Worship Without Words

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

Image Courtesy of Shutterstock

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 words together and not simply hum, whistle, or use nonsense syllables.

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).

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24 Responses to Worship Without Words

  1. Ellen Underwood May 15, 2013 at 11:29 AM #

    “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).”

    While I believe that the words are of utmost importance, this particular statement offends my intelligence and ability to be discerning about scripture. You are assuming a truth about God’s intention. I think you can still make the point of the importance of words without using this particular grouping of “words”.

    • Bob Kauflin May 15, 2013 at 12:22 PM #

      Ellen, thanks for commenting. I’m not sure I understand how my statement offends your intelligence. That certainly wasn’t my intention! If my point rested on the absence of music in the Psalms, then I would be guilty of assuming a truth about God’s intention. But the observation I’m making (and it is simply an observation) is consistent with what the rest of Scripture says about the priority of words in our corporate worship of God. But of course, music plays an important role as well.

  2. Alexandra Adkins May 15, 2013 at 5:10 PM #

    Hey there– timing is odd sometimes–but just yesterday I received a letter from my one of my pastors with a link to an old NPR segment on the Psalms–and apparently there *is* ancient Hebrew musical notation in the manuscripts, which a French musician was able to decipher and recreate the ancient temple melodies. I can forward the link to you if you are interested.
    Second– since I am a primarily a violinist–I have wrestled with the Lord mightily over handing me a fiddle at age 5 and not a guitar/voice… but I hope that my wordless musical offering is truly valid and acceptable to Him as much as the worship and offering of a singer– and am thankful for Psalm 33:3 Sing to him a new song (words); play skillfully (no words), and shout for joy.

    • Bob Kauflin May 15, 2013 at 5:13 PM #

      Alexandra, thanks for your comment! I think I had heard that as well that there was musical notation in the Psalms, but forgot about it…It may even have been that NPR broadcast. Yes, please do sent the linkd. And yes, you certainly can play music for the glory of God! My post primarily addresses the tendency to think that musical “wordless worship” is somehow better than musical worship with words. Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. Luke Kirgerad May 15, 2013 at 6:43 PM #

    Thanks Bob, totally agree.

    On the odd occasion where we use instrumentals in church we use a well know song or a song we’ve just played and the intention is that while the music is playing that they will be worshiping by reflecting on the significance of the words to the song that are being played. Singing along to the melody in their minds.

    While I believe our skillful playing can bring pleasure to God by exercising the gifts he’s given us for the edification of the church body it is when we profess with our lips, either audibly spoken or unspoken profession during a time of reflection that we worship Him.

    The words at the center.

    thanks Bob.

    btw when are you coming to Australia for a holiday?

  4. Angel Mahehu May 15, 2013 at 7:07 PM #

    Dear Pastor Bob Kauflin
    Thank you so much for the wonderful write up. I have a question in this regard. Wheras I agree that worship and words go hand in hand how would you classify a worship album of classical music with the music not from already lyriced music? I have read before in an article by Dave Fellingham on how an Oboe piece lyricless brought a whole crusade to tears and repentance what would you say about that? Thanks and God Bless

  5. Ryan Scott May 15, 2013 at 10:26 PM #

    Pastor Bob,

    Great Thoughts! I think that the preservation of words in scripture, and especially in psalms, speaks to God’s eternal wisdom. Because we have the words primarily, the truths they speak are able to be spoken through each cultural shift and change in musical style. I love seeing (or hearing) the same words and truths being presented with new melodies. I think God’s people will continue to do that until his return one day, but this was a great reminder of what’s at the center!

  6. Alexandra Adkins May 16, 2013 at 9:37 AM #

    Morning Bob,

    here is the link to the NPR segment–old!–from 1986.

    http://www.rakkav.com/biblemusic

    It was interesting, the music is beautiful. (not vouching for all the theology though) And I’m not terribly good at thinking through ramifications–but if the markings in the manuscripts are truly the music God gave David for His words–I suppose some would then argue that we are supposed to use that music and not make up our own now… Interesting mind tangle. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  7. Julian Moore May 17, 2013 at 6:59 PM #

    Bob!

    Thanks so much for this reminder. Praise God for the transforming power of the Gospel! It transforms my thoughts, attitudes, and affections every time I gather with His people on Sunday to worship or even when I sing alone in my car.

    Look forward to seeing you at WG13!

  8. jon May 27, 2013 at 2:20 AM #

    God looks in the heart when we worship. It is what is our desire that will please him.

    And it is also in what we do in our everyday life, and how we glorify His name with our behavior, that is also an important way to worship

  9. John May 27, 2013 at 8:59 PM #

    worship is a private matter.God decides what is true everything is not black and white as we sometimes think.
    There is so much we don’t know. And time is growing short.

  10. Neill May 29, 2013 at 2:03 PM #

    Thanks so much for this reminder!

    I’ve often heard the quote attributed to Frank Zappa, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” That may be true when only considering narrow artistic aspects of those four methods of communication. It’s interesting that the above quote can only be communicated in all its specific power with the words in the quote. I’d have to say that a more fair, accurate, and holistic (albeit more boring) quote would be, “Writing about music is like writing about architecture.” Words as a medium of communicating concepts are just on a different plain than other ways of communicating. This sentence is evidence. So is the Bible.

    The more I use music to communicate in a corporate worship context, the more I fall in love with the well-crafted words that we are accompanying. God’s worship-worthy character is certainly declared through the wordless media of all of His created universe, but He chose to communicate the most glorious things about Himself and His salvation with words. What right does the lump of clay have to say to the potter, “Why have you chosen to use words to communicate?” He has made it thus, it is so well-suited to our ability to understand wonderful things, and we get to enjoy it. Praise God He uses words and asks us to do the same. What a privilege to bear the image of God in that way!

  11. adam July 3, 2013 at 5:34 AM #

    I love words. Words have the ability to communicate the gospel in such a powerful way. Our words become spirit, penetrating the heart with truth. They can dismantle strongholds and deception. :)

  12. Peter Alexander July 31, 2013 at 8:02 PM #

    The work referenced on NPR was done by Suzanne Haik Vantoura who discovered that the hooks in the Masoretic Text were hand motions defining the pitch to be sung. Her work found that early Hebrew songs were modal. When you listen to “translations” of the Psalms on YouTube you hear the melody flow and work with the lyric as you would expect it to today. They are, indeed, quite beautiful.

  13. Tyson Dodd August 21, 2013 at 2:27 PM #

    Bob,

    Thank you so much for this article. I am a young worship pastor and am also working on finishing up my masters. The topic of this post is something that I’ve been working through on my own for a while and have been writing a paper on it. I had been looking for a way to articulate it, and you did so perfectly in post. Needless to say, I will be citing you in my paper. Thank you so much!

  14. Jesse February 13, 2014 at 3:50 PM #

    Isn’t this also the point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 14 and 15 regarding outsiders in our midst and the preferred use of prophesy over tounges (or indeed tounges must be interpreted)?
    14:19 “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tounge”.
    It would not be a stretch to say that this principle also applies to corporate worship.

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