A Song Worth More Than A Thousand Words: Music and Expression

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Have you ever experienced something that you just couldn’t put into words? The feelings and impressions of the moment demanded a more effective mode of expression. God has gifted mankind with a means of expression that transcends the spoken word. What is this language of surpassing expression? It is the medium of music. 

Many notable figures have expressed similar sentiments:

“Where words fail, music speaks.” (Hans Christian Anderson)

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” (Victor Hugo)

“Music begins where words are powerless to express. Music is made for the inexpressible!” (Claude Debussy)

“When words fail to express the exalted sentiments and finer emotions of the human heart, music becomes the sublimated language of the soul, the divine instrumentality for its higher utterance.” (Charles William Wendte)

Musical expression is a powerful force and an important part of Christian life. A happy church is a singing church.

God’s Musical Expression 

Musical expression originates in God and is part of the imago Dei (image of God) in man. There are a number of instances in the Bible where God expresses Himself through music. In Zephaniah 3:14-17, we get a glimpse of God in the midst of his people, saving them, rejoicing over them, resting in his love for them, and celebrating over them with singing: 

Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even the Lord, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack. 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.

The Angels

God embedded musical expression into the blueprint of the angelic creation. The angels sing to express their awe and joy at the works of God. In Job 38:4-7, God reveals this insight while addressing Job:

Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding.  Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars [angels] sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? 

In this passage God places Job in the audience of the creation event. While God is measuring out and laying the foundations of the earth, fully engaged in his work, the angels (morning stars) are singing and shouting for joy as they observe this incredible phenomenon. What a concert of praise, adoration, and amazement as the angels express their response to the eternal God creating the universe! 

Musical Expression in the Human DNA

God also created mankind with the ability to express emotion through singing and musical activity. Music is part of the essence of humanity, and has a vital role in all human cultures, primitive and civilized.

God has gifted mankind with a means of expression that transcends the spoken word.

Leonid Perlovsky writes, “Humans have an innate drive to make and enjoy music. There is much suggestive evidence supporting a biological predisposition for music” (emphasis added). 

Speculations on Adam and Eve Singing

Who was the first person to sing?  Considering how natural it is for humanity to break into musical expression, it is very likely that Adam and later his wife Eve were the first to sing. Many theologians and sacred musicians have speculated about this. In her Epistle 47: To the Prelates of Mainz, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) elaborates on the musical expressions of Adam in his original state from her personal perspective. Here are some of her statements in this regard:

When we earnestly strive so to praise, we recall how man sought the voice of the living Spirit, which Adam lost through disobedience, he who still innocent before his transgression had no little concourse with the voices of angelic praise.

As if recalling Adam who was formed by the finger of God (who is the Holy Spirit) that Adam in whose voice, before he fell, resided the sound of all harmony and the sweetness of the entire musical art, and the power and sonority of whose voice (had he remained in that state in which he was created) the fragility of mortal man could not sustain.

Although the biblical text does not give us a description of the sound of Adam’s voice, nor the nature of his song, I think we are safe in assuming that, in their original state, Adam and Eve must have sung praises to God with unblemished hearts and voices—voices that reflected the purity, innocence, and closeness of their relationship with God. 

The First Song Recorded In The Bible

The first account of someone singing in the Bible is the song of Moses, recorded in Exodus 15. God had just delivered the Israelites out of Egypt with a mighty hand. He selected the escape route that his children would take, and he led them out of Egypt and towards the Red Sea with an extraordinary cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

After the Israelites had begun their journey, Pharaoh changed his mind about allowing them to leave and decided to pursue them. He prepared his chariots and horsemen and set out to capture, plunder, possibly torture, and bring back his runaway slaves.

When the Israelites who were following the cloud towards the sea looked back and saw the Egyptian army pursuing them, their hearts melted with fear and horror. Behind them was the ruthless and cruel Egyptian army and in front of them was a huge expanse of water—the Red Sea. In fear they cried out to God and to Moses, wishing they had died in Egypt rather than be captured and taken back to Egypt as runaway slaves.

Moses reassured the people, telling them that the Lord would fight for them. He admonished them to stand still and see the salvation of the Lord. How could they stand still? Then God began to work. First, the cloud that had been leading them moved behind them, blocking the view of the Egyptians. Then God raised up a strong east wind that blew on the sea all night, parting the water and creating a path wide enough for at least a million people, plus their animals, to pass through on dry ground.

Amazingly, when morning came the Israelites crossed the sea on this path formed by night. Soon after the Israelites had begun crossing the sea, the Egyptian chariots began to pursue them into the sea. Would God’s plan of salvation fail?

As soon as all of the Egyptian chariots began pursuing Israel on the dry path lined with walls of water, the wheels on their chariots began to break loose and fall off. The Egyptians panicked and tried to flee. Just as the last Israelite set foot on the far shore, God told Moses to stretch his rod out over the sea. Immediately, the sea returned to its former place and the entire army of Egyptians was destroyed.

What an incredible and complete deliverance! How would Moses and the children of Israel express the joy and thankfulness that burst forth from their hearts towards God in that incredible moment? They sang a song of praise to God. Let’s listen to at least a portion of that song found in Exodus 15:1-2:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spake, saying, I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously: the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation: he is my God, and I will prepare him an habitation; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. 

Music’s Highest Expression

Scholars have been fascinated with the wide spectrum of moods and emotions of which mankind is capable of expressing through music. Early research in this area was pioneered in the 1920s and 1930s by scholars such as I. L. Gatewood, who explored the influence of basic musical elements on the mood response to music. C. P. Heinlein studied adjectives chosen in response to major and minor chords. Kate Hevner created an Adjective Circle to assess responses to music.

But what is our highest song? The most noble song we can sing is a song of praise to God. A song of praise is the Christian’s heartfelt response to the character and redemptive works of God. Martin Luther once said

For God has cheered our hearts and minds through his dear Son, whom he gave for us to redeem us from sin, death, and the devil. He who believes this earnestly cannot be quiet about it. But he must gladly and willingly sing and speak about it so that others also may come and hear it. And whoever does not want to sing and speak of it shows that he does not believe and that he does not belong under the new and joyful testament, but under the old, lazy, and tedious testament. (emphasis added)

Speaking of David’s musical expressions of praise in the Psalms, Luther exclaims

Yes, his great delight impels him [David] to compose beautiful and sweet psalms and to sing lovely and joyous songs, both to praise and to thank God in his happiness and to serve his fellowmen by stimulating and teaching them.

All throughout the New Testament, Christians sing praises to God and are admonished to sing. Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn at the conclusion of the last supper in Matthew 26:30: “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.”

Paul and Silas prayed and sang hymns to God in the Philippian jail in Acts 16:25: “And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.”

A song of praise is the Christian’s heartfelt response to the character and redemptive works of God.

Paul admonishes the Spirit-filled Christians to sing and make music in their hearts to the Lord in Ephesians 5:18-20: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

In Colossians 3:16 Paul calls Christians to be indwelt by the word of God and then to sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs with grace in their hearts to God: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

The saints in Revelation 14:2-3 sing a new song before the throne, accompanied by a loud sound like the sound of harpists playing their harps:

And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: and they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. 

Music’s Greatest Application

How does this become practical for us?  If you have witnessed the mighty power of God in your life and felt awe, praise and thankfulness when he moved miraculously and came to your rescue, follow Moses’ example and sing praise to God.  If your circumstances are discouraging, like when Paul and Silas found themselves beaten and placed in stocks in the Philippian jail, sing hymns to God. If, while contemplating the awesomeness of God and His word, your heart becomes full, let it overflow in songs of praise to Him, following the example of David.

Finally, remember Psalm 22:3: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Our songs of praise not only express beyond mere words our love, praise, and thankfulness to God, but when we sing his praise, he draws nearer to us. How incredible! 

The next time you experience the greatness of God in your life, or are experiencing discouraging circumstances and need to feel his closeness, express your praise and love to Him in song.

John Anthony
Dr. John Anthony is the Director of Christian Music Education Studies at Penn View Bible Institute. He formerly served as Music Department Chair at Ohio Christian University and studied at University of Georgia (D.M.A. Trumpet Performance) and Penn State University (M.Mus., Trumpet Performance and M.Ed., course work).