Worship Without Words
- Bob Kauflin
Recently I posted on Twitter:
The fact that Psalms doesn’t include a soundtrack or notation clues us in to what God values most in our worship songs.
I find it fascinating that God gave us a “songbook” with numerous musical references, but no actual music. It’s not that music is unimportant. Badly played or written music can make great theology sound obscure or unappealing. Great music can make shallow lyrics sound profound and incredibly moving. Which is why when we’re deciding what to sing congregationally, we want to give the greatest attention to the lyrics we’re singing.
In response to my tweet someone asked:
@bkauflin Is it not possible to worship without words?
Briefly, the answer is yes, especially when we think of worship in the “all of life” sense. We can worship God, or anything for that matter, without words. We do it all the time. The sight of a sunset over the ocean, a newborn baby, or a loved one can leave us speechless in wonder. But in my tweet I was specifically referencing the songs in our gatherings. While we can certainly worship God while listening to or playing instrumental music, here are a few reasons why it’s crucial to keep the connection between congregational worship and words strong.
Words are the primary way God has revealed himself to us and relates to us. We use words because God is a speaking God. From the garden of Eden, words have been God’s primary means of interacting with us.At Mount Sinai, God met the Israelites with thunder and lightning, thick clouds, and an ear-splitting trumpet blast. Quite the worship experience. But the most signiﬁcant aspect of that encounter was God giving them the “Ten Words” (Deuteronomy 4:2–12). God has always wanted us to know more of him than can be conveyed through impressions, images, or sounds, as powerful as they may be.
David was a skilled musician of profound emotions. But when it came to worshiping God, it was his words, not his music, that God chose to preserve for us in Scripture (the point of my tweet).
When Israel returned from the Babylonian captivity, Ezra sought to reestablish temple worship. So he and the other priests stood on a platform and read “from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8). God’s Word provided the foundation for the repentance, gratefulness, praise, and celebration that followed.
Jesus rebuked the Pharisees and scribes for basing their worship more on traditions of men than on God’s commands (Matthew 15:3–9). The early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Paul encouraged Timothy to devote himself to the public reading of Scripture and commanded him to “preach the word” (1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2). We are to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” as we sing” (Colossians 3:16).
God means for words, especially His Word, to be at the heart of our engaging with him.
Words are what we use to define God, ourselves, and our world. Among other things, words tell us how God has acted in history and what God is actually like. Words inform us that we are sinners who deserve the wrath of God but that Jesus has come to suffer the wrath of God in our place, purchase our forgiveness, and reconcile us to God. Words also tell us that creation was once in harmony with God’s will but through our rebellion became subject to decay and futility. We are not evolving into something better but experiencing the damaging effects of the fall until the day when Jesus returns for his bride and makes all things right. Words also enable us to distinguish between experiences rooted in musical emotion or eternal truth.
Worship is more than words, but it’s not less than words. Encounters with God are sometimes difficult to define. But wordless worship is not somehow better than worship with words. Worship without words can never communicate objective truth and God is the defining, objective reality in which we live and move. Experiences, whether audibly through music or visually through art, are in large part subjective. The ultimate goal of our worship is not to reach a state of feeling without thinking. And Revelation indicates we’ll be using words (without sin!) in the new heavens and earth.
Words enable us to worship God together. Words enable us to think and say the same things together, rooting our unity in the gospel and not simply in a shared experience. A hundred people listening to a song being played can have a hundred different thoughts about what is happening. As my friend Jon Payne has said, “A picture is worth 1000 words. The problem is, the viewer gets to decide what those words are.” There will be some variation when we hear/proclaim words together, but there’s greater potential for unity in our understanding and expression. It’s one of the reasons God has us sing together and not simply hum or whistle.
Words complete the act of worship. I can’t make this point better than C.S. Lewis, who wrote in Reflections on the Psalms, “But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise…I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” My love for my wife leads me to say something. Again and again and again. I want her and others to know my feelings. So it is in our relationship with God. Worship works its way out into words.
So by all means, let us thank God for music and treasure those times we’re dumbstruck as we consider the unparalleled greatness, holiness, beauty, and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. But let’s also remember that God redeemed us to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).