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Understanding and Emotion in Our Songs of Worship

Music is a God-given tool for our spiritual walk. We can use it to express adoration and thankfulness to God and to draw us closer to Him in reverent and heartfelt communion. Music can motivate, teach, comfort, exhort, remind and inspire.
By CALEB OSBORNE
Read Time: 7 minutes

We will consider two key elements that must be present in powerful spiritual music: understanding and emotion.

Effective Spiritual music connects our deepest emotions with clear Biblical understanding to praise God, commune with Him, and inspire us in our walk before Him.

Paul applies the same rule to singing as he does to prayer. Our minds must be engaged in our worship.

This article will establish the Scriptural foundation for this approach, then discuss how both understanding and emotion can be created in the two building blocks of a song: lyrics and music.

SING WITH UNDERSTANDING

Paul wrote to the Corinthian Ecclesia to warn them about the misuse of the Holy Spirit gifts. The Corinthians had become wrapped up in the experience and emotion of the spirit gifts in their worship—at the expense of their understanding. Ecclesial meetings were disorderly, loud, self-focused, emotional, and incoherent—an environment not conducive to spiritual development or glorifying God. Paul tells them about the crucial element that they are missing:

“What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” (1 Cor 14:15).

Paul applies the same rule to singing as he does to prayer. Our minds must be engaged in our worship.

But Paul was not the first to give this instruction to sing with understanding—he is echoing a psalm of the sons of Korah.

Psalm 47 is a triumphant song of praise written to celebrate the awesome sovereignty and righteous rule of God. Its mood is jubilant and overflowing with passion. In the first verse God’s people are instructed to “clap your hands” and “shout to God with the voice of triumph.” In verse 6 we are told no less than 4 times to “sing praises” to our God and King. But even in this exuberant context, we are instructed not to just get caught up in the euphoria of the song: verse 7 reads, “God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.”

Even in our most enthusiastic worship, God wants us to be thinking about what we are saying, shouting or singing. He wants the substance of our praise to be meaningful. This should not surprise us—our God is a God who is looking for people who meditate on His word, think upon His name and understand His will and purpose.

SING WITH EMOTION

Is it enough to simply have a correct understanding of the subject of our songs? Isaiah 29:13 says,

“this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me.”

We can be singing a carefully worded hymn that is solidly grounded in Scriptural allusions and principles, but if our heart is not engaged in the worship, the “right” words we are singing cannot honor God!

While correct understanding is a foundational prerequisite for effective praise, all our worship must come from the heart. This is a consistently recurring theme in Scripture, and nowhere more than in the Psalms. Phrases like, “I will praise Yahweh with my whole heart,” are repeated over and over again in the Psalms (Psa 9:1; 111:1; 138:1).

In Psalm 84:2, the psalmist describes his deep-seated desire to be in the presence of God:

“My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (ESV).

The singing described in this psalm is not merely a mental exercise—it swells up from the believer’s heart and soul and demands to be expressed. Yes, God wants us to sing with understanding, but he is also interested in our emotions. He wants our love, our thankfulness and our adoration to be genuine.

THE BALANCE

The two most famous Biblical instructions on spiritual music are found in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19. These two passages both list the three main categories of spiritual music: Psalms (the Old Testament psalms), hymns (songs praising or celebrating God), and spiritual songs (songs on spiritual themes).

Both epistles emphasize the complementary significance of understanding and emotion in our spiritual music. Colossians 3:16 says,

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”

Spiritual music should be rich in the Word, full of wisdom, able to convey sound doctrine (teach) and encourage a Christ-like life (admonish). All these elements emphasize the importance of understanding what we are singing—the substance is significant!

Spiritual music should touch our hearts and resonate in our souls.

But Paul goes on to describe how we are supposed to be singing: “with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:19 paints an even more vivid picture of how involved our emotions should be: “singing and making melody in your heart to the LORD.

The Greek word for “making melody” means “to pluck or to cause to vibrate… to touch or strike the chord, to twang the strings” (Thayer’s GreekEnglish Lexicon). The accompanying instrument in our songs of worship should be our heart!

Spiritual music should touch our hearts and resonate in our souls. We are edified and God is honored when we sing with our head and our heart.

The beauty of finding this balance is that the understanding and emotions feed into each other. Understanding the meaning or Scriptural basis for the lyrics enhances the emotional impact of the song, and when we are passionate in the expression of our worship, our technical understanding is imprinted in our hearts. We’ve established the principles of emotion and understanding in our spiritual music, but how do we apply them to the music we use or create?

The rest of this article offers suggestions on how a song can most effectively enhance clear understanding and evoke genuine emotion—first in the lyrics and then in the music.

LYRICS

The lyrics of a song are the most important component. We have the lyrics to over one hundred and fifty songs recorded for us in the Bible, but not a single page of sheet music. When it comes to selecting or writing spiritual music, the focus of our attention should be on the lyrics. Musical taste is varied and often subjective, but a song of worship stands or falls based on what it says.

  • Lyrics should be rich in the Word. This means Biblical quotes, allusions, and language. A great exercise is to go through each line of a hymn or song and try to find the scriptural basis for each phrase. Avoid non-Scriptural metaphors and symbolism.
  • Our music should reflect a range of Biblical topics, and reflect our unique understanding.
  • Create a context that enhances understanding: choosing hymns that fit the theme of a class or including thoughtful narrations in choral presentations can aid our understanding and appreciation of the music.
  • Watch out for doctrinal errors, especially in music from outside the Brotherhood. (For example, there are many beautifully moving songs on the sacrifice of Christ that implicitly or explicitly teach substitutionary atonement: “Such love, paying the debt I owe.”)
  • Avoid archaic language or grammatically confusing lyrics that hamper understanding.
  • Lyrics need not be dry or lifeless— the Psalms are descriptive, vibrant and full of feeling. Poetic devices such as meter, alliteration, simile, imagery, refrain and rhyming are powerful tools we can use to inject feeling into a set of lyrics. When applied effectively, the elements that separate poetry from prose can inspire our imagination, create a mood, evoke powerful feelings and imprint on our memory.
  • Avoid completely self-absorbed lyrics. Our worship can be personal, but we ought not lose sight of our calling to magnify God.
  • Misapplied emotion: Be careful of lyrics that address God or Jesus casually, flippantly, or romantically. (If you can swap out the words “God” or “Jesus” for “girlfriend” “boyfriend” or “baby,” then perhaps it is the wrong kind of love song).

MUSIC

Pairing effective music with robust lyrics connects powerful feelings to clear Biblical understanding and elevates worship.

The musical elements of a song— melody, harmony, chord progressions, key changes, tempo, rhythm and dynamics—are the tools that songwriters use to enhance our understanding of the lyrics and evoke an emotional connection and response to them. Pairing effective music with robust lyrics connects powerful feelings to clear Biblical understanding and elevates worship.

  • The emotions evoked by the music should match the lyrics. Minor chords can arouse feelings of sadness, pathos or foreboding, while major chords can be happy, triumphant or confident.
  • Artful use of dissonant sounds can build feelings of tension, conflict or anticipation which can be resolved into a feeling of release or satisfaction.
  • Similarly, a well-placed key change can mark the focal point of a song— the turning point in the story, the answer to the question, the solution to the problem or the culmination of themes. (For example, a great place for a key change in music based on Psalm 22 would be in the middle of verse 21, where the spirit of Christ shifts from desperate pleas for help to the confident assurance God has heard and will vindicate.)
  • Rhythm and timing are musical devices to control where the emphasis in a phrase is placed. • Changes in dynamics draw attention to contrasting ideas.
  • Songs where the beat, instrumentation, or vocalizations are overwhelmingly loud or complex can hamper the ability to hear and understand the words.
  • Thoughtful use of melodic structure (pitch, melody, range) can enhance the lyrics. For example, choosing only male or female voices to sing certain verses or phrases can elevate the lyrics of a song and match the meaning. (See “In Danger’s Hour” by Bro. Darryl Rose from the Manitoulin Youth Conference Cantata 2010 or 2016 for a great illustration of this.)

CONCLUSION

Whether you write your own music, prepare choral presentations, select hymns for ecclesial meetings, curate personal Christadelphian playlists or just open your hymn book on Sunday morning, engaging your mind and your emotion in spiritual music is absolutely crucial.

We are edified and God is honored when our worship is founded in true understanding and flows from our hearts.

Caleb Osborne

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