Singing is a religious exercise by which, with the appropriate modulation of the voice, we worship, thank, and praise God.
It is a religious exercise, for we make use of the skill and sweetness of our voice to move others to have dealings with God. God has given man a voice to make his thoughts known to others. He has given man the ability to modulate his voice to either a high or a low pitch, or to speak slowly or rapidly, thereby enabling him to render his voice sweet and pleasant. It is also God’s will that we shall use our voice in prayer, thanksgiving, and our speaking to Him: “Let Me hear thy voice” (Song 2:14). Since the modulation of our voices at a suitable rhythm is capable of unlocking our hearts and stirring our emotions, God thus also wills that we shall lift up our hearts to Him in singing: “... singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). However, our voice and the melody in and of themselves are not pleasing to God; rather, it is the motion of the heart relative to the spiritual matters which we express before the Lord in singing which pleases Him. Both the voice and the melody are means to bring us into a spiritual frame and to lift up our hearts heavenward—as well as the hearts of those who hear us.
The Proper Use of the Voice
To singing belongs the appropriate modulation of the voice. One can sing in an unskilled manner when, for instance, we have an inclination to sing while being alone in order to give expression to those matters about which we are reading (and are recorded in non-poetic form), or those which issue forth from a godly heart. This is done while modulating the voice between a high and a low pitch and by singing either slowly or rapidly—not in an artistic
manner but according to the motions of the heart. A very godly farmer, whom I knew very well, used to say, “When I am alone in my field, I can sing all psalms, even though I do not know their tunes.” Many of the godly will be able to confirm this from their own experience. The Lord has given some people the ability to create artistic pieces of music which express the affections of the heart in a marvelous manner and wondrously stir up the emotions. As the builders of Noah’s ark received no advantage from the structure they built, it entirely being intended for Noah and his family, such is frequently also the case here. Many musicians greatly exert themselves; however, it is to the advantage of the godly. The entire world and all that is contained in it are theirs. This is also true for all forms of art; they may freely make use of them. The manner in which someone is moved by music will be consistent with the nature of his heart. A natural man will but be moved in a natural sense, whereas the melody will move the spiritual heart in a spiritual sense.
The Various Types of Songs
Some musical compositions are of a stately and dignified nature, by which the heart is inclined toward solemnity and reverence. Such is true for the tunes of the psalms of David which are sung in the church. Some are of a melancholy nature by which we are moved to be sorrowful—yes, even to weeping. Others are of a jubilant nature whereby the heart is lifted up to jubilate; such is the singing of the psalms in the Scottish churches. Again, others are of a very rhythmic nature, whereby the heart is stirred up to skip and leap for joy—as Hannah said in her heart: “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord” (1 Sam 2:1). Other compositions are very stern in nature, whereby the heart is ignited to anger and, so to speak, demands vengeance. If, however, the heart is spiritual, this spiritual heart, by way of various tunes, will become aware of spiritual motions consistent with these tunes, and by such inner motions will be drawn to God—be it prayerfully, jubilantly, joyously, or while giving thanks and praising Him. Thus, the spiritual man does not merely relate to the melody; rather, the melody is complementary to the spiritual matters, and spiritual matters complement the melody—in both cases the heart is involved. Thus, it can be that the heart, being in such a frame, will either yield both subject matter and melody, or the subject matter and melody will move the heart in such a manner. The more pleasant the voices or instruments are which sing or play these melodies, the more the heart is moved. When Jehoshaphat and two kings showed Elisha the peril in which their armies were, due to lack of water, he said, “But
now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him” (2 Kings 3:15). By way of the playing of this instrument his spirit was quickened, and having been brought into a fitting frame, he received the revelation that they would receive water.
Singing Practiced from the Beginning of Time
Creatures have engaged in singing from the very beginning of creation. The angels, having been created upon the first day and being a witness to creation the following five days, glorified God concerning this in singing: “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Not all that transpired prior to the time of Moses has been recorded, but it is credible that the godly, from the time of Adam, have delighted themselves in singing. Job, who is considered to have lived during Abraham’s time, makes mention of singing in his book: “Where is God my Maker, who giveth songs in the night” (Job 35:10). After the children of Israel had left Egypt and had gone through the sea on dry ground, they praised the Lord in song: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord” (Exod 15:1). The ninetieth psalm has the following title: A prayer of Moses. Moses, his death being imminent, gave the children of Israel a song which had been dictated to him by the Lord (Deut 31:16-30). After Sisera had been defeated, Deborah sang a song (Judg 5:1).
David was the sweet psalmist (2 Sam 23:1). To sing unto the Lord with instruments, and to lift up voice and heart to God, was his daily work. In His goodness the Lord has given us David’s psalms in His Word. We have the substance of them, but both the Hebrew art of poetry and the melodies are mostly concealed from us. I maintain that all the music which is now to be found in the world is not comparable to David’s music. I believe that the melody was then composed in harmony with the motions of the heart, giving expression to this in a most appropriate manner. Since the melody proceeded from a spiritual frame of heart, it was wondrously capable of stirring these emotions in others as well. The melody of a psalm could thus not be used for any other song, since that melody was only applicable to that inner motion and that given word. The combination of musical tones, inner motions, and words was such that it would cause all who heard it to be in ecstasy. Our music does not have such an effect. We sing the melody irrespective of whether it is consistent with both the inner motions of the heart and the words. Since the art of poetry and song primarily consisted in this at that time, it is simply not practical to seek to discover David’s poetic art-form—much less the melodies
he composed. Nevertheless, there are some elements here and there which are also to be found in Greek, Latin, and Dutch poetry.
Scripture Enjoins Us to Sing
David did not merely sing by himself, but continually exhorts everyone to sing. For that purpose he also submitted his psalms to be sung in the temple by the appointed chief singers. The textual references to this are so numerous that there is no need to point them out. After David’s time we also find psalms among the prophets, along with many exhortations to sing. We find such exhortations also among those prophecies which declare that in the days of the New Testament men would praise the Lord with singing. “Sing unto the Lord; for He hath done excellent things” (Isa 12:5); “In that day sing ye unto her, A vineyard of red wine” (Isa 27:2); “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth” (Ps 96:1).
Not only are we exhorted in the Old Testament to sing, but this is true for the New Testament as well. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19); “... teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16); “Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13); “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor 14:15); “And they sung a new song” (Rev 5:9).
Other Spiritual Songs in Addition to the Psalms
A number of godly men have composed spiritual songs for this purpose with a variety of melodies. It appears that Luther has been the first one to do so during the Reformation. His songs are still sung today with edification by the Lutherans in their churches, as well as privately by us. In our days the unforgettable Justus Van Lodesteyn has composed a songbook which is second to none as far as spirituality is concerned. Cl. Marot has put the first fifty of David’s psalms to rhyme in the French language, and Theodore Beza the other one hundred. Subsequent to this, Claud. Gaudemelius, a famous musician in Paris (who perished as a martyr in the massacre of Paris), composed the melodies, which could not have been improved upon in the judgment of musicians. Petrus Dathenus has translated them in poetic form from the French, preserving the identical tunes. It would be desirable if an artistic and godly poet were to take upon himself the task to improve them by putting them to poetry in an identical fashion, and in better harmony with the original text, so that they could be accepted for public use in the churches. The decision of
the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches.
The General Lack of Singing Lamented
It amazes me that the godly in the Netherlands have so little desire to sing, and also engage in this very infrequently. It is true that singing little is consistent with the lackadaisicalness of our nation (compared to other nations). Nevertheless, worldly people sing quite a bit, but they sing vain songs which stir up the heart toward vanity and immorality. The godly are, however, generally silent in these parts. The one says, “I am too busy”; the other, “I have no voice”; the third, “I do not know any of the melodies”; the fourth, “I do not dare for fear the neighbors would hear me and deem me to be a hypocrite.” All of this is, however, not truly the problem, but it is a lack of desire. If the heart were more spiritual and joyous, we would more readily praise the Lord with joyful song and thereby stir up ourselves and others. I am here not only speaking of singing in church. (Even there many do not sing; and for some the very best they can do is read the psalm silently.)
Exhortation to Sing
It is thus needful that I stir up everyone to sing—not only psalms, but also spiritual songs. Therefore, believers, dispense with this listlessness. “Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing” (Ps 100:2).
First, you must know that singing is not a neutral matter in which you may or may not engage. Rather, it is God’s command. As we have shown you before, God requires this from you and desires to be served by you in this manner. Consider these and similar quotes and impress them upon your heart as being mandatory. Begin to engage in this duty with an obedient heart; break open your mouth and your closed heart will open as well.
Secondly, God has created this ability in the very nature of man. This is to be observed in children of three or four years old. Take note of how they walk around the house while singing at the same time. Observe how even in nature the birds in their own way already praise their Creator early in the morning by way of singing. If you go outside in the morning, or if you have birds in your home, you will hear it. Will the birds and small children rebuke you, and would you, who have the greatest reason in the world to sing joyously, be dumb and silent?
Thirdly, it is the work of angels, for they glorify the Lord in song (cf. Job 38:7; Luke 2:13-14; Rev 5:11-12), and it is the work of the church upon earth and in heaven: “And they sung a new song,
saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev 5:9); “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne ... and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” (Rev 14:3); “And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty” (Rev 15:3). If you have no desire to sing, then what will you do in church and in heaven? Furthermore, if you are desirous to magnify the Lord with an eternal hallelujah, you should presently begin upon earth.
Fourthly, God is particularly pleased when His children praise Him in song. There where the Lord is sweetly praised in song, there He will come with His blessings. “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Ps 22:3). It is noteworthy to consider what transpired at the dedication of the temple. “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one ... that then the house was filled with a cloud ... so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God” (2 Chron 5:13-14). When Jehoshaphat, together with his army, lifted up their voices in joyous exclamation and song (2 Chron 20:22), the Lord defeated their enemies. When Paul and Silas sang praises unto God in the middle of the night, the doors of the prison were opened and the bands of all the prisoners were loosened (Acts 16:25-26). Therefore, if you are desirous to please the Lord, and delight in having the Lord visit your soul and desire to experience His help, then accustom yourself to singing.
Fifthly, singing will move a heart which frequently remains unmoved during prayer. It can be that while singing the tears will drip upon the book. Have you not frequently experienced this? Have not you been stirred up by hearing the singing of others? Others will therefore also be stirred up by your singing. The Papists in France knew this, and therefore they strictly forbade the singing of psalms and meted out cruel punishment for this—even prior to massacring the church. Therefore, no longer be silent, but lift up your voices—in spite of the devil and all the enemies of God—to the honor and glory of your God, as this has done you too much good already (and still does) than that you would refrain from thanking the Lord with songs of praise. You must furthermore do so in order that you might stir up others to serve the Lord with gladness. It will then become manifest to all natural men that godliness is a joyous rather than a grievous life, and they will
become desirous for this as well. And if you sing, sing with understanding, with a fervent desire, conscious of the presence of the Lord (and thus reverently), with a modest demeanor, and with both inner and external attentiveness, so that it may all be becoming before the Lord and to the edification of others who surround us.
 This occurred in the year AD 1773.
Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 4, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 31-37.