sound. If we believe our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we will consider seriously our spiritual obligation to protect ourselves from harmful sound.

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God Accompanies His Work With Music

God frequently surrounds his activities with meaningful music when he is at work. For example, Job 38:4, 6–7 suggests there was music making during Creation. Some scholars suggest the “morning stars” of this passage were in reality special angels. Can we really presume that music did not enter the universe until the creation of man, or that only the saints in heaven make music even now? Scripture makes it clear that praising God with music is not restricted to mankind.

Music played a major role in the events surrounding the Incarnation—the Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46–55), the Benedictus of Zechariah (Luke 1:67–79), the Gloria of the angels (Luke 2:14), and the Nunc dimittis of Simeon (Luke 2:29–32). Although Luke 2:14 refers to the angelic host “saying” its song, this is not proof that it was not sung; Scripture frequently refers to singing as a form of speech. David “says” the words of a song he sings to the Lord in 2 Samuel 22, and in the account of the performance of the song recorded in Revelation 5:9–10, “they sang a new song, saying.…” The word used for saying in Luke 2 and Revelation 5 stresses the content of what is sung rather than the manner of performance. Revelation 5:13 emphasizes in the strongest possible language that all of creation, not just mankind, will sing praise to God.

Music also will accompany the events of the Second Advent. For example, the trumpet of God will sound at the resurrection of the saints (1 Cor. 15:52). There are frequent accounts of singing as part of the worship in heaven (Rev. 4:9–11; 5:7–14. 7:9–12; 11:15–18; 15:1–4). Preaching and evangelism will cease in heaven (1 Cor. 13:8), but music will go on.

God Is The Ultimate Minister Of Music

God personally ordained the details of the Old Testament ministry of music. David confirmed this when he told Solomon, “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he gave me understanding in all the details of the plan” (1 Chron. 28:19, NIV).

Music had a prominent role in the ministry. Since Israel was a militaristic state, it is significant that the chief of state, David, together with the commanders of the army—the joint chiefs of staff, if you will—chose individuals who were set aside for the ministry of music. It was important enough to take the attention of the leaders, not only in establishing the ministry, but also in maintaining its operation, for these men reported directly to the king (1 Chron. 25:6). David thus became the “prime minister of music.” The choir was part of the army, and sometimes even preceded the army when it went out to battle—a rather drastic way to take care of a problem choir member!

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Music was important because it was a priestly ministry. Those chosen were from the Levitical tribe and treated like the other priests, with the same spiritual requirements and the same privileges. Excellence in musicianship was a prerequisite for participation. God placed a premium on disciplined ability combined with a dedicated heart. Those who passed the auditions for the temple (there had to be some way of knowing which ones were skilled) were “trained and skilled in music for the Lord” (1 Chron. 25:7). Kenaniah was chosen to conduct the choir because “he was skillful at it” (1 Chron. 15:22, NIV).

The principles of this ministry continued for generations. When the temple was purified under King Hezekiah, according to the command of the Lord, it involved the reestablishment of the ministry of music as it was set forth under David (2 Chron. 29:25–28). When the temple worship was again reestablished under Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 12:45–47), it was done according to the commands of David—according to what the Lord God commanded.

God Is The Source Of The Musical Gift

Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). When Paul lists the gifts to build up the church, the first one is musical: a hymn (1 Cor. 14:26).

It is God who gives us the songs we sing, from the songs in the night (Job 35:10) to the new song that is praise to him (Ps. 40:3).

God also commands us to use the gift of music to praise him: “Come before his presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2) is only one of many such commands. According to Psalm 150, we are to use all of our resources in this musical praise. This psalm also reinforces the theme that all creation is to praise him.

The gift of music is to be used in specific ways, with our first responsibility being to glorify God. The seventeenth-century English musician, John Playford, acknowledged this when he said, “The first and chief use of music is for the service and praise of God, whose gift it is.”

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God examines the excellence of our motivation as well as of our offering. The most beautiful music in the world is unacceptable to him if our hearts do not echo the words we sing with our lips (Matt. 15:8). It can be a choice offering—thrilling, even—but God may refuse to listen (Amos 5:21–23): he is displeased when we misuse the sacred function. By contrast, when everything is done right, he responds positively. At the dedication of the temple, when all was done properly and executed with excellence, the glory of the Lord filled the house (2 Chron. 5:14).

When we assume that quality is either all-sufficient or immaterial, we have a deficient view of God. Our obligation is to meet the requirements of our art in the best way we can to glorify God better. Unlike the artist who serves the art, we serve the God of the art. Therefore, of all people, we should be motivated to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to manifest excellence—to honor him before others, to please him, and to reflect the fact of our creation in the image of the Creator. It is only as we give back to the Giver the gift he freely gave to us that we can freely use it. What is difficult for the artist to accept—and what is abused by the undisciplined amateur as an excuse for inadequate preparation—is that when motivation is given priority over performance, it does not diminish in the least the obligations of excellence in performance. We are never exempt from doing our best for the glory of God.

A biblical view of God’s musical nature can transform the ministry of music in the local church and its role in the life of the individual. The music resumes its rightful place. No longer is it merely a service “preliminary,” but it stands as a valid ministry of the Word in its own right. Whoever is responsible for the music in the church—musician, pastor, or committee—will strive to make sure the content of the music as well as the music itself will always contribute to this biblical purpose.

It is then that we are released from the tyranny of self-satisfaction and commercial exploitation—both of ourselves and of others—and of ecclesiastical competition and marketing. We are more concerned to please God than to gratify the congregation, though we do not ignore their emotional needs. Rather, we are even more motivated to bring them into the musical worship. We are freed from the “bottom line” mentality that is more concerned with a program’s expense than its spiritual effectiveness. We are also freed from pressures to squander our limited resources of personnel, time, and finances on fifth-rate trivia, and we are liberated to commit ourselves and our people to a ministry that will be of such substance and so full of truth—both textual and musical—that it will help us in our spiritual objective of steadily maturing into the image of Christ.

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Thus motivated, we will gladly and willingly spend the time, effort, and emotion to prepare our selves, our singers, and our players. We will know that we sing and play to a God who himself is a consummate musician, who fully appreciates what we are doing. He is not indifferent; he cares and he responds. He appreciates good music, and he enjoys an excellent performance truly dedicated to him.

We also will treat our musical gift with greater respect, whether we have it in abundance, or just enough to negotiate a simple tune in a barely recognizable form. We will enjoy more fully the offerings of praise given on our behalf and the music that communicates God’s truth to us in extraordinary, extradimensional ways.

Finally, we will hold our churches accountable in the ministry of music, demanding that it be worthy of our God and a worthwhile investment of our preparation, performance—even of our listening time. We will see disciplined preparation as an act filled with spiritual significance.

We want an awareness of God’s glory filling his house. It is a combination of our heart being righteously devoted and our art being rigorously disciplined. In a letter to J. A. Stumpf, Beethoven said, “What is to reach the heart must come from above; if it does not come from thence, it will be nothing but notes, body without spirit.”

With a biblical view of God as the Master Musician, we will mature even further as Christians, more fully developing the aesthetic side of our being, an aspect of ourselves that is a reflection of the Infinite Artist, the God who sings.

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