How Singing Forms Us
Most Christians recognize that singing in worship help us to express the affections of our hearts in response to God’s character and works, which brings him great glory he deserves, and that this kind of expression in public is a great witness to the unbelieving world.
But there is a second reason that we sing that I believe is often forgotten, overlooked, or ignored, and we see it clearly in Psalm 96.
1 Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! 2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! 4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. 6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! 8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! 9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.
Notice the development of thought through this psalm. The psalm progresses from God’s people singing among the nations in the first stanza to all the families of the earth ascribing him glory in the second stanza. Is that a present reality? Are all the peoples of the earth currently praising God? Certainly not.
In fact, it is even more surprising considering the special focus on the people of Israel in the Old Testament, the original audience of this psalm. For David to address all the families of the people instead of just one family—children of Abraham—seems odd. Until we remember that although God chose Abraham and his descendants as his special, chosen people, he also promised to Abraham that through that one family, God would bless all the families of the earth. The Old Testament is filled with prophecies indicating that one day all the nations will come to worship God.
Yet even now that hasn’t happened. God’s focus in this ages has spread beyond just Israel to the Gentiles, but even now all the families of the peoples are not praising God, they are not all being blessed.
So when will that happen?
Before we answer that question, consider how David further develops the psalm in the third stanza. He has moved from Israel praising God among the nations in stanza one to all the nations praising God in stanza two; where does he move from there in stanza three?
Look at verse 11:
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord.
This is not just Israel praising the Lord, or even all the nations of the earth; this is the earth itself praising God! Is that happening now?
Well, there is a sense in which even now the heavens and earth are displaying the glory of God and magnifying his greatness in that way. But the heavens are not glad; the earth is not rejoicing; the fields are not exulting; the forests are not singing for joy before the Lord. Scripture tells us that Creation is groaning as a result of the curse.
Like the reality of all the families of the people praising God, all the heavens and the earth praising God is something that is yet to come. So when will these things take place?
Well, keep reading in verse 13: “for he comes.” In other words, the gladness of the heavens, the rejoicing of the earth, the roaring of the sea, the exulting of the field, and the singing of the trees are in response to the coming of the Lord. When does that happen?
Keep reading: “for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.” For David and the Hebrews signing Psalm 96, any sort of coming the Lord was entirely future, and yet here they are singing in a sense as if it had already happened. A good hymn, like this psalm, expresses affections to the Lord in response to who God is and what he has done, and yet here, they are responding to something that hasn’t happened yet.
Even for us, who live on this side of the first coming of Christ into the world, the coming described here at the end of Psalm 96 is the second coming of Christ; it is yet future—Christ did not judge the world when he came the first time; that will happen when he comes again.
In other words, the reality of all the families of the peoples ascribing glory to the Lord is future, and the reality of all of creation praising the Lord is future; these things will not come to pass until the Lord comes again to judge the world, which again, is future.
Now, it makes sense to sing in response to things that God has done in the past—God made the heavens; he saved us; it makes sense to sing in response to those realities. And it makes sense to sing in response to present realities—God is great, he is majestic, he is glorious and strong, he is righteous and faithful; it makes sense to respond to those things.
But why would we respond to things that have not yet taken place as if they have already happened, as this psalm does?
The answer to that question reveals the second reason we sing in worship. The first reason we sing is expression—our hearts respond to past and present realities about God’s nature and works, and singing gives us voice to express our hearts toward God in response.
But the second reason we sing, which is highlighted when we respond to something that has not yet taken place, is that singing forms us. In other words, when we sing in response to something that has not yet happened, we are in a sense acting out that future reality and, in so doing, we are formed by it.
You see, response to something implies that you have experienced it. The experience usually comes first, that experience forms us, and then out of what has been formed in us through the experience, we respond.
For example, I remember watching the horrors of 9/11 unfold as they were happening that day. I experienced them. That experience shaped me; it shaped my feelings about this country; it shaped my feelings about rescue personnel; it shaped my feelings about terrorists. And now I respond toward all of those things in certain ways as a result of my experience.
But how can we respond to something we have not yet experienced? We have not yet experienced all the nations ascribing glory to the Lord, or all the earth singing for joy, or the Lord coming to judge the earth. How can David expect us to respond to those things?
This is actually one of the great powers of art. Art, like a song, is a way of creating an experience that we have not actually experienced so that we can be formed as if we have experienced it.
For example, not one of us has journeyed through Middle Earth, battled orcs, resisted the power of the One Ring, or defeated Sauron. But in reading The Lord of the Rings, we can experience those things as if we had done them ourselves, and thus be formed by experiences that have never actually been realities for us.
This is the power of all art—literature, drama, painting, poetry, and song—they don’t just allow us to express what we have already personally experienced, they also shape our responses through portraying powerfully formative realities that we have not actually experienced for ourselves.
This is why we would sing a poem about a future reality, singing it as if it is happening right now. By singing about all the families of the people praising God and all of creation praising God and the Lord coming to judge the earth in righteousness and faithfulness, our hearts are shaped as if we are really experiencing those realities right now. It is more than just an expression of hope that these things will indeed happen; through art, we are making the future momentarily present such that it can form us.
This is actually true for past and even present realities as well. Israel at the time of David hadn’t experienced for themselves the Exodus, for example. And yet there are many psalms that artistically recreate the Exodus so that as people sang of that experience, they could be shaped by it as if they had been there. None of us experienced any of the events of Israel’s history, but by singing an artistic representation of them, we can be shaped by them. This is why we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” even though he rose from the dead over 2,000 years ago. By singing it as if it happened today, we are making a past reality momentarily present so that it can shape us once again.
This is also why good songs don’t just express things like joy, praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, they also recount the reasons for those responses, because by also singing the reasons, we are further formed by them as we experience them over and over again through the art.
You see, today Christians often recognize the expressive power of singing in worship. We know that songs give us a way to express our hearts to God.
But Christians often fail to recognize the formative power of song. Songs both express and form, and so we need to be careful to discern both what a song is expressing to determine whether what it expresses is accurate and faithful to Scripture, and we must discern how a song forms our expressions to determine whether how it forms us is also faithful to Scripture. We choose songs to sing in our corporate worship not just because they give us good ways to express what is already in our hearts; we choose good songs that form our expressions, maturing them, growing them, and expanding them in ways that would not necessarily happen naturally.
That is what this psalm is doing, what all good songs do: We are singing about past, present, and future realities such that they all become present through the art, shaping our hearts to respond with affections to the Lord that are appropriate for those realities.