The Songs of Zion

Turn your radio or television on, at any hour of the day or night, and you will hear the sounds of "all kinds of music" (Dan. 3:5). Music wakes our world in the morning. The "Top 10" pop songs, jazz, country and a potpourri of musical sounds take us through the day and lay us down to sleep at night. Worldly music has captured the hearts of youth and adults alike. Yet, we read in the Bible of a time when Israel learned to "sing. . . the songs of Zion" (Psa. 137:3). What are those songs? Amidst the confusion of modern musical Babylon, could you recognize one of these "songs of Zion," if it were sung into your ears? The apostle James gives practical advice for identifying those songs, and for retuning our musical ears: "Is any merry? let him sing psalms" (James 5:13). When modern Babylon turns on her music, will you tune her out, and learn to sing the songs of Zion as the apostle Paul recommends? Christian, how can you today identify the songs of Zion? Why would these songs be important to sing today?

by Jerry Gentry

"And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isa. 35:10).

Men and women of the Western World rejoice to the sounds of "all kinds of music," which amounts to a veritable modern musical Babylon of confusion. We bow our ears and move our lips in worship of a "golden image" called mammon, behind such worldly music. Yet the Bible calls all Christians back to into praise/worship of God, to sing "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16), that the Christian may be found "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19). This calling is simple, easy to understand. The practice is more challenging, because the "prince of the power of the air," who is Satan the devil, broadcasts his worldly music through "the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Eph. 2:2). The airwaves around us are saturated with his corrupt sounds.

The singular purpose of music has been corrupted in our day. Music is worship, and the music of a people mirrors the gods of a people. Our music defines clearly what we worship. Few Christians indeed have come all the way out of modern musical Babylon, even if we have already rejected the most gross forms of her songs. Every obedient Christian is challenged: "he that hath ears to hear, let him hear" (Matt. 11:15), but hear what? How must we discern and appreciate proper music for all occasions? And specifically, how must we also identify the special songs of Zion, and make a proper offering of praise and worship, especially when we come into holy convocation?

The words and sounds we allow into our ears, will eventually flow out from our lips. Input equals output. We must protect our ears from impure messages and sounds, or our hearts will also be polluted. Our calling demands, "take with you words, and turn to the LORD" (Hosea 14:2). Words make up the offering of our lips, our "sacrifice of praise," (Hebr. 13:15), while we offer from our hearts our "sacrifices of joy" (Psa. 27:6). Our worship is felt deep within our hearts, while our praise is expressed in words from our lips. Our "word songs" (singing) are inextricably tied up together with our "heart songs," (meditation or musings), good or bad.

Concerning our hearts, the Psalmist teaches us: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise" (Ps. 51:17). This is the "in spirit" part of our praise/worship, wherein we find joyful "heart songs" in our musings. The prophet tells us: "Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart" (Isa. 65:14). These "heart songs" are expressed through our lips, with words "in truth," and require that our hearts be truly broken and contrite. When the words and music we enjoy so much, fail to reflect genuine praise/worship of God alone, with "acceptable words. . . words of truth," (Eccl. 12:10), then we can know that we are still living in our own self will and our music is iniquity. When we have yielded our ears, hearts and lips to God, then He can teach us the songs of Zion, which will transform our lives personally, and even turn the culture of our people back to God.

"By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name" (Hebr. 13:15). Praise and thanksgiving are the "fruit of our lips."

The fruit of our lips are the heart felt words we must offer. Our words cannot be transformed, as long as our ears and hearts are overflowing with "all kinds of music," "for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:34). We love our music, because after it enters through our ears, it lodges and stirs us deep within our hearts. It encourages us in all our ways, and comes back later, in joy or in sorrow. "Those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man" (Matt. 15:18). Corrupt music greatly defiles the heart and soul of man, from whence proceed every corrupt and evil work. To counter such tendency to thought degeneration, the Psalmist prays:

"Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer" (Ps. 19:14).

Biblical "heart songs" are our heart felt meditations "in truth." These lift our spirits, lighten our burdens and bring us into close fellowship with our Maker, who "inhabitest the praises of Israel" (Ps. 22:3). We are told: "draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded" (James 4:8). How are our hearts purified, except by "the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26)? Such lyrics set to music are like a stream of pure water, washing away iniquities and filling our hearts with truth.

During congregational singing, we offer lyrics set to music, which are "the calves of our lips" (Hos 14:2), in acceptable praise/worship, for Him to inhabit. Recognizing this great, liberating truth, the Psalmist declares: "therefore will I offer in his tabernacle sacrifices of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing praises unto the LORD" (Ps. 27:6).

Therefore, it behooves every Christian to remove entirely from the music and lyrics of modern Babylon by whatever label. Daily victory is not easily mastered, but it is an urgent calling, and the effort brings certain transformation to the soul of the worshipper.

So far, so good, you say. How can we remove from musical Babylon, and return in a practical sense to the worship of God "in spirit and in truth?" Historically, Israel's high standard for praise/worship is found in the songs of Zion. But what are these songs of Zion? Ancient Israel knew well the songs of Zion, and sadly remembered those songs while living in the foreign lands of their captors. "For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion" (Psa. 137:3). Here the Psalmist, possibly Ezra, remembers Israel's former glory, while he sits and weeps "By the rivers of Babylon" (v. 1). His captors mockingly require him to sing such a song of mirth. Lamentably, the Psalmist admits, "How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?" (v. 4).

Christian, it is a fair question for us to ask, even today. How can "we sing the LORD'S song" in our "captivity" today, unless we can identify such a song? It would be impossible. The Psalmist knew well "the LORD'S song," found among what he called the songs of Zion. The difficulty then was not in identifying the songs of Zion, but in singing them, in the context of oppression and national captivity. The problem is even greater, for Israelites living in our modern "captivity" to this world's Babylonian system. The songs of Zion must yet be identified, then taken into the lips of God's people, even as these very songs formed the basis for personal and congregational singing, from King David's day forward to the return and reconstruction of the temple at Jerusalem, and without break up through the time of Jesus, his apostles and through the first and second centuries of the early church. The songs of Zion formed Israel's only song book known during this period, until about the third century of our era. The songs of Zion is another Bible term for what is elsewhere identified as the "book of Psalms," or Psalter, complete with words and musical notation for singing.

Now would it really be a surprise to find the songs of Zion within the very Bible itself, identified as the "book of Psalms," mostly written by David, "anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2Sam. 23:1)? Certainly, this should be no surprise at all, for the well read Bible student, to whom the book of Psalms represents the highest form of praise/worship, written by the finger of God Himself.

Of course, for "New Testament" Christians, we must include not only the "psalms" but also "hymns and spiritual songs," which the apostle Paul mentions twice: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16), and "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" (Eph. 5:19).

Does the apostle Paul make his appeal for a different church song book, for hymns found outside the songs of Zion, or "book of Psalms?" Many Bible students read these words "hymns and spiritual songs," and immediately think of the modern hymns such as those of Fannie Crosby and Martin Luther and Isaac Watts, and other hymns not found in the Bible. However, we must not jump to such a conclusion. We must righty divide the Word of truth, and let the Bible interpret the Bible. We have no right to impose our modern cultural definitions upon those words written by the apostle Paul nearly two thousand years ago.

First, it is a well known point of historical fact that the apostle Paul was a "Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6), who knew the Temple worship inside and out. The only song book used in Temple worship was the "book of Psalms" (Luke 20:42; Acts 1:20), which were sung, by courses, throughout the year. Jesus and his disciples "sang an hymn" from that book, probably from memory. In the absence of one shred of evidence otherwise, and in the light of the best church histories available, we must rightly conclude that Paul refers to the only song book then known to the church, when he twice uses the phrase "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." In one instance, he has already prequalified that phrase with: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom." Unless we are willing to elevate man made lyrics, to the same level as "the word of Christ," we are forced to conclude that Paul refers to the only song book known to the church of his day, the "book of Psalms."

We must let the Bible interpret the Bible. The words "hymn/s" appear in the New Testament only four times. The first two times this word is used (Matt. 26:30; Mark 14:26), it refers specifically to the Hallel, or Office of Praise, which was Psalm 113-118, for Passover. Jesus and His disciples "sang an hymn" from Psa. 113-118. This point is undisputed. So Christ's "hymn," recorded twice, was without question from the "book of Psalms."

New Testament "hymn/s," are from the Gr. humneo (Strong's #5214), from the root humnos (#5215). Paul tells us: "Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise [humneo] unto thee" (Hebrews 2:12). Paul here quotes the "book of Psalms:" "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee" (Psa 22:22).

This "praise" is Heb halal, which is translated throughout the "book of Psalms" as "praise," "boast," "boastest," "glory," and a few places as "foolish" and even "mad." This word is found 139 times in the Old Testament, 76 of those occurrences being in the "book of Psalms." This word halal describes the highest form of exultant praise/worship, "in the spirit" (Rom. 8:9), understanding that "the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit. . ." (John 6:63), something which cannot be said of man made lyrics. Paul again uses this same humneo, also translated "sang praises" (Acts 16:25). When we let Paul speak for himself, he defines his Gr. humneo (hymn) clearly for us, without a doubt. He quotes certain "psalms," when he says, "sing praise," [humneo] which is perfectly in keeping with the facts of lawful Temple worship, the facts of the New Testament, the facts of early church history, and the facts of Bible truth restored to the reformed church during the sixteenth century protestant reformation.

Not all "authorities" agree with these Bible definitions. However, the Bible overrules such "authorities," through it's own careful self interpretation. We know that our only genuine authority for worship is the Bible. Now if you look at Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, under humneo (#5214), it is derived from humnos (#5215), which is defined as being: a "hymn" or religious ode (one of the Psalms). Mr. Strong's definition is unneeded, in a sola scriptura discussion, such as this. However, his definition does not disagree with the Bible truth. When we let the Bible interpret the Bible, we only need to appeal to Paul's "sing praise" [humneo] and "sang praises" [humneo] along with "sung an hymn" [humneo] from Psa 113-118, which Jesus sang with his disciples, and this word "hymn" is clinched in a triple witness as being lyrics from the songs of Zion, otherwise known as the "book of Psalms," without mistake.

Further, what are the "spiritual songs," referenced twice by the apostle Paul, which once he predefines as being from "the word of Christ?"

This phrase "spiritual songs" appears twice (double witness) in the New Testament. We must look deeper to find the Biblical meaning. The English word "songs" is Gr. ode, (Strong's #5603), from Gr. ado (#103), translated 5 times in the New Testament as "sing," "sung," and "singing." We must still look further, since these English words do not define the specific words to be sung. We must ask, is it possible to "sing" without "making melody in our hearts?" No, because the very first Bible rule for worship is that it be "in spirit," that is, "in our hearts," as well as "in truth." The English words "sing/ing" are immediately associated five times in the New Testament with "psalms:" "sing [psallo] unto thy name" (Rom 15:9); "I will sing [psallo] with the spirit, and I will sing [psallo] with the understanding also" (1Cor 14:15); "singing and making melody [psallo] in your heart to the Lord" (Eph 5:19). The Gr. psallo, is the very word James uses for "sing psalms (James 5:13). Do these words define themselves? The picture comes quite clear, to an open minded Bible student. Paul's "spiritual songs," twice referred to, are all found among the songs of Zion, or "book of Psalms," and none other.

This psallo ("sing," "sing," "I will sing," "making melody," "sing psalms") is the very root word for the Gr. psalmos, which appears seven times in the New Testament, and is always translated into the English "psalm/s." How interesting!

The Bible is very specific. The New testament "spiritual songs" are found within the songs of Zion, or "book of Psalms" alone, which was the New Testament church's only song book for at least two centuries. These "odes" are nothing less than certain psallo [psalm] songs. The words "sing/ing," in the New Testament is immediately associated with the root word psallo for psalm, nearly always. To say otherwise is without Bible foundation, and little more than conjecture.

Christian, you have no authority to impose a modern cultural definition upon the Bible words "hymn/s" and "spiritual songs." You must let the Bible alone interpret these words. You must take care not to appeal to lesser "authorities," who conjecture their opinions, in matters of worship. Your only appeal must be sola scriptura, the Bible alone.

But what about other "scripture" songs, outside the book of Psalms? Is it right to bring such songs into holy convocation? Certainly, the whole Bible must be brought into the formal worship of God, at least through preaching of the Word. To choose other scripture songs, in order to displace God's revealed word for singing the songs of Zion, or "book of Psalms," would be like a child who is given a toy to play with, but immediately he wants a different toy out of his own self will. Most Scripture has not been set to music for congregational singing, and is irrelevant to a discussion of what to sing in church. The witness of early church history is unitedly on the side of exclusive Psalm singing, no question. Suffice it to say that any other occasional scripture songs used in worship must never take the spotlight away from the songs of Zion, the historic "book of Psalms," written by the finger of God, and divinely stamped as the only authorized song book for the church of Israel for the past three thousand years.

There are many programs for memorizing the Psalms through recitation. Memorizing the Psalms through singing proves to be far superior. Music becomes the emotional engraving tool whereby we "sing praise" (Heb 2:12), or "grieve out" hymns to God. Only through singing are God's words written into the deepest recesses of both heart and soul of the singer. Once you begin singing the Psalms to familiar melodies, these melodies and words come back powerfully, in ready made near effortless meditation, requiring no more will than it takes for a cow to chew her cud through the process of rumination. Up come the words and melodies together, for spiritual "rumination" over and over throughout the day, without conscious effort.

"Like pasture," "like cud." Or better stated, the more of "God's words" (perfect pasture) we ingest, the higher the quality of our meditation (perfect cud). Do not think that our musical "pasture" can never include some classical music, for personal moments of relaxation and enjoyment, or man made hymns, for personal use in family, group sing alongs, etc. Yet, much of even our own personal pasture material (singing), at least the musical part as contrasted with our reading of the Bible, might ought to be from the Psalms, to increase the "protein" level of our meditation and musings.

By singing the Psalms, you will soon find yourself meditating, "making melody" in your heart, praising Him "continually" through those "Psalm songs" you memorized earlier. Many people use this same technique with hymns written by pious men and women, which is also good. However, the power of those man made words, though good, speak to our present limited understanding, whereas the Songs of Zion speak to all eternity. Such Psalm songs are written by the finger of God, "upholding all things by the word of his power," (Hebr. 1:3), no less! When presented both a man written song book and a God written song book together, it would appear self evident that every "broken spirit. . . and. . . contrite heart" will choose God's words, found among the historic songs of Zion.

Christian, will you agree with God and choose the high road in your song praise/worship, or will you hold to something lesser than his perfect will? Will you sing the songs of Zion? Will you set your human traditions aside, and follow His highest written will? Will you through brokenness "and a contrite heart" (Psa 51:17), yield yourself to His word for the music you bring into your life and into holy convocation? Will you be among "the true worshippers" (John 4:23), whom He seeks to worship Him? The songs of Zion, or "book of Psalms," are identified clearly in Scripture, as Israel's historic song book. Which words will you choose for your highest praise/worship in holy convocation, man's words, or God's words? The choice is yours.

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