The Hymn Amazing Grace: New Testament Language Based Upon Old Testament Scripture

Contributed by Dr. A. Merril Smoak, Jr., Dean, Jubilee School

In his hymn Amazing grace! how sweet the sound John Newton used several New Testament sounding words and phrases to describe his Christian salvation experience:

     Amazing grace! how sweet the sound         [stanza one]

     That saved a wretch like me!

     How precious did that grace appear          [stanza two]

     The hour I first believed.

     ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,    [stanza three]

     And grace will lead me home.

It is a little known fact that this well-know Christian hymn is actually based upon Old Testament scripture verses, specifically 1 Chronicles chapter 17, verses 16 and 17. This is a good reminder for worship leaders and Christian song writers today. Our new contemporary praise and worship songs must be based upon scriptures found in the Old Testament and the New Testament.

Amazing grace! how sweet the sound was written and first published in 1779 by British pastor and former slave ship captain John Newton (1725-1807). While serving at the church in Olney England Newton and his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) published a hymn collection entitled OLNEY HYMNS, IN THREE BOOKS. Amazing grace! how sweet the sound is hymn number 41 in this collection. In the Preface to OLNEY HYMNS Newton makes this statement concerning the arrangement of the hymns in the collection:

These hymns are distributed in three Books. In the first I have classed those which are formed upon select passages of Scripture, and placed them in the order of the Books of the Old and New Testament.

In OLNEY HYMNS the original six stanzas of Amazing grace! how sweet the sound were placed in “BOOK I. ON SELECTED PASSAGES OF SCRIPTURE” with the heading:


XLI. Faith’s review and expectations.

Chap. xvii. 16. 17.

Thus the words of John Newton’s famous hymn are based upon scripture verses found in First Chronicles, chapter 17, verses 16 and 17. It is interesting to ponder what Newton had in mind when he chose the words of king David’s prayer found in 1 Chronicles 17:16-17 to describe his Christian salvation experience in his hymn Amazing grace! how sweet the sound:

16 Then King David went in and sat before the Lord; and he said: “Who am I, O Lord God? And what is my house, that You have brought me this far? 17 And yet this was a small thing in Your sight, O God; and You have also spoken of Your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have regarded me according to the rank of a man of high degree, O Lord God.

In chapter 17 of 1 Chronicles the prophet Nathan tells David that God will not allow him to build a permanent house for the ark of the covenant that has been dwelling in a tent. Instead God has chosen one of David’s sons to build a house for the ark of the covenant. Nathan explains to David what will happen in verses 11-12:

11 And it shall be, when your days are fulfilled, when you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up your seed after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. 12 He shall build Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever.

The immediate result of this prophecy is that David’s son Solomon will build a temple in Jerusalem that will house the ark. But more importantly Nathan’s words hint that the coming Messiah, King Jesus, will be from David’s lineage: “I will establish his throne forever.” (verse 12). Unknowingly David also hints at the coming of Jesus through his family line in verse 17: “and You have also spoke of Your servant’s house for a great while to come.”

Yes, David was disappointed that he would not be allowed to build the temple. But in verses 16 and 17 he wonderfully proclaims his faith and trust in the God who has chosen him to be king in Israel. Through David’s seed God’s forever house, Jesus, will be established. With this Old Testament story in mind John Newton also writes about his faith and trust in the God who has chosen him to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ through preaching and hymn writing:

     Amazing grace!  (how sweet the sound)

     That sav’d a wretch like me!

     I once was lost, but now am found,

     Was blind, but now I see.

Both David and John Newton were men who struggled to consistently walk in God’s ways. Both men were sinners who were saved by God’s amazing grace. The sixth and final stanza of the hymn Amazing grace! how sweet the sound is a fitting epitaph for remembering both of these men who experienced God’s amazing grace:

     The earth will soon dissolve like snow,

     The sun forbear to shine;

     But God, who called me [David & John Newton] here below,

     Will be forever mine.

May each of us also experience and know God’s amazing grace!

Singing a New Song: Instructions from the Psalms – Dr. Merril Smoak

Several times in the Psalms we find the admonition to “sing a new song.” As worship leaders and church musicians this should immediately get our attention. We are always looking for a new song to learn and then teach to our congregations. Let’s examine these references to “singing a new song” found in the songbook of the ancient Hebrews.

Psalm 33:3
Sing to him [God] a new song;
     play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

Psalm 96:1
Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
     sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Psalm 98:1
Oh sing to the Lord a new song,
     for he has done marvelous things!

Psalm 144:9
I will sing a new song to you, O God;
     upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you [God],

Psalm 149:1
Praise the Lord!
Sing to the Lord a new song,
     his praise in the assembly of the godly!

Here are 10 things we learn about music and worship from examining these verses:

  • Sing! Throughout the Psalms we find references to singing. God has created human beings with the physical ability to sing. With our own bodies we create music. We call this singing.
  • These verses teach us that our singing is to have a purposeful direction. We are to sing directly to the LORD. Our physical cognitive process (our minds) enable us to lift our singing voices up to God as praise and worship.
  • We are directed to sing a “new song” to the LORD. What does this mean? We will discuss this in detail below.
  • Musical instruments are a part of singing a new song to the LORD.
  • Loud shouts of joy are a part of singing a new song to the LORD.
  • “All the earth” is to sing to the LORD. This includes humans and all of God’s creation (rivers, mountains, tress, etc.).
  • We sing to the LORD because “he has done marvelous things!”
  • Instrumentalists play their instruments and make music to the LORD.
  • Singing a new song to the LORD is synonymous with praising the LORD.
  • We are to sing a new song to the LORD with other people who love the LORD. We do this each Sunday morning when we come together to worship the LORD.

Now, what does it mean to “sing a new song?” Here are four suggestions to consider:

  • Yes, obviously it can mean to write new words and compose new melodies to form a brand new song. This has happened throughout Christian history and it must continue today. We always need new songs of praise and worship to express our love for God, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The writer of Lamentations helps us with this understanding:
    The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
              his mercies never come to an end;
    they are new every morning;
         great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
  • It could also simply mean that the words and music are new to the singers. The singers have found a song that was previously written and it is new to them. This happens all the time. As Christians we have a rich heritage of hymns and songs that have been written in the past by persons who have loved the LORD. Let’s keep on looking for that one special song to express our love for the LORD.
  • Non-Christians and new Believers could all of a sudden decide to sing the songs of Yahweh. Yes! This is wonderful! Non-Christians are being prompted by the Holy Spirit to become believers in Jesus. As they experience singing new songs about God’s love for them they will soon become followers of Jesus. New Believers must sing new songs about forgiveness of sins and the joy of their salvation because of Jesus’ death on the cross. This reminds us of the reference to singing a new song in John’s Revelation:
    And they sang a new song, saying,
    Worthy are you to take the scroll
         and to open its seals,
    for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
         from every tribe and language and people and nation,
         (Revelation 5:9)
  • Here is one last possibility about the meaning of singing a new song. There are many worship songs that we have been singing for many years. The words and melody are very familiar. Then, all of a sudden while singing one of these songs a particular word or phrase jumps out at us with a fresh, new understanding. We are now singing this familiar song as a new song. This reminds us of Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth:
    What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind [understanding] also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind [understanding] also.
         (1 Corinthians 14:15)

There is one more reference to singing a new song in the Psalms.

Psalm 40:3
He put a new song in my mouth,
     a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
     and put their trust in the Lord.

This is amazing! God himself puts a new song in our mouths and we lift this new song back to God as a new song of praise! AND (!) because of this new song many people will see and fear the LORD and put their trust in the LORD! The singing of this new song will lead to new Believers!

Amen! Let’s continue to lift new songs unto the LORD!

– Dr. Merril Smoak

Always Singing – A Note from Dr. Merril Smoak about Music & Worship

Christians Musicians Are Always Giving Thanks

Christian musicians are always looking for scripture verses that mention music and singing.  These verses guide us in our song selection and deepen our understanding of how to lead others in worship.  In the New Testament, we find two examples of these selected Bible verses:  Ephesians 5:15-20 and Colossians 3:15-17.  These two well-known passages mention the familiar “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” of the first century Christian church.  These verses are singularly important because they teach us that singing was an important part of early Christian worship. 

Yes, singing is an important part of our Sunday worship, but as we read and study Ephesians 5:15-20 and Colossians 3:15-17 other themes emerge that must impact our worship leadership.  Note these phrases:

         “always giving thanks”       Ephesians 5:20

         “And be thankful”               Colossians 3:15

         “with gratitude”                  Colossians 3:16

         “giving thanks”                   Colossians 3:17

In these verses Paul reminds us of the link between singing and giving thanks that was already established in the Old Testament:

         “It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
         to sing praises to your name, O Most High
”          Psalm 92:1

As we sing together during times of worship we are giving thanks.  As we pray we are giving thanks.  As Christians, we live a life of everyday giving thanks to God for his blessings, mercy, and grace.  We continually give thanks to God for his Son Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Thanks be to God!

Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s teachings on “giving thanks” in these verses from Ephesians and Colossians.  Here is Ephesians 5:19-20

        “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Notice that the phrase “always giving thanks” is a continuation of the sentence “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”  In verse 20 Paul answers three questions:           

To whom do we give thanks?         “to God”

For what do we give thanks?          “for everything”

How do we give thanks?                “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”

We give thanks to God for everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!  Amen!

Here is Colossians 3:16b-17

       “…singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Again Paul links “singing” with “gratitude” (giving thanks).  He then reminds us that our spoken words and our actions are all to be done in the name of the Lord Jesus as we give thanks to God through Jesus.

On November 25 of this year, we will celebrate a national holiday called Thanksgiving Day.  As Christians, we understand that setting aside one day per year to give thanks is certainly not enough!  Every moment of every day we give thanks to God for our very breath and our new life in Christ Jesus.

Here are the words to one of my favorite closing worship songs:

         Giving thanks, giving thanks,
         To God through Christ our Lord.
         Giving thanks, giving thanks,
         To God through Christ our Lord.

Christian musicians and worship leaders always remember to live a life of daily giving thanks as you prepare to lead your people in worship by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  Thanks be to God!

6/27 Jubilee Chapel Worship

Of the principles laid out in the Bible, there is only one critical and pervasive principle: the principle of death and denial of death, of saying no to oneself and the world so that we might say yes to Christ. The deliberation about death is central to the New Testament. (Rom. 6:5-6, Gal. 5:20, 6:14)

 For Christians, however, the difficulty is not with understanding so much as it is with the application; and it is here that most of us fall. If we experience death and deny it, which is the basis of the Christian life, we must be willing to say no to anything contrary to God’s will and a way for us.

First, it means saying no to anything contrary to God’s revelation of himself; that is, anything contrary to the Bible. Second, in the biblical scheme of things, death is always followed by life, which is truly exciting and for which we are willing to die.

So what is the difference between a joyless Christian and a joyful Christian, a defeated and a victorious one? Death and resurrection! The joyless Christian may have died and risen with Christ in some abstract, theological sense so that he can be “a new creature in Christ,” but he has undoubtedly never known it in practice. On the other hand, the joyful Christian has found satisfaction in whatever God dispenses to him and is truly satisfied, for he has said no to anything that might keep him from the richness of God’s blessing and presence and has risen into new life.

6/23 Jubilee Chapel Worship

How Does Jesus Christ View Death? [John 11:11-15]

If the death was the death of an unbeliever, Jesus was not encouraging. In fact, he warned men against dying in this state.

For in the teaching of the Bible death is separation, and the death of an unbe- liever is a separation of the soul and the spirit from God. God is light. So a separation from God in death means darkness. God is the source of all good gifts. Death means a deprivation of those gifts. It is this dimension, not suf- fering alone, that makes death the fearful thing it is for unbelievers.

On the other hand, Jesus was most encouraging about the death of believ- ers. In fact, he was as encouraging on this aspect of the question as he was discouraging on the other. Here he spoke of entering into Abraham’s bosom, or paradise (Luke 16:22; 23:43). He spoke of a land filled with many man- sions, which he was going to prepare for those who followed him (John 14:2).

“Lazarus is dead, and I am glad.” We find ourselves asking, “How can Jesus be glad? How can death possibly be a cause for rejoicing?”

There are several answers to this question, and they are all in the passage. First, Jesus was glad at Lazarus’s death because Lazarus was a believer and he understood what the death of a believer was. It was not to be feared. It was a homecoming. In these verses he terms it a “sleep,” which it is, and implies that not only is it not to be feared but rather that it is to be regarded as some- thing beneficial.

We understand this better when we begin to reflect on sleep itself and of the good that comes from it. Notice first that sleep is harmless. So also is death for the believer. David knew this. He wrote in the Twenty-third Psalm, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil” (v. 4). Or again, Paul wrote, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:56–57).

For us death is indeed a shadow. But it is a shadow only because the grim reality of death with all its horTor laid hold of our shepherd. Is death separa- tion, separation from God? This is what Jesus bore for those who are his sheep. He was separated from the Father. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was separated so that for us death might be a shadow.

We may note that sleep is restful. It is a relief from the work of the day. The Book of Ecclesiastes notes that “the sleep of a laborer is sweet” (Eccl. 5:12). The disciples said of Lazarus, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better” (v. 12). It is the same with death. Thus, in Revelation we read, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them” (14:13).

Let me say that I do not believe this means that there will be nothing to do in heaven. In fact, I believe that the opposite will be the case. I believe that the life of heaven will be filled with activity; for God is active himself-he is the Creator after all-and we shall be like him. Heaven will not be restful in the sense that there will be no work to do. But it will be restful in the sense that what we do will be done without toil; that is, without the strain, labor, and sorrow that work involves in this life because of sin’s curse.

There is one more thing about the resemblance between death and sleep. Sleep is temporary. That is, we sleep to rise again. In the same way, death is temporary. We die, but we do so in order to rise to a world prepared for us by our heavenly Father. Moreover, on the spiritual level death is so temporary that it can hardly be described by time-words at all. How long is death? It has no duration. It is a passage rather, a passage from this world to the next. It is a doorway. Thus, to be absent from the body is “to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8).

There was a second reason why Jesus could say that he was glad, however. Jesus was glad because he knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead.

Death could not exist in the presence of Jesus. There is no indication any- where in Scripture that Jesus ever met a dead person and failed to raise him. On one occasion, when he was passing the little village of Nain, in Galilee, he met a funeral procession coming out of the city. A man had died, the only son of a widow. Jesus went to the bier, touched the dead man, and restored him to life. On another occasion, Jesus raised the daughter of a certain ruler of the synagogue, named Jairus. Here it is Lazarus who is raised. Jesus never met a funeral that he did not stop. In fact, I would be willing to state that he never came across an illness of any kind without making the situation right. So he was always glad. As here, he could rejoice at the outcome.

Also note this, only he can do it. No one else can. if the person is dead, then the doctors are useless. Only the voice of the divine Christ can call forth life in resurrection.

If only Jesus can call forth the dead, do you know the voice that will call them? Not everyone knows Christ’s voice.Jesus said of many of his day, “You cannot hear my word” (John 8:43). He said that only those could hear who had been given to him by the Father. Only his sheep could respond (John 10:27). Are you one of his sheep? Have you been given to Christ by the Father? If you cannot answer that question with a firm yes, perhaps you should put yourself in a place where, by the grace of God, you may hear Christ’s voice even now.

Jesus was glad that Lazarus had died, for a third reason. He was glad because he knew that he would raise Lazarus. He was glad because he knew that the resurrection would result in a strengthening of the faith of many.

The last point can be applied to you who are Christians by asking whether the resurrection that Jesus has performed in you has had that effect on other persons. Has your resurrection helped others to find Jesus?

We must remember at this point that while all the miracles recorded are true, nevertheless these are recorded (rather than others) bccause these miracles are superb illustrations of salvation. Thus, the impotent man is a picture of each of us before we are restored spiritually. We are helpless, unable to move, unable to take even the first step toward Jesus. The man born blind is another example. He was unable to see Jesus. If Jesus had told the man to seek him and that he would then help him, the man could not have done it. Yet Jesus saved him. In the same way, the story of Lazarus is included to show what it means to be “dead in trespasses and sins” and why it is neces- sary that the voice of Christ sound forth to rouse us from this spiritual slumber. We will not awaken spiritually unless Christ calls. But when he calls we do awaken. This is our experience if we are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. And so the question holds: Have our resurrection helped others to find Jesus?

If we are a Christian. We have been dead spiritually. We have been made alive in Jesus. Well, then, can others see it? That is one way in which Jesus would like to express joy in our death and resurrection.

Look to the Psalms

Dr. Smoak

As Jesus prepared to ascend back to heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father he encouraged his disciples to read the Psalms. Here are his specific words recorded in Luke 24 verse 44:

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

These words of Jesus launched the Psalms into the singing, teaching, and preaching of the disciples and the first Christians. They did read the Psalms and found there much that had been written about the coming of Jesus and the ministry of Jesus while he was on earth. The Psalms became an important part of early Christian worship which continues even today.

Psalm 98 is filled with references to music and singing, but more important are the many references to “the LORD” that are fulfilled in Jesus. Here is verse one:

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.

These words simply remind us to sing the LORD. The words of our new songs proclaim that Jesus has done marvelous things and that his most important work is salvation.

Verse two increases our understanding of the salvation that Jesus brings:

The LORD has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.

The salvation work of Jesus that was worked out on the cross is not a secret. His salvation has been made known. In fact, the righteousness that Jesus provided has been revealed to all the nations of the world. This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Here is verse three:

He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to the house of Israel
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.

The Psalms are the writings of the God’s chosen people “the house of Israel.” God’s love and faithfulness to Israel are fulfilled in Jesus. Through Jesus God provided salvation for all Israel and all peoples of the world. Again, this is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Verses 4 thru 6 are filled with musical terms and instructions for our worship to be loud and exuberant. In these verses we are encouraged to:

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth,


Shout for joy before the LORD, the King.

Notice that we are to shout “to” and “before” the LORD. Shouting for joy “before” the LORD has references to being in the presence of the LORD. That is a good place to be! Joy to the world, the LORD is come! All the earth, all peoples of the earth are shouting for joy. Israel finally has their perfect and eternal King!

Because the LORD is come verses 7 and 8 state that all of creation is singing for joy:

Let the sea resound,

Let the rivers clap their hands,

Let the mountains sing together for joy;

The Psalms are filled with references to God’s creation singing and praising their Creator.

The final verse of Psalm 98 reminds us that the LORD is also coming as a judge:

Let them sing before the LORD,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the people with equity.

Jesus will come as a judge at the end of time when he comes to earth for the second and final time. Because of sin his judgment of the world and all peoples will be based upon his righteousness and his equity that was displayed on the cross. Jesus rules the world with his truth and his grace. This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

Hopefully you have noticed some familiar phrases from the Christmas carol Joy to the world, the Lord is come in my thoughts above concerning Psalm 98. Joy to the world, the Lord is come is Isaac Watts’ hymn paraphrase of Psalm 98. Watts believed that if Christians are to sing the Psalms that the Psalms must be “Christianized.” Thus Isaac Watts penned many references to the incarnation of Jesus in his paraphrase of Psalm 98 and gave us a wonderful carol to sing every December. I encourage you to read and study the verses of Psalm 98 and the four stanzas of Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Then shout for joy with these words:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

This is good news! This is the Gospel! Joy to the world, the LORD is come!

What’s the Point of Worship?

I came across a church once whose mission statement on the billboard outside the church building was “You don’t have to stand, you don’t have to sing, you don’t have to give.” (Perhaps this sounds quite appealing at the end of a long week!) As a boy, I think I often equated worship with some kind of penance. I would atone for my bad behavior (particularly regarding my younger brother) through the penance of mind-numbingly long (“I’m so bored I could eat my own shoes”) liturgical services.

I recall first coming across some more contemporary worship music as an adult and it made me cringe. At the time, I found it was just altogether too enthusiastic and overly emotional. So if worship is either profoundly boring or overly emotional, then we have to ask ourselves the question of why the Lord would invite us to worship Him with all our hearts and with all our souls and with all our strength. Is God really that self-concerned that He needs all of that attention? Later I would learn that worship is as far from boring as you can get, that it has the power to engage our minds and our emotions, and was always part of the Lord’s gift to us.

To begin with, worship restores intimacy in our relationship with God. God does not need our worship but He does long for it. This is the longing of God that draws us into our longing for Him. The Psalmist wrote, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). Our longing for God comes as a response to His longing for us. So when we read “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we are being exhorted to love God like this because this is exactly how He loves us.

Worship is a kind of a dance—a dance that is at the heart of the Trinity (the “perichoresis”: Father, Son and Holy Spirit)—and we are invited into that dance. As Sam Storms writes, “God created us so that the joy He has in Himself might be ours. God doesn’t simply think about Himself or talk to Himself. He enjoys Himself! He celebrates with infinite and eternal intensity the beauty of who He is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And we’ve been created to join the party!” This is intended to be an emotional experience as we are caught up in the dance. We are each going to express that emotion differently because we are all wired differently. I recall inviting a friend to a worship service once. His stony, glazed face rather suggested that I had done the wrong thing. I spent the entire service inwardly planning how I would try to fix this. Afterward, when we got into the car, I nervously asked him what he thought of the service. He answered, “That was the single most profound experience of my life!” All of the movement was on the inside. It really is a matter of the heart. It is about inclining our hearts toward God in the recovery of an intimate relationship with Him.

I have also come to see how worship reshapes us. The Apostle Paul writes, “God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son” (Romans 8:29-30). This is what happens in the throne room of God. We find ourselves transformed. We are remade and reshaped.

Have you ever noticed that you arrive at a service of worship with one attitude and leave with an entirely different attitude? Peace seeps in, mercy nudges itself past our own defenses, there is joy when there was not, there is healing where there was pain. And as we surrender more completely in worship, we are reshaped ever more deeply. This is not something that we do; this is something that God does in us. To allow our hearts to be unabashed and selfless in worship is not work but His gift to us. And this unencumbered worship is not just for Sunday, this is about offering all of our lives.”

We might imagine that the kind of wholehearted and “all in” worship described is a very distant thing. And yet many of us know someone who seems able to live with at least one foot in the heavenly chorus line. I had a close friend named Melanie. I met her when I remarked on the beauty of her singing voice from behind me in a worship service. She beamed, introduced herself and told me that she loved to worship God. Melanie also asked me if I would pray for her because, now in her early thirties, cancer had returned to her body. My wife and I got to know Melanie and her husband, Alex, really well. Over about six years we became close friends and we prayed with them often. We saw great breakthroughs in her health, but the cancer finally overcame her.

In all of this time, however, she never stopped worshipping. To visit her was always to have worship music playing somewhere in the house. At the very end, all Melanie could do was to lie with her hand open as the worship music played, swept up in a heavenly chorus that would lift her over the threshold and into throne room. It was as if she were already there. And in that posture, the Lord took her by the hand and led her home. A. W. Tozer wrote, “We must never rest until everything inside us worships God.”

Drew Williams is senior pastor at Trinity Church in Greenwich.

The Vocabulary of Worship

Anthropologist Franz Boas traveled through the icy waters of Baffin Island in northern Canada during the 1880s, desiring to study the life of the local Inuit people. In his

1911 book, Handbook of American Indian Languages, he let loose the claim that Eskimos have many words for snow. Most academic linguists considered this to be amateur scholarship, and his claim became known as the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest research, however, shows that Boas was correct. Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, in Washington, D.C., has proven that Inuit tribes do indeed have a plethora of words for snow. He also counted 70 terms for ice and 1,000 words for reindeer!

Languages evolve to speak to what is most important in the lives of their speakers. Think how many words we have for coffee. For the people of God, what was supremely important was their great need to worship God, and therefore we discover that within the pages of the Old and New Testaments there is a plethora of beautiful words to describe different aspects of worship. Like a diamond, you can hold these words up to the light and see different facets of God’s invitation to worship freely in His presence.

At first glance, this vocabulary of worship is not apparent in our English Bibles. The original translation of the Old Testament, from Hebrew to Latin to English, compressed or flat-lined multiple Hebrew words, each expressing a distinct facet of worship, into the single word praise. It is not just that our understanding or vocabulary has been compressed, but also, in flat-lining the theology of praise, our worship has become diminished.

Take the Hebrew word halal, which means to celebrate; to be abandoned in worship at the risk of being described as undignified. In this way, David writes, “Let them praise [halal] His name with dancing and make music to Him with the timbrel and harp.” (Psalm 149:3) The God of the Universe made us to praise Him with abandon — like children caught up in the rhythm of a song that makes you want to dance — so you do!

Beneath the drab covers of our word praise we also discover the Hebrew word zamar, meaning to celebrate in song and music. The psalmist writes, “I will sing a new song to You, O God; On a harp of ten strings I will sing praises [zamar] to You” (Psalm 144:9). Zamar is used throughout the Psalms to connote the making of music, celebrating in song and music. It is a word that appears 41 times.

Why? There is a lot going on, physically and emotionally, in music. Music improves visual and verbal skills, and it makes us happier. Studies have shown that music strengthens the heart, and listening to music releases endorphins in the brain that help to improve vascular health. Music improves the quality of our sleep, and even boosts our immune system and reduces pain. Music draws us to one another and increases our sense of self-esteem. Have you ever heard a piece of music and immediately been vividly transported back to a time and a place? According to Christopher Bergland, writing for Psychology Today, if you haven’t heard a song in years, the neural tapestry representing that song stays purer and the song will evoke even stronger and specific memories of a time and place from your past.

And spiritually, music opens the eyes of our hearts to the in-breaking of heaven. Music is a powerful tool to draw us into a personal experience with God. The prophet Zephaniah tells us that God chooses to quiet us with His love by singing over us. Music disrupts our natural equilibrium and opens an aperture where we behold heaven on earth.

Finally, let me introduce you to the word towdah. This means to extend the hand in praise as a thanksgiving for things not yet received. In the towdah, we lift our hands in the presence of God, not only for what He has done, but also for what we believe He will do. It is to praise God with expectation in His goodness. David wrote while incarcerated, “In God I have put my trust; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; I will render praises (towdah) to You.” (Psalm 56: 11-12)

When I was at seminary, I did a placement in a poor community on the outskirts of the city. It was a community torn apart by drug abuse and gang violence. I was invited to speak at a gathering called “The Light House,” where people crammed into a tiny sitting room to worship God. They sang along to a mixed tape of worship songs, and they had threadbare photocopies of the cassette box lyrics laid out in tiny, tiny print. Clearly, however, they knew the words. With hands raised, they declared that their story, the story of their community, was not over. That they would rise up and stand in faith. They did not hold back. There was something about this tiny congregation’s declaration of bold faith in the goodness of God — despite all the darkness in their community, all the violence and gang activity, with God at their side they would not back down. They rejoiced in the light of God, holding onto His promises, trusting that He would move. And, God poured out His blessing, and His presence. He inhabited that tiny sitting room.

Is it possible that God wants to take us outside of our comfort zone in worship? Maybe the thought of lifting your hands, or kneeling, or even singing — all feels a little too enthusiastic or emotional? If you feel this way, know that this is not a shock to God and He does not love you any less. But also know this: God desires your full, free expression of praise. In Jesus, we are all called to join with heaven in a holy roar of praise — in all its beautiful facets.

Drew Williams – the Senior Pastor of Trinity Church

Songs about Faith in God Needed Now!

As fear of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) spreads around the world and here in the United States songs about our faith in God are definitely needed.  As Christian musicians and worship leaders we can make this happen. Let’s find those songs that remind us of God’s faithfulness and share them with our family, friends, and congregations. Where do we find those songs? Let’s begin with the book of Lamentations in the Old Testament.

“The book is well named.  It contains the sorrowful expressions of a writer and a nation as they grieve the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon in 586 B.C.  Though the text does not identify its author, tradition has attributed Lamentations to the prophet Jeremiah. This attribution cannot be proven, but undeniably the writer of these laments shares both Jeremiah’s theological vision and the gut-wrenching experience of Judah’s devastation.”[1]

In chapter three the writer of Lamentations reminds us:

        Because of the LORD’S great love we are not consumed,
                    for his compassions never fail.
        They are new every morning;
                    great is your faithfulness.
         I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion;
                    therefore I will wait for him.”
                                Lamentations 3:22-24

We now fast forward thousands of years to 1923 when Thomas Chisholm wrote the gospel hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.”  Even today, his words continue to bring hope and encouragement to Christ’s followers. [2] Here is stanza three and the refrain that is based upon Lamentations 3, verse 23:

         Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
         Thy own presence to cheer and to guide;
         Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
         Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
         Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
         Morning by morning new mercies I see;
         All I have needed Thy had hath provided –
         Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
               Great is Thy faithfulness, Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923

We now jump forward almost one hundred years to present day. Now! On February 28, 2020 Vertical Worship released their album Grace Is on Our Side which includes the song “Faithful Now” written by Mia Fields, Jonathan Smith, Hank Bentley, and Eddie Hoagland. [3] Here are the words of the chorus:

         You make mountains move,
         You make giants fall,
         You use songs of praise
         To shake prison walls;
         I will speak to my fear, I will preach to my doubt;
         You were faithful then, You’ll by faithful now.
              Faithful Now, Vertical Worship, 2020

It must be stated that the word “You” in this song definitely and absolutely refers to God, the Triune God. The meaning of the phrase “You (God) use songs of praise” should be obvious to Christian musicians and worship leaders. In the last two lines of the chorus notice that the answer to our “fear” and “doubt” is found in the faithfulness of our God; God’s faithfulness in the past, and God’s faithfulness “now.” Ah! Back to Lamentations; back to scripture; back to where all of our “songs of praise” should start.

The God who is eternally faithful to his Believers will enable us to be faithful in singing “songs of praise” during this current time of “fear” and “doubt.” Amen!

[1] The NIV Worship Bible, New International Version (Dana Point: The Corinthian Group, Inc., 2000), 1091.
[2] Reynolds, Willian J., Companion to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), 80.
[3], accessed March 21, 2020.