The Spiritual Song

Bob Johnson

One of the signs of renewal evidenced in congregational worship is the occurrence of some type of extemporaneous congregational song. This music is often unaccompanied, but sometimes it will be accompanied by anything from a single guitar or piano up to a "full orchestra", and occasionally a single singer will be heard lifting their voice in a spontaneous song. These improvised songs of praise have often been called "singing in the spirit", citing St. Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian church to sing with the spirit as well as with the mind (1 Cor. 14.15). Since this passage deals specifically with speaking and singing in tongues, it can be used to explain a part of what we experience during these times of extemporaneous worship, but is not a broad enough term to encompass all music in our services which is "improvised" under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.It is clear from both scripture and history that there has been a tradition of ecstatic music within both Jewish and Christian worship. The spontaneous songs of praise that we hear springing from the renewed church today are a part of this ancient tradition.Several terms have been used to describe this type of music. In addition to "Singing in the Spirit", the phrases "Prophetic Song", "New Song", "Song of the Lord" and "Free Worship" are popularly used to label this type of expression. The New Testament term "Spiritual Song" is not heard used as often to describe this type of worship, but I believe it is a good one, since it is generic enough to encompass singing in the vernacular as well as tongues, as well as different types of lyrics (to God, to each other, from God) and varying performing forces (vocal, instrumental, solo, group and corporate).In addition, Paul's use of the phrase "Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs" tells us that the spiritual song is as much a part of normal, New Testament worship as our prepared psalms and hymns. If the spiritual song is to become a regular part of our worship services, then the same attention needs to be given to developing it that we give to preparing our hymns, choruses, canticles and anthems. There is a great need within our worship for that which is fresh and spontaneous, and the spiritual song fills a part of that need. However, if worship leaders and congregations do not develop both spiritually and musically in the spiritual song, this part of the service can become even more predictable and redundant than the rest of the service once the novelty of it's "newness" fades.In order to avoid getting into a musical and spiritual "rut" with the spiritual song, it will be helpful to examine some scriptures that deal with this type of expression in both the Old and New Testaments.

I. Spiritual Songs, along with Psalms and Hymns, are the normal expressions of a congregation filled with the Spirit and the Word of God.

"...be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5.18-20 "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." Colossians 3.16
A. Be filled with the Spirit
B. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly
C. Sing and make music in your heart to the LordSing...with gratitude in your hearts to God
D. Speak to one another...Teach and counsel one another
E. Definitions

1. Psalms - Greek: PSALMOS - primarily denoting a striking or twitching with the fingers (on musical strings); then, a sacred song, sung to musical accompaniment, a psalm.

2. Hymns - Greek: HUMNOS - denotes a song of praise addressed to God

.3. Spiritual Songs - Greek: ODES PNEUMATIKOS - ODES is the generic word for an ode or song; PNEUMATIKOS is an expansion of the word for spirit, PNEUMA, which primarily denotes the wind; also breath; then, especially the spirit, which like the wind is invisible, immaterial and powerful.

(Definitions taken from Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words)F. As is true with many of the elements of early Christian worship, the Spiritual Song is a continuation of a practice that has its roots in Jewish worship.
II. The Prophetic Tradition in Israel
A. Anointed music provided an atmosphere for the ministry of the prophets.
1 Sam. 10.5 - procession of prophets with musical instruments
2 Kings 3:15 - Elisha prophesying
B. Many of the Old Testament prophecies were actually sung.
Ex. 15:1-21
Deut. 31:19-32:44
Judges 5:1-12
Psalms 1 - 150
Hab. 3
C. The Levites appointed as musicians in David's Tabernacle and Solomon's Temple were expected to prophesy as a normal part of their ministry.
"David, together with the commanders of the army, set apart some of the sons of Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun for the ministry of prophesying, accompanied by harps, lyres and cymbals." 1 Chron. 25.1
"Chenaniah, the head Levite was in charge of the singing; that was his responsibility because he was skillful at it." 1 Chron 15.22
The Hebrew word for "singing" used here is MASSA which has a three-fold meaning:
1. Prophetic song
2. Burden lifted up
3. The lifting of the ark
The "Ark of the Covenant" is lifted up as the prophetic song is sung.
D. The Tehilla
One of the Hebrew words translated as "praise" in our English Bible is TEHILLA. This word means "Laudations or hymns of the Spirit". It speaks of a specific type of "High Praise" where God is literally "enthroned" in our midst.
"You are holy, enthroned on the praises (tehilla) of Israel" - Ps. 22.3
"Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise (tehilla)" - Ps. 100.4
"...it is fitting for the upright to praise (tehilla) him." - Ps. 33.1
"I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise (tehilla) will always be on my lips." - Ps. 31.1
"He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise (tehilla) to our God." - Ps. 40.3
"Praise (tehilla) awaits you, O God, in Zion." - Ps. 65.1
"...a garment of praise (tehilla) instead of a spirit of despair." - Is. 60.3
III. The Voice of the Lord in the midst of the Worshiping Congregation
A. As God is enthroned upon the praises of His church, He is present to speak and to sing prophetically.
"The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save, he will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing." Zeph. 3.17
"I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praise."
Heb. 2.12 (quoting Ps. 22.22)
B. As Jesus begins to sing in the midst of his church our worship becomes more than a one way conversation, it is now a dialogue between the bride and the bridegroom.
"Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted....there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord." Jer. 33.10-11
C. It is God's desire to speak, sing and play prophetically in his church.. It is up to us to yield our voices to him and allow him to speak. This is a ministry in which we can all have a part.
IV. The Corporate Expression of the Spiritual Song

A. The book of Revelation is primarily a liturgical book, giving us glimpses of a heavenly worship service in progress.

B. The worship depicted in Revelation is under proper leadership (4.6-11) and corporate to the degree of "cosmic" proportions (5.13). A characteristic of this worship is the "New Song" (5.9, 14.3), described as sounding like "the voice of many waters".

C. This "voice of many waters" is a characteristic sound of God's tabernacle, and is alluded to in Job 36.27-29 and Ps. 42.7. Also note from Rev. 14 the sound of many harpists, not just one. Ps. 150 gives another picture of the sound used in worship. That this sound is under proper leadership is already established, and is evident because it is both the expression of many members but also a unified sound.

"So all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of the lord with shouts, with the sounding of rams' horns and trumpets, and the playing of lyres and harps." 1 Chron. 15.28

"As the offering began, singing to the Lord began also, accompanied by trumpets and the instruments of David king of Israel. The whole assembly bowed in worship..." 2 Chron. 29.27-28

"The trumpeters (all 120 of them!) and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord...Then the temple filled with a cloud... the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God." 2 Chron. 5.13-14
D. It is God's desire that this "Prophetic Cloud" would rest upon all who dwell in Zion (Is. 4.5). When this "Spirit of Prophecy" (Rev. 19.10) is present, all may prophecy.

"I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!" Num. 11.29

"And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy..." Joel 2.28

"For you can all prophesy in turn..."1 Cor. 14.31

V. Summary and Practical Considerations

It has always been God's desire to dwell in the midst of his people and to speak to them.

The spiritual song in it's many and varied forms has always been a result of this communion between God and his saints, and has been well documented in both the Old and New Testaments as well as during church history (see Appendix 1).The spiritual song can be:

1) Instrumental and/or vocal

2) In tongues or the vernacular

3) Solo or congregational

4) Addressing God, each other, or a "sung prophecy" from God
As leaders, we can help our congregations to grow in their expression of this liturgical act by:

A. Providing biblical and practical teaching on the spiritual song.

B. Practicing the spiritual song as part of our own personal devotional lives.

C. Encouraging our worship leadership (worship leaders, choir, instrumentalists) to make the spiritual song a part of their private worship times as well as taking time during rehearsals to practice musical aspects of the spiritual song and to worship together.

D. Allow time within the regular Sundayservice as well as during other times of corporate worship when the congregation can participate in the spiritual song.Be willing to start simply and slowly, and advance at a pace that allows continued participation as well as growth. Remember that we are building for future generations as well as the present one.
There are also specific musical skills that can be developed by the worship leadership:
A. Worship Leader/Music Director This person should have a theological grasp of and experience in the spiritual song. He/she should be able to disciple others in this ministry and provide leadership of the various musical forces during worship services. A sensitivity to the Holy Spirit is a must! Remember that God is a God of variety. He is the conductor of the worship service, but you must interpret his directions to the rest of the music team. Various instrumentalists and singers and the congregation all have their part to play in the spiritual song, and your leadership can either facilitate total involvement "decently and in order" or allow something less than that to occur.

B. Choir/Soloists Our singers should not only be full of the Holy Spirit and able to sing in tongues, but also need to be full of the Word of God, possessing a worship vocabulary that can spring forth to minister life during the spiritual song. They should have both a boldness to step out under the direction of the Holy Spirit and a submissive spirit to wait or be quiet when necessary. It does take greater musical skill to sing a "solo" prophecy or spiritual song than it does to lift up your voice as part of the "sound of many waters". Some that are led to sing such "solo" spiritual songs may need encouragement and instruction to improve in musical areas (rhythmic flow, intonation, etc.). Great care must be taken not to "quench the Spirit" in a meeting or to stifle a budding prophet, but it should also be noted that an authoritative spoken prophecy is much better than a poorly sung one. We often unnecesarily cause others to despise prophecy and the spiritual song by our unwillingness to provide loving yet firm correction and/or instruction when needed.

C. Instrumentalists There are times when the spiritual song should be unacompanied, but in most cases the proper use of instruments will greatly aid in the ministry of the spiritual song. The same skills necessary to play prepared music are essential to flow in the spiritual song. An ability to "play by ear" is helpful but not necessary. Simple chord progressions (see Appendix 2) can be learned and memorized in a variety of keys, and used as a basis for simple improvisation. Remember that variety in frequency, duration, texture, intensity and timbre are all as important to the spiritual song as they are to a prepared piece. If instruments other than keyboard and guitar are used they can also hone their improvisational skills in the context of these chord progressions and contribute a part according to their ability. Percussionists also need to learn to flow in the variety of musical styles that the spiritual song can encompass. All of these skills can and should be practiced during rehearsals. During the worship service, all instrumentalists should be extremely sensitive to the Holy Spirit, but are ultimately under the hands of and in submission to the music director.
As we provide space in our services for the spiritual song we also provide space for God to manifest himself in our midst and to do as he chooses - perhaps to move in areas we hadn't planned for. Let us press on to worship him with a renewed zeal, and let the voice of the Bride and the Bridegroom be heard in Zion!

APPENDIX

The "Jubilus"

One tradition of ecstatic singing in the church during the patristic period was known as the "Jubilus. The jubilus eventually was formalized as part of the liturgy, but still retained characteristics that gaveit a "spontaneous" sound

A. The word Jubilus comes from the Latin Jubilatio - loud shouting of whooping

B. Also called Pneuma - a song of the spirit, or a song upon the breath

C. Historical references
By the term "jubilus" we understand that which neither in words nor in syllables nor letters nor speech is it possible to express or to comprehend how much man ought to praise God. St. Jerome (c. 340-420

It is a certain sound of joy without words...it is the expression of a mind poured forth in joy...A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which cannot be understood, bursteth forth into sounds of exultation without words, so that it seemeth that he...filled with excessive joy cannot express in words the subject of that joy. St. Augustine (354-430)

One contemporary authority writes:

In Church and Synagogue, extended melismatic chant was regarded as an ecstatic praise of God...Such a conception places this type of singing in close proximity to the glossolaly of the Pauline age...I venture to put forward my own conviction that the whole concept of the pure, wordless, melismatic jubilation should be considered the last, jealously guarded remnant of an organized musical form of glossolaly. Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge (1970)
D. Formalization in the Liturgy
By the fourth century, the jubilus had become a melismatic prolongation of the final vowel of the 'Alleluia', sung before the chanting of the Gospel.

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Copyright © 2005 ZionSong Ministries • All rights reserved.