Posted by: Billy Marsh | November 4, 2007

Raising the Standard for Noisemakers

For those of you who may have grown up like me in a Southern Baptist church in the South, you will be closely familiar with the 5th Sunday singin’ service. Every 5th Sunday night at my church back home, we had two hours of non-stop singing and worship. The first time that I ever sang and played my guitar in front of a group of people was at one of these events while I was still in high school. My pastor, Steve Lee, made me go back home (we only lived a half-mile from the church) and get my guitar just so that I could play a song. I still remember what I played too: “Little Mountain Church House.” It was some bluegrass, gospel song that I found in a bluegrass songbook that I had bought. I didn’t know the melody, but I liked the words, so I made up the tune on my own and that is how I entered the world of singing and playing music at church.

Often, at gatherings such as these, or even during more formal worship settings, you will hear Psalm 100:1 quoted, intentionally out of context, in order to encourage those in the congregation to sing louder or more enthusiastically despite their inadequate abilities to carry a tune. What is freguently said goes like this: “The Bible says ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord,” so you don’t have to sound great, just sing from your heart.” In fact, I know that I’ve said it before, numerous times. Moreover, this exhortation which simultaneously functions as an affirmation, is also applied to any type of musical mode of worshipping God whether it be through vocals or through instruments.

Phil Keaggy plays stringed instruments skillfully.

However, I’m here to end all of that nonsense. We no longer need to endorse noisemaking as a justified means of proper worship. And the verse that is going to rescue us from the sound of ourselves comes straight out of the Psalms, that is, Ps 33:3 which says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” I remember when I first read this verse, I felt the overwhelming sense that the Lord had just opened my eyes up to a verse that obviously everyone else I knew had not seen. This, of course, is not true by any means; but I immediately wondered why no one ever quoted this verse during the hundreds of 5th Sunday night singings that I had endured over the years.

A quick word study on the word translated ‘skillfully’ took me to three other places where this Hebrew word was rendered in this manner:

First, the word is used in 1 Samuel 16:17, “So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.” This man of course was David, son of Jesse. In this text, David’s harp playing was the means by which the evil spirit was removed from Saul and the king was refreshed. So, we see in 1 Sam 16:17 the account of David, who played skillfully enough to serenade the king; therefore, the exhortation in Ps 33:3 takes on new meaning as the one who is gifted in playing a stringed instrument commends others to do the same in worship of the Lord.

The second and third examples exist in Isaiah 23:16 and Ezekiel 33:32. Isa 23:16 says, “Take a harp; go about the city, O forgotten prostitute! Make sweet melody; sing many songs, that you may be remembered.” Ezek 33:32 states, “And behold, you are to them like one who sings lustful songs with a beautiful voice and plays well on an instrument, for they hear what you say, but they will not do it.” In both cases, the Hebrew is interpreted in reference to the one who plays a stringed instrument well. The root for the word translated ‘skillfully’ is the Hebrew word for ‘good’. Thus, in this case, the word has an essential meaning which may be understood as “doing something good” or in more proper English, “doing something well.” Hence, to say that you did ‘good’ playing the guitar in front of the congregation should not be solely based upon your ‘good’ intentions; instead, we ought to raise the standard and expect those who are going to sing a “new song” to the Lord, to do so skillfully.

Now, just for your information, I am preaching to myself just as much as anyone else. I’ve been at the same guitar-playing level for the past three years, and the Lord convicted me about letting my gifts collect dust. Still, though our sarcastic disclaimer that the Bible says, “Make a joyful noise to the LORD” lets us get by on mediocrity, we ought to labor to sing and play with a higher quality than we often times permit.

I’ve also seen Christians shy away from wanting to play skillfully during worship services because they don’t want to distract or steal the attention away from God. This is absurd, and worship leaders must learn to wisely discern the difference between letting your worship team put on a rock concert as opposed to allowing them to play at the best of their abilities with the gifts that God has given them.

So, the next time you hear somone trying to justify musical inability as sufficient worship by opting out to Psalm 100:1, don’t forget to declare the whole counsel of God, and share with them Psalm 33:3.

Hear what Charles H. Spurgeon comments were concerning Ps 33:3 and playing skillfully:

It is wretched to hear God praised in a slovenly manner. He deserves the best that we have. Every Christian should endeavor to sing according to the rules of the art, so that he may keep time and tune with the congregation. The sweetest tunes and the sweetest voices, with the sweetest words, are all too little for the Lord, our God; let us not offer Him limping rhymes set to harsh tunes and growled out by discordant voices (C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David).

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Responses

  1. Hey, I was glad to see your comments on ”noise” because I always thought quoting that scipture was just an excuse for somebody not wanting to hurt somebody else’s feelings instead of telling them they needed to only sing while driving with the radio wide open or in the shower.


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