We've already addressed the Psalms, and it is there where some of the most interesting comment on music in liturgical practice appears. In those cases the comment is usually in the form of musical instruction, and is found not in the body of the psalm itself but in the small prefaces before psalms. Psalm 76, for example, is directed to be done "with stringed instruments," as is Psalm 67, which is a fairly specific example. Psalm 70 is recommended "for the memorial offering." Some psalms indicate, apparently, a known tune to which the psalm is recommended to be sung, such as Psalm 60, "according to The Lily of the Covenant" (sounds like it would be a nice tune, but we of course have no idea about it. Others are attributed to specific poets; David gets a lot of credits (whether those are accurate or not is another story), but a significant number of psalms are atributed to a chap named Asaph, who was apparently a chief Temple musician.
A personal favorite reference to music in the Temple is found in the oft-overlooked book of 2 Chronicles. Verses 11-14 describe a moment in the process of the dedication of Solomon's Temple, when the "levitical singers" (members of the priestly class, one presumes) were called up to sing out (with the "aid" of a hundred and twenty trumpets!!!) the refrain "for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever." As the chronicler tells it, when that song sounded with the trumpets,
the house, the house of the Lord, was filled with a cloud, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.Let's face it, that's just cool.
Of course, these bits of example are not particularly germane to our given subject here. In both the Psalms and 2 Chronicles, the singers in question are pretty clearly selected singers, not the whole body of the people. (2 Chronicles makes clear that the singers are the "levitical" singers.) Not surprisingly, to find biblical warrant for singing on the part of the congregation, we need to go to that portion of scripture that comes out of a period in which a congregation, or something like it, exists. Time to visit the New Testament epistles.
There are two exceprts from those epistles that stand out; one offers a fairly explicit instruction in using song, and the other seems to be an example of using song in the way prescribed in the first example.
The third chapter of Colossians offers a hodgepodge of instruction for the believers in that place, some of which are commonplace and some of which get a little ugly (particularly from verse 18 onwards). Before that, though, verse 16 offers up this nugget:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
This is about as explicit as you can get. The author instructs the people to sing, to sing a variety of music ("psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs"), and to sing with gratitude, and does so in the context of instruction to take in the word of Christ and to instruct one another in wisdom.
But look what happens in Philippians 2. In instructing the Philippians on humility, Paul ultimately points to Christ as an example. First encouraging them to look to one another's interests and needs, Paul then turns to the example of Christ -- but look how he does so in verses 5-11.
5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
The text turns to poetry, or more precisely, a hymn -- apparently a hymn that had already come into at least some familiarity among the Christians in Philippi, if Paul felt free to make use of it here in this fashion. One wonders if some of the Philippians, upon hearing or reading this passage, slipped into at least humming the tune, or if the one presiding at the meeting actually broke into song.
Notice, though, what these examples say about the use of song among the people. There is not only the basic act of singing, but the singing has the quality of instruction as well. The song is apparently expected to have enough substance and content to it to be useful as a means of "teaching and admonishing" as well as conveying gratitude and grace.
I'm not sure, dear pastor, how often we think of this function when we ask our congregations to sing. It would seem imperative to give that part of our song together more consideration as we go forward.
From all appearances, Paul used a hymn as a teaching tool. You can do that too.