If you ask a child to recite the books of the New Testament, your chances are better than even that they will say, “Acts and the letter to the Romans.” Most of us recognize this particular phrasing as part of a common song for the books of the New Testament. Bible class teachers (self included) have learned that for some of these children, it is almost physically impossible for them to say those books without saying, “…and the letter to the…” They will say, “and,” between Luke and John, Galatians and Ephesians, Titus and Philemon, Jude and Revelation, and will add them to make “First and Second Corinthians” and even “First and Second and Third John.” Why? Because that’s how they learned to say their books of the New Testament.
This illustrates one of the reasons I believe God instructed us to sing. At the end of Ephesians 5:19, Paul says, “singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” A lot of time, breath and ink has been spent in explaining what psallo, the Greek word translated as “making melody,” means in the defense against instrumental music. That’s good, but I don’t know that we’ve spent enough time really reflecting on what it means to make melody with (or in) our hearts to the Lord and how the “plucking” of our vocal cords helps us to “pluck” our heart.
The preceding verse contains the admonition to “be filled with the Spirit.” The parallel passage, Ephesians 3:16, tells us, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” The purpose of our musical worship—other than offering praise to God—is to internalize the word of Christ. When this happens, we are truly able to make melody with our heart. We aren’t just singing words with our mouths, but expressing those same thoughts with our minds and with our very being.
We talk about worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24) being about doing what God asks us to do (truth) and about having a spiritual relationship with God while doing it (spirit). In Ephesians 5:19, both singing and making melody with the heart are actions directed at God.
I think we understand all of this when it comes to our singing. We have these parallel tracks that are running simultaneously in our worship. That’s great, but why sing? Why did God ask for us to do this in our singing? What’s so special about singing that it doesn’t just run parallel to us making melody with the heart, but it contributes to making melody with the heart? After all, we have passages that tell us to talk about God’s law or to give attention to the reading of Scriptures, and surely those activities will allow us to make melody with the heart (and they do). While God never directly gives a reason for this that I know of, I think what we have is another case of God knowing something about the way the universe operates.
Even though I have a degree in mathematics, I still remember the three basic trigonometric functions from a song a high-school math teacher taught us, “Some Old Horse Came A-Hopping Through Our Alley.” The words of the song are a mnemonic device—the initial letters represent the basic trig relationships:
- Sine = Opposite/Hypotenuse
- Cosine = Adjacent/Hypotenuse
- Tangent = Opposite/Adjacent.
Between the absurdity of the lyrics, the fact that it’s set to music (specifically, the tune of the folk song, “The Old Gray Mare”), and the teacher’s imitation of the horse, there are probably few of Ms. Wheeler’s students who don’t remember that song whenever they have to think about trig functions.
We’ve figured out in educating children that if we can set something to music, they are more apt to remember it. The same, believe it or not, is true of adults. Music is an aid to memory. We hear the opening notes to a song on the radio and we know what song is going to play. We hear the opening measures of the Star Wars theme or the theme to Indiana Jones and we know what is about to happen. We remember things from those movies simply on the basis of the music.
Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs helps us to remember and internalize the thoughts expressed in those songs. When we sing songs over and over again, those words become a part of us. Those words aren’t just vibrating through our windpipes; they’re resonating in our soul and spirit. A curious thing about this is our brain processes words sung differently than words spoken. They are remembered and recalled differently. We may not be able to recite the words of a song by memory, but we can sing them. People with severe memory loss have been observed able to sing along with music when they can barely tell you their own name.
I remember when my grandmother was in the hospital about a year before her death. At this point, she was on the downhill slope of the battle with Alzheimer’s disease. She still knew who we were, but not much else. While my father and aunt talked to the medical staff about her care, I stayed with her in the room. I had my laptop with me, and I played some of the “old standard” hymns I had from my CD collection. For those few minutes, my grandmother was tapping her foot and occasionally chiming in with the songs being sung. My grandmother loved to sing the Lord’s songs, and those songs were probably some of the last vestiges of her declining memory.
Our God does not want our worship to be simply a “show” put on for His or our benefit. He wants our worship to be a reflection of the inner desire to draw closer to Him. What a blessing it is that the worship He prescribes for us encourages that very thing! By commanding us to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, He helps us to make our knowledge of His word and our love for Him an integral part of our being.
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; (Ephesians 5:18-19, NASB)