Singing is an important part of the Christian life. Even God sings: ‘He will rejoice over you with singing’(Zephaniah 3:17). David organised music and singing as a major activity in the Old Testament Temple: ‘four thousand praised Yahweh with the instruments’(1 Chronicles 23:5), and eventually there was the whole book of Psalms to use. Jesus and His disciples sang: ‘When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives’(Matthew 26:30). The apostle Paul and his fellow workers sang: ‘Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God’(Acts 16:25). The book of Revelation makes it clear that heaven will be full of singing.
Here Paul mentions ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’. This implies variety in style, which is also apparent from the examples cited above. Some would have been simple vocals, others accompanied by elaborate music. Regarding lyrics, even just looking at the Psalms, although many are complex, others are simple or repetitive (e.g. Psalms 136 & 150). But whatever the style, music has something special about it. There’s something heavenly and of God in song that resonates with our souls, perhaps the combination of underlying order/rhythm overlain with melodic variety? Whatever it is, music has a special ability to affect our minds, not just our thoughts, but emotions and wills as well.
So, with that in mind, what’s all this singing about and what’s it supposed to achieve?
Obviously praise and worship of God are major functions of singing; it’s part of the way we serve God in church ‘services’, thanking Him for who He is and what He’s done. But even when we’re not specifically singing praise, we should sing as Paul says here, ‘with grace [i.e. thankfulness] in your heart to the Lord’. And note it’s to be heart service not just lip service, as God warned through Isaiah, ‘“this people draws near with their mouth and with their lips to honor me, but they have removed their heart far from me”’(Isaiah 29:13). It’s important that our hearts are in tune – it’s what God’s listening to.
But our singing should not be addressed to God alone; Paul says here we should be ‘teaching and admonishing one another’. The word translated ‘one another’ means ‘yourselves’ – it includes self. The idea is not simply that our singing affects other people, but that we collectively affect ourselves as we sing and/or listen to one another. Each individual’s focus should be ‘how does this group activity teach and admonish me?’ As with all such activities, God’s truth, grace and love must first be addressed to us and dwell in us, before we pray for it to reach others from us.
Now we’re starting to see more detail about what our singing’s supposed to achieve: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing’. It involves the word of Christ teaching and admonishing us so that we become wise. But what is this ‘word of Christ’?
It’s the same as the more often used phrase ‘word of God’. Paul deliberately substitutes Christ for God here because he’s especially keen to emphasise the central role of Christ and the gospel to the Colossians. Our singing should help us to maintain a gospel focus. Colossians 1:15-20 is thought to be the lyrics of an early Christian song that’s very gospel focused.
In addition, the word of God/Christ includes Jesus’ wider teaching and that of His apostles through the Holy Spirit. Paul’s teaching in the whole of chapter 3 is a good example of things to nurture and things to prune off as we teach and admonish ourselves. This chapter is not lyrics, but Christian songwriters often rephrase Bible texts. These verses would be powerful in song since, as already mentioned, rather than just addressing our cognition, music is especially effective at igniting our emotions and motivating our souls. In church we should be learning how to feel about God and His ways, spurring one another on to worship God with our lifestyles.
Finally we should note that the word of Christ is not just known by us but dwells in us. This is the Holy Spirit, as the parallel passage in Ephesians makes clear, ‘be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’(Ephesians 5:18-19).
So this delightful Christian practice brings our hearts, minds and enthusiasms back to God and His ways, His Holy Spirit working in us as we sing.