The Unifying Power of Singing
Singing unites body and soul. “My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to you; my soul also, which you have redeemed” (Ps 71:23). It is wonderful to “make melody in your hearts,” rejoicing before the Lord in our innermost being, but singing aligns the body - the tongue, the throat, the chest, the diaphragm, the breath in the lungs and the vibrations in the thorax - with the rejoicing in the soul, and by doing so reinforces it. By making a decision to sing with our bodies, we can lift our spirits and increase our joy (in part because God, by his grace, has created human beings to release endorphins and oxytocin when we sing). Body and soul are brought together as we praise: “my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2).
Singing unites individuals with other believers. Jennie made this point last month: songs unite us to one another, whether we are in church or at a football match, and reach the parts that other beers do not reach. Psychologists could talk for hours about how songs function as a “hive switch,” turning us from self-absorbed individuals into a self-denying collective. But it is obvious from the way music works: if multiple people talk at once, the meaning of each individual is lost, whereas if multiple people sing at once (and especially when they sing in harmony) the meaning of each individual line is heightened and strengthened by being united with others. It is a glorious picture of what the church is intended to be, and especially so when we remember that if we sing from (say) the Psalter, we are united with the dead as well as the living.
Singing unites humans with other living creatures. The first noise you heard when you woke up this morning, if it wasn’t a vehicle or a small child, was probably the dawn chorus. Creation sings. It always has. Some do what we classically think of as singing (like birds); some make deep melodious notes underwater (like humpback whales) or supersonic cheeps (like mice) or rhythmic musical chants with their knees (like crickets). On the one occasion I woke to the sound of a lion making gentle early morning roars, it had a curious musicality to it. And that is without mentioning the angelic creatures whom we cannot see, who have been singing all day every day for thousands of years. Francis of Assisi’s beautiful hymn begins with the line: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing!” But in many ways it is the other way around. God’s creatures are singing already, and we are invited to join them.
Singing unites living creatures with inanimate creation. Sometimes people talk about their desire to be, or their experience of being, “connected” to everything, with this sense that they and the world are in harmony and everything is lined up together. Phrases like that are often used about travelling to remote places, or smoking weed, but from a biblical point of view the best way to get connected to everything in the cosmos is to sing. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Is 55:12). “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together!” (Ps 98:7-8). “Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!” (Ps 148:3). If that all sounds a bit hyperbolic to you, bear in mind that on the one occasion Jesus was asked about people singing too loudly, he replied that if the people didn’t then the rocks would cry out instead (Lk 19:40).
Singing unites creation with God. The song of creation begins and ends with the great Singer, the inventor of melody and fountain of harmony, the word of whose power upholds all things and the beat of whose rhythm keeps the seasons in time. I have just been reading The Magician’s Nephew to my son and marvelling again at the sequence where Aslan sings Narnia into being. But the most delightful aspect of God’s song is that it is not just creative, but redemptive. There is a special song which God sings over his beloved people: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph 3:17). So when we sing together as a church, we are not just aligning ourselves with each other, or with the created order as a whole. We are aligning it with the One who sings loud songs of exultation over his children, and who finished the Last Supper by singing a hymn with his friends.
“I will sing and make melody! Awake, my glory! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn!” (Ps 57:8).