One of the favorite scriptural justifications for singing new songs in the assembly is the repeated exhortation, particularly in the Psalms, to “Sing to the LORD a new song!” Old Testament/New Testament context aside, is that what this expression is really about? Singing brand-new songs to God?
Sort of, but not necessarily.
It is true that all songs were new once. So in order for a song to become an “old standard,” it must first be a new song that no one knows. If you were to have said, “Amazing grace,” back in the 1600s, you might have gotten a “verily” or two in response, not, “How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” But yet, here in the 21st-century, that sequence of words has become a cliche that appears in about every third song on Christian radio.
It is also true that God’s people in the Old Testament frequently created new songs. We have the song of Moses in Exodus 15 and the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5, to say nothing of the 150 written by David and others.
But is the singing of a new song primarily about the newness of the lyrics? I don’t think so. If we look at the context of all these exhortations, they come in connection with things that God has done or that God is. The examples of Moses and Deborah/Barak were responses to something great God had done for His people. The singing of a new song is about renewing our praises in light of the great things God has done in our lives.
Consider Jeremiah’s words in Lamentations 3.22–23:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
God’s mercies and love are “new every morning.” And just as those things are new every morning, so should our song be. Our song of praise to God should be informed by all the great things that God has done, whether we use new words to express our praise or we consider the same words in a new light.
This, I think, gets to the heart (pardon the pun) of “making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph 5.19). This is what it means to sing “with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col 3.16). We aren’t just singing words, but an expression of praise and thankfulness for all that we have overcome with God.
Sometimes we do this with new lyrics. I’ve written one or two hymns in reflection upon a new circumstance in life. Horatio Spafford is famous for writing “It Is Well with My Soul” in the wake of personal tragedy. More often, though, we sing a new song by singing old lyrics with that new-found meaning. “Does Jesus care when I’ve said goodbye to the dearest on earth to me?” and the response of “Oh yes, He cares! I know He cares!” means something new when we’ve just buried the dearest on earth to us and have relied on God’s comfort to endure it. “Each victory will help you some other to win” means something new when we overcome temptation with God’s help.
One of my go-to songs to lead before the sermon is “I Love to Tell the Story.” Consider the last quatrain of the last verse:
And when, in scenes of glory,
I sing the new, new song,
‘Twill be the old, old story
That I have loved so long.
The new song here refers to the book of Revelation, when in chapters 5 and 14 John refers to the singing of a new song. Assuming (and we have little reason not to) these chapters refer to the same new song, we are told in chapter 14 that only the redeemed could learn it, but we are given the words in chapter 5. So couldn’t someone not redeemed learn it?
Depends upon what you mean by learning. Learn the words, sure. But only the redeemed can sing the song in full appreciation of its meaning. The song we sing in heaven will be much like the song we sing on earth, but only in heaven will we have full appreciation of its message as those who have overcome for all time, who have gained ultimate victory in Jesus.
Whatever songs we sing—new or old—let us sing them as new songs in recognition of the great things that God has done.