“‘Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.’”--- Deuteronomy 31:19
Who knows better than God how to teach His people? How to reach their hearts, minds, and consciences with the truth that leads to deep conviction and lasting change? It’s all too easy, in the work of making disciples, to overlook some very obvious aspects of that great commission. When we think of teaching, our minds immediately run to images of classrooms, lecterns, white boards, overheads, and even more sophisticated technologies. We imagine students listening with interest while gifted teachers hold forth; or we see active learning environments in which students participate in the disciple-making process in various ways.
All these have been prominent features of the Christian educational landscape for many years. Visit any church where learning is a priority, and this is what you can expect to see. Contemporary Christians, in fact, are among the most “highly educated” of all generations of Christians, at least, if such criteria as these are to be the measure of our effectiveness. We have more opportunities for Christian teaching and learning than any generation before us, and new ways and programs and methods for advancing and enhancing the work of making disciples are coming available every year.
Yet for all our efforts, the Church continues to drift into marginality. Whatever the followers of Christ are learning in their Christian educational contexts is not translating into a powerful witness for Christ that brings with it the evidence of an advancing kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, for all our educational frenzy we don't seem to be very good at taking the Word of God to heart. Contemporary Christians do not constitute a distinct community and culture of holiness in our increasingly postmodern world. Evidently something is amiss in the way we are teaching the followers of Christ, or in the way they're learning.
In the work of Christian education we must always bear in mind that God is our primary teacher. He “wrote the Book” on life in Christ; He sent His Spirit to guide us into all truth. God knows better than all of us how we must be taught the things that pertain to our salvation and to living out the demands and privileges of a biblical worldview. It would seem to be the part of wisdom, for those employed in the task of teaching God’s truth, to pay attention to all the means God chooses to disciple His people, no matter how unlikely they may seem to us. And one of those powerful teaching methods is song.
God knew the people of Israel very well. He knew their hearts, knew the temptations they would be facing as they entered the land of Canaan, and knew how they would most likely respond to those temptations. Moses warned the generation about to enter the land of how quickly they would become distracted by the things of this world, finding their hearts drawn away from God to the idols of the pagan peoples around them. God spoke through Moses in powerful words of admonition and promise, reminding them of His faithfulness and encouraging them to remain true to His covenant (
Deuteronomy 27-30). Yet God knew the people would ultimately turn their backs on Him and lapse into rebelliousness and sin.
How, therefore, could He instruct His people in such a way as to capture their minds and hold on to their hearts long enough, and strongly enough, to let the work of conviction come to fruition in them?
God’s answer was song. He instructed Moses to compose a song and teach it to the people of Israel, and to teach it so well that they would have it “in their mouths”---that is, that they would understand it, learn it by heart, and pass it along to their children (Deuteronomy 31:21). God intended that the people should sing His song alone and with others, and never be able to get it out of their minds.
The song God gave to Moses is recorded in Deuteronomy 32. This is no “praise song.” It is, instead, a theological tract set to music. What kind of music---that is, what the melody was---we do not know, but we can be sure it was such that the people could quickly learn it and would sing it over and over. Moses did not put the song out there merely for any who like to sing; he taught it to all the people---he made sure it was in their mouths (v. 22).
The lyrics of the song summon the entire creation to bear witness to the faithfulness of God and the ungratefulness of His people. It rehearses His incredible grace and goodness in seeking the people of Israel and binding them to Himself, and their foolishness in turning away from Him to pursue the false gods of paganism. And it serves up a litany of God’s judgment against His errant, ungrateful flock in which He brings calamity and disaster upon them and utter ruin to the gods they prized instead of Him. The song ends with a triumphant declaration of the sovereign might of God, and a hint of restoration for all who show themselves to be His friends and followers.
There can be no doubt that the intent of this song was to warn the people and to remind them of the way back to God. Hardly the type of song we expect to encounter in a congregation of the Lord’s people today.
Yet God knew that this astonishing piece of music would have convicting power with the people of Israel. He foretold a day, when His judgment would break out against them, and they would remember this song, meditate on its words, see their sin, and repent and seek the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:20-22). God did not give this song to Israel to entertain them. He gave it to instruct them, to remind them of His great power and goodness, to convict them of their wickedness in forsaking Him, and to summon them to repentance and renewed seeking of the Lord.
Because song is able to bring together body and soul in a rehearsal of truth, it has great power as an educational tool. We employ our strength in singing, making the time and exerting the necessary energy of lungs and voice. We also engage our souls in singing---our minds working over the lyrics and our affections rising and falling with the melodies and cadences of the music. Granted, most of us don’t sing with quite this depth of involvement today---try leading a worship service and watching the faces of people as they sing. Nevertheless, the potential exists in song for imparting profound, even difficult, theological truths and embedding them in the depths of the soul, where they may lie dormant until needed to address some pressing issue or need.
Too many Christians only sing when they are in church, and only then because they feel they have to. While listening to choirs, bands, and CDs with evident delight. We need to add singing as a spiritual discipline to our walk with God. The fact that Scripture commands us to sing (
Psalm 96:1), that great Christians in the Bible sang frequently (Acts 16:25), that singing is an indication of the filling of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-21), and that singing appears to be a major preoccupation of those who have passed on to glory (Revelation 4,5). God understands the power and importance of singing in the life of discipleship, and He commends its benefits to us as a way of maintaining and nurturing our relationship with Him.
So how can we make song a more important part of our own lives, and in the lives of those we teach? Some suggestions:
1. Study the lyrics of every hymn or song you already know. Make sure you understand them and can state their meaning in your own words. 2. Try to learn some new hymns and songs. Buy a hymnal or a songbook. Get someone to teach you songs which have strong lyrics but unfamiliar melodies. 3. Sing “harder” when you are with other Christians. Don’t mealy-mouth your way through the morning hymns and songs on Sunday; pour out the strength of your lungs and voice, and dedicate the concentration of your heart and mind to this task that God takes so seriously. 4. Make singing a part of your daily disciplines. Try singing in the car, at your desk, as you are shopping or fixing a meal. Bring singing into your day so that the message of God’s Word and the power of song can do their intended work in your life.
Song has great disciple-making power, as God Himself knew. If only we could bring ourselves to believe it, and to let that power have more sway in our own lives. As we go into the year of our Lord 2010, let us put a new song into our hearts to worship the one true God. Happy New Year and start the year off right with a daily Bible reading schedule. I guarantee your year will be blessed.