director leading orchestra and choir

Worship and Music

The following article was written as a combined effort of Dr. and Mrs. David Ledgerwood. 

The scene towers as a pinnacle over the broad vista of the Lord’s involvement with men on earth.

Thousands of years have elapsed since He first placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He has chosen His people. He has sent His Redeemer. He has brought to fruition the needed work of the death, burial, and resurrection of His Precious, Only Son. He has overseen and superintended every event of world history from the Flood, through the ancient civilizations, the Dark Ages, the Reformation, the modern wars, and on into the, as yet, unborn future. Somewhere in that future, this pinnacle moment occurs with the final restoration of Israel, a momentous event in the revealed will of the Lord: 

Music will be there.

Zephaniah 3:17 states, “The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, HE WILL JOY OVER THEE WITH SINGING.”

Some four thousand years ago there was another pinnacle point in the Lord’s dealings with Israel. It was His chosen time to record the Great Laws by which men could know the exquisite extent of His Holy Rule over them in the world:

Music was there.

In Exodus 32, Moses is jarred from his heavenly retreat with Jehovah and is admonished by Him to return immediately to the people, “who have turned quickly out of the way which I have commanded them…” Moses and Joshua approach the camp, “And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said unto Moses, ‘There is the noise of war in the camp.’ And he said, ‘It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome: BUT THE NOISE OF THEM THAT SING DO I HEAR.’”

Such is the breadth of influence of music. From the peak of Holiness and Perfection Himself singing with joy at the ultimate fulfillment of His will to the pit of His human creations lustily cavorting about their meager golden replacement for His Person; music captures, reveals, and expands the souls of men. 

The music in man reflects a constant tension of opposing purposes.  The singing Jehovah, in Whose image man was created, has gifted man with the language of music that he might likewise sing with joy at the fulfillment of the Lord’s will. In contrast, the fallen Angel of Light, the former music master for the heavenlies, has carried his influence and control of things musical to his new kingdom, the very world which we inhabit. Thus has been set in motion yet another aspect of the spiritual battle between the God of all worlds, and the god of this world. While our spirits yearn for music which will transport our transformed hearts to the Almighty; our self clamors for a sound that will justify its unchanged, unholy self before God and others.

At the heart of this battle is the area of worship. This chapter examines music and its relationship to biblical worship. To set music in its proper position with biblical worship, we will first examine the truths about worship which have been revealed to us in the Scriptures. After that foundation is laid, it will then be profitable to examine music’s place in the area of worship.

Definition of Worship

The Definition of Worship

Modern dictionary definitions supply those familiar impressionistic pictures of worship which are comfortably vague, understood in a hazy sense which defies specifics, but, which, nonetheless, leaves us with a reassuring aura: loyal devotion; reverent love and allegiance to a deity, idol, or sacred object; ardent, humble devotion. Scripture’s treatment of the word is far less esoteric and can be a great deal more disturbing.  In both the Hebrew and the Greek, the prevalent and predominant words used for worship are vivid, graphic pictures: to prostrate oneself, to fall flat on one’s face, to bow down, to kiss the hand (as in a dog licking the hand of his master). Bow down? Throw oneself prostrate and flat on one’s face? Grovel like a dog before his master? These scriptural images lead us to the conclusion that worship a personal response of abject submission.

Abject submission presumes a total capitulation of personal will and an equally total embracing of the master’s will. There is a clear repudiation of personal honor and entitlements, with an unreserved loyalty dedicated to the master’s will. There is no vision apart from that which would satisfy, delight, and see-successful the master’s will. A man worshipping the Lord would not only be marked by visible prostration (Rev 4:5,7,19), but his heart would be marked by gratefulness (Abraham’s servant), thanksgiving, giving of self and material goods, and separation from defilement (Joshua meeting the Captain of the Lord’s host).

Genuine submission of the will releases a freeing of the spirit that distinguishes worship from surrender to a conquering superior. Any dictator may conquer and subjugate the human will, and, yes, may even receive the outward trappings of “worship,” honor, and adoration. But deep within, the will fashions a fortress from the fiercest resolve to remain unconquered, sheltering a mutilated, though still intact, spirit. Only when the conqueror is viewed as a liberator, does the voluntary, welcome acquiescence of the will to the liberator free the spirit to soar with the adoration, praise, honor, gratefulness, and submission characteristic of worship.

Whom are we to worship? Scripture makes it very clear that the object of our worship is to be Jehovah and none else (Psalms 29:2, 95:6, 99:5, and 1 Chronicles 16: 29-30). In fact, Scripture makes it clear that ultimately all will worship Him (Isaiah 27: 13, 49:7, 66:23, Zephaniah 2:11, Zechariah 14:16-17, Psalms 22:27-29, 66:4, 86:9, Philippians 2: 9-11, and Revelation 15:4). A reading of the Old Testament shows that men in their unbelieving or apostate condition worship gods of their own making(Micah 3:13, Isaiah 2:8, 20; 44: 15-17; 46:6, Jeremiah 1:16; 25:6, Psalms 97:7, and 106:19), the sun, moon, stars and all the host of heaven, (2 Kings 17:16, 21: 3; 2 Chronicles 33:3; Zephaniah 1:5) and finally a confusing amalgamation of Jehovah being worshipped in conjunction with false, pagan gods.(Exodus 32:5,8; Jeremiah 7:2, 26:2; Ezekiel 8:16, Zephaniah 1:5; and 2 Kings 17:32-33).  

What are God’s thoughts concerning false or contaminated worship? God Himself declares that He is jealous of any worship not directed towards Him (Exodus 34:11-17, Deuteronomy 4: 14-20, 11:16, 34:11-17; Psalms 81:9). He issues stern warnings of judgment to His children for any sort of false worship (Deuteronomy 8:19, 11:16, 30:17; 1 Kings 9:6, 22:53; 2 Kings 17:16; 2 Chronicles 7:22; Jeremiah 16:11; Zephaniah 1:5; Psalms 97:7; Acts 7:43; Revelation 13:8, 14:9,11 and 19:20). He condemns any co-existence of worship of Himself with any heathen practices or deities (Exodus 34:11-17; Deuteronomy 4:14-20; Deuteronomy 17:3 and 2 Kings 17).

What are the occasions of worship? Many of the most touching portrayals of genuine worship are defined by grateful, humble submission to the providence and/or revealed will of the Lord. Scripture presents “bowing oneself before” as the response of numerous godly men and women for His providence toward them. Abraham (Genesis 22:5), Eleazar (Genesis 24: 26 and 52), the Israelites (Exodus 4:31, and 33:10), Joshua (Joshua 5:14), Gideon (Judges 7:15), Elkanah and Hannah (1 Samuel 1:19), Eli (1 Samuel 1:28) and David (I Chronicles 29:20), the Wisemen (Matthew 2:2,11), the disciples (Matthew 14:33), the women at the tomb (Matthew 28:9), the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:27) and Lydia (Acts 16:14) all bowed down before the Lord. Even in the face of tragedy, Scripture records worship as the response of godly men toward their God. David worships after the death of his child by Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:20 and again when he is fleeing Jerusalem at the rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 15:32). Job’s response to the Lord in the face of his God-allowed, Satan-inspired tragedies (Job 1:20) is one of worship.

 A final component of worship presented in Scripture, and one of great significance, is the character or environment in which the Lord wishes biblical worship to be embodied. Three times (1 Chronicles 16: 29-30, Psalms 29:2, and Psalms 96:9), the Holy Spirit teaches that we are to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Genuine worship is to be encapsulated in holiness. That which is holy before the Lord is to define, refine, and confine our expressions of worship. While we would not want to prioritize the attributes of God from merely human whim, Scripture gives indications that there is something “extra-special” about the holiness of God. It is His holiness that is sung about around the throne of heaven. It is the declaration of Himself that He is holy, and He calls believers to be as He is – holy. Only when we approach the ground of holiness can there be absolutely no comparisons with anything in the human sphere. 

There is none holy, except the Lord. He is not the ultimate example of holiness; He is the only example of holiness. His holiness defines all the other aspects of His glorious character.  In holiness, He is not just beyond, He is alone, unique. Not unparalleled, nor an apex, but solitary. Because this grand attribute cuts to the essence of His Being, it is only natural that His Scriptures should present holiness as “beautiful,” and that we should be instructed to have our worship be presented on those terms. To approach on the basis of His holiness strips us of our presumption of what we assume He will or will not accept, like, tolerate, or acknowledge. Instead, we must come prostrate, wanting that He would enlighten us as to what His desires would be and yearning to fulfill those very wishes.

Insights on Worship

Several passages provide examples. Worship joins circumcision, sacrifice, physical appearances, and religious words as outward ceremonies and indicators that are meaningless in the Lord’s eyes without the internal prerequisites of the heart with which the Lord is primarily concerned. Saul requests a quick-fix return to the status quo after his disobedient sacrifice by wanting Samuel to turn again and worship with him before the leaders of Israel (1 Samuel 15: 25,30). Putting appearances of unity before the obedience which would nurture genuine unity is a clear indication that he has demonstrated no genuine submission to the Lord (and thus no genuine worship), making the subsequent sacrifice nothing more than religious- political showmanship, not an act of worship.

Two other passages shed light on the area of mixed worship, which is particularly compelling in the modern-day struggle to promote integrity in the worship of the True God. In 2 Kings 17:24-36 the Assyrian king populates the desolated land of Israel with Babylonians and other tribal peoples. Because the heathen were now on “God’s property,” and did not demonstrate a fear of Him, God sent lions to torment the settlers, resulting in the slaying of several of them. The king’s solution was to provide Samaritan priests to instruct the immigrants as to the ways of the God of the land. The result? A bizarre conglomeration of the men making gods of their own and putting them into the worship centers (high places) that the Samaritans had made. Verse 32 informs us that these various groups now all “feared the Lord, and also made unto themselves of the lowest of them priests of the high places for them in the houses of the high places.” In one of the most revealing statements of scripture, verse 33 says, “They feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence.” The inclusion of some truth, a calling of God by the right name, and some genuine measure of fear of the Lord did not change the unacceptability of the worship ceremonies. Verses 34-36 are forthright that the mixture was totally unacceptable to the Lord. He calls again for a focused fear of Himself, a wholehearted worship to be given to Himself, sacrifices offered solely to Himself, and a complete adherence to His laws; all undiluted by attentions given to any other gods. 

Several observations bear consideration. First, the Assyrians found themselves on a new playing field when they settled in Israel. Israel was to be consecrated to the Lord, not because the Israelites initiated such a belief or standard, but because God Himself declared it to be so. Even when the Israelites were evicted from the land, the Lord still maintained His standards there—to the detriment of the new settlers facing roving lions. The pagan’s first response was to learn what would appease the “god of the land,” so that in typical pagan fashion, this new god’s capricious tendencies could be addressed. There is no questioning or complaining about the right of the “god of the land” to have some expectations on how he should be handled; and there is no resistance that the “god of the land” ought to have some sort of worshipful acknowledgment. 

The pagans recognized that all gods have an acceptable way to be approached. Those same gods would make bad things happen to you when you did not do what they wanted; therefore, it was worth your while to instruct and to submit to the idiosyncrasies of any god which expected appeasement.

Enter the Samaritan priests to instruct the immigrants to Israel. We recognize that the Samaritans missed the mark of biblical worship, so from our vantage point, the instructors were themselves flawed on some of the significant expectations that the “god of the land” had. The Samaritans had already determined that God did not “mind” them worshiping at sites other than Jerusalem with priests other than the officially designated Levites. The history of Israel reveals a ready acceptance of the habits and rituals which pagan nations had adopted to satisfy their pagan needs for worship. Israel’s kings led in the adoption and propagation of these ecumenical and culturally acceptable practices until the Lord became “very angry with Israel, and removed them out of his sight” (2 Kings 17: 18). Most of chapter seventeen of II Kings is a recital of the abuses of the worship practices espoused by Israel; practices which were decidedly not docilely accepted by the Lord as sincere offerings of well-intended hearts. They were so soundly condemned, in fact, that the Israelites found themselves removed from His sight and “carried away out of their own land to Assyria unto this day.”

It is significant that the teaching of the Samaritan priests was not definitive enough to turn the pagans from false gods to the One True God. Though they could relate some truth, their own twist about what God was looking for from man (and what He would “accept” as worship) would only allow for a nebulous “fear of the Lord” to be added to the still pagan lives of the settlers. Is it not even more significant that the Lord did not view this enlightened addition to the pagan’s worship routine as “spiritual progress” or a “step in the right direction?” His declaration was not that this was a positive sign of genuine spiritual growth. Rather, it was declared to be yet another corruption and perversion of His specific expectation of exclusive homage from His creations and was condemned as such.

In a similar tone, Ezekiel 8:16-17 condemns the practice of bowing toward the east and worshipping the sun in the inner court of the temple as the epitome of a string of abominations that have been revealed to the prophet in chapter eight. The Lord promises to deal “ in fury” because of such commingling of that which is right with what ought to be understood as wrong in approaching the Lord. 

To design worship which reflects holiness places a watchful guard on our spirits which rejects formalistic liturgy, poignant, sentimental emotionalism; base, sensual fleshly presumption, intellectual meanderings, trite clichés and traditions; and professional showmanship all in one sweeping stroke of condemnation as unworthy to the expectations of the Unique Holy One. These carry weighty implications for every aspect of what we consider to be part of private and corporate worship, but we will limit ourselves to those that pertain specifically to music

The Role of Music in Worship

Historically, music has been entwined with worship in every culture, from ancient Greeks to current third-world tribes to churches of every kind and stripe of doctrine. The use of music in the times of Israel’s temple worship is well documented. However, does worship require music? Admittedly, no, for obedient, humble submission of the will has never required music in order for such submission to occur, as those worshipping in Scripture demonstrate over and over again. If Biblical worship is not dependent on music for its existence or its expression, does music often occur in conjunction with worship? Decidedly, yes. Why? Because genuine submission of the will releases such a freeing of the spirit heavenward that even the most glorious oratory seems woefully inadequate to express the explosion of spirit-contentment when, finally, man is doing that for which he was created: glorifying God. It is not the music that is ultimately doing the glorifying, but the spirit which has been freed to match the expectations of God and is delighting in doing so. The music allows the earth-bound me (or the corporate body) to share in one of the invisibilities of the spiritual realm.

 With music so entwined with worship throughout history, what would be the appropriate uses and benefits of the use of music in worship?

1. It allows us an outlet for a proper emotional response to truth. Music can be the vehicle to express the freedom of soul that occurs when our will is brought into subjection to His will. The music can bring to mind words that are scripturally based and remind us of aspects of the character of God. Power and intensity occur when people sing after the Lord has worked in their lives. My experience of ministering music at preachers’ meetings convinces me of the difference of their singing in comparison to the average Sunday morning service. Those men sing with a conviction of soul and all of the emotional framework that accompanies that conviction.

2. Music can serve to heighten the truths of scripture and scripturally based texts. A skilled musician can put various musical devices to use in making you, the participant, or the listener, focus on certain words, ideas, or emotions. The music in that way directs your mind in a scriptural way.  

3. In Colossians 3:16, we are instructed to teach and admonish with our music. Music should be used in order to bring certain truths to bear on the congregation. The music should have such power that unsaved people are brought under conviction. This power is not musical power, although that is certainly a part of it. This power comes from the Holy Spirit as he works in the lives of His children.

4. It follows then, that if worship is abject submission, then corporate worship is corporate abject submission. Music serves as a unifying tool to get everyone to think in the same direction at the same time. Everyone gives up his/her personal will, everyone accepts the master’s will, everyone denies private honor and entitlements, and declares loyalty to the same master. Such genuine corporate worship is surely a rare event in the very best of circles.

Can music substitute for genuine worship? Unfortunately, yes. From our human perception, the release of the freed spirit as the result of a submitted will (which, again, is not a musical experience) can be supported by music and enhanced by music. But music can also soar and charge, contemplate and meditate, reflect and prick various components of the human psyche, soul, temperament, and emotions without the human will capitulating to anything biblical. Music can easily accompany the release of the spirit to many unworthy recipients of our worship. It is even possible to capitulate to nothing other than the music itself (in a twisted way, having the music become what is “worshipped”). I believe that if our music has been dictated by the prevailing “pop” culture, that our attraction is to the music rather than the text, and in that sense, we worship the musical sound rather than glorying in the message.

Worship has a strong emotional component, which is why music is such a close companion with worship ceremonies. Biblical worship also has a strong verbal component. Over and over again in the scriptures, the worship was accompanied by verbal prayer, verbal praise of the Lord, verbal communication with the Lord. This and the edification ministry that music is to have amongst believers are the reasons for the strong stand that biblical musicians have had for right music to be textually strong, and thoughtfully arranged on the basis of that text. Traditionally, texts came from a large cross-section of the body of believers. Church leadership, pastors, laymen, women, and even children, all recorded the results of their meditations with the Lord in the form of poems, written prayers, and poignant thoughts. The intention was not to “write a new song”, but to express the reveling of a personal heart after it had met with the Eternal God and had been changed by its surrender to Him and His Will.

The shallowness of our personal commune with the Lord has left us with few who write at all, for their own personal meditation. Of the few who write, many of those are simply enraptured with the ability to control the written word (not unlike the musician who is enraptured with the ability to control sound) and the arranging is not a spiritual pursuit, but an aesthetic academic puzzle to be worked through. Rather than having a tremendous wealth of material to select from a vast array of right-hearted believers, we depend on a handful of professional musicians to provide a steady stream of fresh texts automatically wedded to new songs.

Another failing which must not escape the notice of anyone desiring to nurture right music is the fact that we are now into our third generation of people who have had little, if any incentive, to develop musically. Society at large has left the music for their entertainment to a small percentage of the total population; recordings allow their lives to be full of music even though they themselves can produce nothing. To the great detriment of the church, we have been guilty of following the world in this regard. 

Even in the face of Scripture’s clear admonitions that our meditations be as songs in our hearts, we have not encouraged, trained, nurtured, or developed the singing of God’s people, much less the development of instrumental training, or choral or instrumental writing. Likewise, we have churches full of individuals who have lives full of recorded music but who never sing themselves. The public school music program was begun originally by churchmen despairing of the lack of musical training in their congregations and looked to that end to provide training that would then be used for good purposes in the church. It is not the mission of the believing assemblies to train musicians, but it is a responsibility of church leadership to fit the believers for service, and within that context, there is much that our churches can do to assure that believers can and do sing and make melody unto the Lord.

 The Summation from Scripture

The contrasts between Biblical worship and contaminated worship are clear and concise. Biblical worship is always directed toward Jehovah. Contaminated worship is directed anywhere else or toward anyone or anything else. This makes Biblical worship very exclusive. Biblical worship is the voluntary capitulation of the will to specific commands of the Lord which precipitates a soaring release of the spirit. Contaminated worship releases the spirit to fulfill the expectations and desires of anyone or anything else. Again, this limits Biblical worship. Biblical worship is strained through the sieve of holiness. Contaminated worship is worship that has been filtered on any other basis.                    

It is my opinion that the battle of our day is concerning the mixture of Jehovah’s worship with the music and practices of unbelievers. There has been a defection from the ranks in this area of music/worship. Even in the music of conservative churches, our music has lost its heart because we believe that we can sing or play spiritual music without the power of a consecrated life. We have substituted musical excitement for spiritual vitality. Our texts have eliminated or minimized sin, righteousness, and judgment and have reduced the person of Christ to the level of a “human buddy.” Our own glory has taken precedence over the glory of Him who called us out of darkness. We have attempted to market the eternal truths of God as one sells a bag of potato chips. We desperately need a revival in our churches that we might worship Jehovah, the God of heaven, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords in a manner commensurate with his glorious majesty.