Sing to the LORD
Not sure how your day or week is going, but I have had a rough last few days. I even wondered if I would be able to write this post or preach this weekend. How do I write about the place of music and singing in worship while I’m struggling with things that seem to continually move away from my grasp and my power to solve them? I find it so frustrating to feel weak and powerless to bring about the results I desire. I find it so challenging to face my limitations and be forced to recognize my inability to do it all by my own strength, to be reminded that there are things I simply cannot muscle through.
But as rough as this particular week has been, I know it is not nearly as bad as what you might be going through. We all have our struggles, and I know some are struggling at a greater intensity than others. One man who had a particularly difficult life is Joseph Scriven.
Joseph was a man acquainted with heartache. He was born in County Down, Ireland, and as a young man he aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Royal Marine, but due to his poor health, that dream never came true. However, as time went by, he fell in love and was engaged to be married. Scriven was very happy and eagerly looked forward to the day he would marry his beloved. Sadly, tragedy struck before his wedding could take place. The day of his wedding, hours before they were to be married, his fiancee was riding a horse who was mysteriously startled causing her to fall head first into a nearby river and drown.
In an attempt to distance himself from the terrible tragedy he had experienced, Scriven then moved to Canada. While living there, he devoted himself to helping those in need, oftentimes cutting firewood for those too weak or too poor to do it themselves. As time went by, Scriven became engaged once again. Nevertheless, a few weeks before they were to be wed, his fiancee became ill and, despite Scriven’s best efforts, she died before they could be married.
Scriven continued to live his simple life of service to others when he received word that his mother was ill. Sadly he couldn’t afford to return to Ireland to visit his sick mother, so he sent his mother a poem, hoping that it would comfort her. The poem began, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”
Later, Joseph Scriven submitted a copy of his poem to a religious journal, where it was published. A few years later, in 1866, he died.
Scriven could never have imagined the impact his poem would have on the lives of others. Ira Sankey, a musician who worked with Dwight L. Moody, published Scriven’s poem in a book of hymns, and Moody had it sung in his evangelistic meetings. Soon after that “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” became one of the best-known hymns in America. Missionaries took it abroad, where, to this day people sing it in many languages.
This hymn has maintained its popularity for a century and a half—probably because a man acquainted with grief—who happened also to be acquainted with faith—helps us to see that faith can triumph over grief.
Singing while Suffering
Is it not amazing how someone can write such beautiful poetry when experiencing heartache and pain?
This poem, written by a child of God in the midst of terrible suffering, was later set to music and continues to touch lives today. I hope that when I am suffering I am able to keep a song in my heart, and instead of becoming angry or bitter towards God I can be used by Him to help others face their trials.
I am reminded of the story recorded in Acts 16 where Paul and Silas beaten and thrown in prison.
But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed.
- Acts 16:25-26 NKJV
I imagine Paul and Silas were unable to sleep due to their fresh wounds from the beating they had received. Instead of being discouraged and angry at God they are praying and singing and all the prisoners are listening to them. As Paul and Silas are singing hymns there is an earthquake and everyone is freed! Singing and prayer literally set them free form their chains, from their prison!
Did you ever stop to think about how singing and praying can set you free?
Sing to the LORD
“Music is able to communicate above and beyond verbal expression and to touch realms of the unutterable. When words are insufficient expression, music still speaks and touches the heart and mind.”
- Lilianne Doukhan (In Tune with God. Autumn House Pub, 2010. p. 45-46)
Music and poetry are found throughout the Bible. It really should not surprise us that God is a lover of the beautiful! Prophets will often break into poetry as they convey a message from God. Some claim that as much as 1/3 of the Old Testament is poetry. It is especially common in the "Prophets" (all but Haggai and Malachi contain poetry) and "Writings" sections of the Hebrew canon.
In Deuteronomy 31:19-22 God tells Moses to write a song for the people to memorize. God gave Moses a song so the people could sing and memorize His law!
“Now therefore, write down this song for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.
- God (Deut. 31:19 NKJV)
Virtually the whole next chapter (Deuteronomy 32) is a single song, the Song of Moses. This song is made up of God’s law, the history of the children of Israel history, it contains theology, and all this is made beautiful, more impactful, easier to memorize and recall in the form of a song.
As a child, Isaac Watts showed a passion for poetry, rhyming as often as he could, even in everyday conversation. His serious-minded father, who was a leading deacon at their local church, warned him several times and finally decided to spank the rhyming nonsense out of his son. But the tearful Isaac helplessly replied,
'Oh father do some pity take,
and I will no more verses make.'
Which led to more spanking.
As he grew older his love of poetry and music did not diminish. By the time he was a teenager, Isaac complained to his father about the dull way Christians in England sang the Old Testament Psalms. His father did not appreciate his son’s remark and snapped back 'All right young man, you give us something better!'
Isaac Watts, rightly understood that the singing of God's praise was the form of worship nearest to Heaven, that’s probably why it bothered him so much that 'Its performance among us is the worst on earth.' Thankfully young Isaac did not stop rhyming and accepted his father's challenge eventually writing a grand total of over 600 hymns, earning him the title 'The father of English hymnody.'
Some of the most loved hymns composed by him include "Oh God Our Help In Ages Past," "Am I A Soldier Of The Cross" and "Joy To The World."
As a child, Isaac Watts might have looked sickly and unattractive, but looks can be deceiving. He began the study of Latin at the age of four and added Greek when he was nine, French at eleven and Hebrew at thirteen.
At fifteen the young Isaac turned his talents to the service of the church and began his great career in writing hymns.
In his hymns, Isaac Watts takes the Word of God, which he must have studied diligently, and distills it so that its wisdom, beauty, and comfort are set before us with clarity and power. No wonder, then, that C.H. Spurgeon's grandfather, who was also a great preacher, and in the line of the Puritans, would have nothing else but the hymns of Isaac Watts sung in his services.
Isaac Watt's greatest composition according to many is "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross."
It has been called 'The very best hymn in the English language' and in it, Watts uses only 16 lines to paint a ‘soul-stirring’ picture of the Savior's death on the cross along with the whole-hearted response of the believer to such amazing love.
When we read the beautiful words of this hymn we get the impressions that Isaac Watts wrote this text while standing at the foot of the cross of Jesus.
What a blessing it is to reflect on the death of Christ Jesus, as summed up in those lines:
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
And how enriching to be able to voice our reconsecration to the Lord's service in the words:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.