It is no secret that I love music and the experience of listening to and playing music with instruments. From the time I was plunking out my first power chords very poorly on my dad’s Fender Stratocaster guitar to the present day (which has ironically come full circle as he has given me that same Strat…except now my playing is actually a bit better!), I have been mesmerized by the sound of instruments. I’ve grown to love expressing my praise to God with my Fender Strat and other guitars. I love how musical instruments bring out the lyrics we sing. Big drums and electric guitars go well with songs about God’s majesty while soft acoustic guitars and violin go well with more intimate prayerful type songs. I love how music in its own way tells us what we should be sensing as we sing words of worship. The contrast of a moody ambience with lyrics about Christ death with a pumping drive about His resurrection gets me every time, and I can almost picture myself being present for that pivotal spiritual landmark.
In addition to being an accompaniment for singing, the playing of musical instruments is a form of worship in its own right. The praise of instruments is an act of worship that appears many times throughout the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. It is an expression of worship alongside singing, bowing, dancing, standing, clapping, raising hands, and others. Many scholars believe the 71 Selahs from Psalms to be musical interludes, among other possible things with the purpose of taking a pause. Some of the Psalms also include musical directions for the instrumentation that was to be used. Instruments were used to convey meaning such as in Psalm 33 as the lyre represents thanksgiving and the harp of ten strings represents praise.
Psalm 150 is all about the praise of instruments, representing every instrument family. When I read it, I love to imagine a “jam session” between the Levite musicians as they expressed their worship through the instruments mentioned in it. Although no musical instruments are mentioned in the New Testament, Ephesians 5:19 mentions singing followed by “making melody.” “Making melody” comes from the Greek word psallos which means “to twitch or to twang” on a stringed instrument in connection with the Psalms. We very much value congregational singing and consider it to be the most important part of musical worship aside from lyrical content. Sometimes though, our musicians will express their praise instrumentally without any vocals up front. It could be a groove played by the band, a piano interlude, a guitar solo, or a violin melody among other things.
So what about those who do not play a musical instrument? What are they supposed to do? Why have them if the majority of those in the gathering are not playing instruments? Other than the practical benefits of instrumental breaks such as vocal rest and service flow, they allow for special opportunities for worship that you should consider taking advantage of. They are much like those Selah moments that we mentioned earlier. Don’t tune out. Instead of simply enjoying the music or thinking about the meal after church, you can make better use of that time. The Holy Spirit can use the sound of the music that is played to put you in the right place to hear what He has to say. Don’t misunderstand me. Our notes and rhythms do not conjure up the Holy Spirit. The band is not behind the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is behind the band. He can use anything in life to get our attention and I’m so thankful that he created something as beautiful as music to get our attention and reach us where we are at. If you’ve ever wondered what you are supposed to be doing as the music plays, here are some ways you can be using the time to worship and listen for the Lord.
Depending on what the song’s subject matter is, take some time to process it. Work to understand what the message of the song is and think of the theological implications. If it is a very familiar classic such as an old hymn or a standard like “Blessed Be Your Name,” use the time to remind yourself of what the message of the song is. The more familiar something is, the more we can go through the motions and miss what it has to offer. If it is a newer song, take the time to gather what it is saying and put it together. Particularly if a song is lyrically dense, the breaks help the songs be more easily digested and make more sense. “In Christ Alone” for one is jam packed with deep theology. The instrumental sections help break it up into smaller pieces, keeping it from becoming tiresome or overwhelming. You should always be conscious of what you sing and instrumental passages are a great time to put it all together.
With processing, we think on what the song means. With meditation, we think on how it speaks to us. If the song is about thanksgiving like “10,000 Reasons,” think about what the Lord has done for you. Think on the milestones throughout your life. Remember the times when the Lord demonstrated His faithfulness. If the song is about Christ’s death like “Man of Sorrows,” think on His steadfast love for us and the sacrifice it took for us to be redeemed. There are so many ways to meditate during these times. During vacation recently, I was at another church visiting and they played a song called “Worthy of Your Name” that had a line that said “holiness with human hands.” That triggered in my mind the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 where it says that He emptied Himself. I then took the time to think about the significance of Christ humbling Himself.
This can go hand in hand with meditation. If the song is about thanksgiving like we mentioned previously, take the time to thank the Lord for His many blessings by name. If the song is convicting you of sin in your life, repent of it. If we are singing a song of His faithfulness, such as “Yes and Amen,” cry out to Him and ask Him to help your unbelief and to help you rest in His promises. If the Lord brings someone to your mind that you are burdened for, pray for that person. There is always something that you can lift up to the Lord, and He can use the lyrics of the songs we sing to bring to mind things you need to tell Him. We cannot pray too much, so cast your cares on Him!
We often put Scripture verses that the song relates to up on the screen during instrumental breaks. Read the verse and reflect on it. If there happens to be no verse on the screen, you have your Bible (at least I hope you do!). Open it and turn to a verse that comes to mind and read it. If a verse you have memorized comes to mind, you can think on it or quote it verbally. It could even be a verse that you have had on your heart that may or may not relate to the song you are in. That is fine! Just as we cannot pray too much, we cannot read, quote, or think on too much Scripture. There is power in the Word and these are great opportunities to get more of it!
Wait…isn’t this the part where we don’t sing? Not necessarily. You can use the musical backdrop to sing your own song to God. When it says “sing unto the Lord a new song,” it does not only mean to compose new songs that are to be added to the worship repertoire. It can also mean to sing songs in the moment with whatever the Lord has put on your heart. The Psalmist writes in Psalm 40:3 “He has put a new song in my heart, a song of praise to our God.” The new song is sung because God has rescued us and placed it in us to give back to Him, an outpouring of our affection for Him. It is a celebration of salvation through Him. This can be taken symbolically as singing is not the only way to celebrate His salvation, but taking it literally is an option that is available to us. Many commentators even believe this to be the spiritual song that Paul speaks of in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, though it remains a “mystery song.” It does not need to be in key, in rhythm, or be poetic. It just needs to be from your heart and be Biblically true. In the break of a song about God’s holiness, you could sing “You are holy, holy, holy” or in the break of a song about God’s faithfulness, you could sing, “You are faithful, you never fail.” If you can declare it, you can sing it. I often say from the platform that the truth of God is too glorious to be read or spoken, but that it must be sung as well. Precomposed lyrics help us worship in this way the majority of the time, but it is not the only way.
However you choose to spend the time, listen for the leading of the Spirit in the Selah moments. These moments can be great times to step back in and listen for what He might be laying on your heart and mind. They are not big chunks of time, but the Holy Spirit can use any second of time to accomplish what He wants. Listen for the Lord. Listen as you hear the pastoral prayer, as you listen to the sermon, as we sing together, and as the instruments carry the praise for those brief moments.