In Ephesians 5:19, Paul commands the church to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Similarly, he writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Notice the purpose: it’s pedagogical. By singing, we teach one another. Assumed here is that the songs contain something worth teaching—namely, the word of Christ. Music composed merely for entertainment is ignoble for such a purpose, as John Calvin remarks: “Songs composed only for sweetness and delight of the ear are unbecoming to the majesty of the church and cannot but displease God in the highest degree.” But as Ambrose knew well, songs founded on and infused with biblical doctrine are a powerful pedagogical tool. Good theology makes us sing, and singing makes good theology stick. When theologically rich songs get “stuck” in our heads, we’re in effect rhythmically hiding God’s Word in our hearts (Ps. 119:11).
Some time ago in corporate worship, during a season of acutely felt suffering, I rose to sing as a hymn began. I opened the hymnal and opened my mouth, but to my surprise and vexation, no words came out. Moved to tears, I was—for some reason—unable to sing. But my soul nevertheless ascended in praise on the wings of the beautiful voices of the saints both young and old who surrounded me in the pews. That Lord’s Day, I was a grateful pupil, having been taught and admonished by my covenant family: “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply; The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.” That day, my brothers and sisters sang for me, and they sang to me.
But why not just talk to one another? Why do we need to sing? Music is undeniably an effective means of administering balm to the soul. When the Word of God is set to a beautiful melody, the music can stir within us a zeal and hope that nothing else can. Music is, as Abraham Kuyper wrote, a “means for bringing a worshiper’s soul out of the ordinary and the mechanical into passion and activity.” Additionally, praising the Lord in song displays and fortifies Christian unity, as members of one body unite with one voice. Perhaps Ambrose recalled the basilica lock-in when he wrote: “Who could retain a grievance against the man whom he had joined in singing before God? The singing of praise is the very bond of unity, when the whole people join in a single act of song.”
Indeed, we make melody to the Lord (Ps. 27:6), singing praises to the Most High God who sits enthroned on Zion (Ps. 9:7) and whose steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 89:1). So too, in God’s beautiful design, we sing to and for one another. When we rise to sing, we join the saints in unison in praising the Lord, reminding one another of and instructing one another in the all-surpassing glory and steadfast love of our God. We sing to the widow who just lost her husband, to the child who has cancer, to the guilt-ridden saint shedding tears of repentance, to the despairing husband and wife who have lost another child in the womb. Let us therefore with one voice sing to one another and to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:6) until we sing a new song to Him who has made all things new (Rev. 14:3; 21:5).