Common sense and experience both tell us that our minds soak up the lyrics of the songs we sing. It was Stuart Townend, I think, who said that he’s heard a lot more people leaving church humming songs than he has reciting sermons!
And it turns out from Deuteronomy 31 that Moses knew this all along.
God says to him: “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” (v19)
The context of Deuteronomy is that, after 40 years of punishment in the desert, the people of Israel are lined up on the verge of finally entering the Promised Land. Moses knows that he himself is about to die, and he reminds the people of all that God has done and said. Most of the book is a record of this epic speech.
In chapter 30, Moses implores the people to choose Life rather than Death. But God knows full well (as we see in chapter 31) that the people will turn away from him again once again. And he tells Moses to do three things.
1. He is to commission Joshua as his successor.
2. He is to write down the Law, keep a copy by the Ark of the Covenant, and leave instructions for the whole lot to be read every seven years.
3. He is to teach them a song. We’re given the lyrics in chapter 32. And the extraordinary thing is that God says the song “shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring).” (Deut 31:21)
Do you see the implication? That people will forget God; they will disobey the law; they will probably not even remember to read it. But the song will live on “in the mouths of their offspring”; and when every recollection of God seems forgotten, the song is the thing that “shall confront them as a witness”. The song is the thing that, passed down the generations, will stir up in the memory to challenge their apostasy.
I truly believe that the Holy Spirit uses the words of songs we sing on Sundays to feed us 7 days a week. That’s why their content is so crucial. And I also wonder how many times the Lord has used a Christian song learned years previously, perhaps at school, to ‘confront’ (v21) a wandering soul.
Which caused me to reflect on the CCLI “Top 25” list. http://www.ccli.co.uk/resources/top25.cfm This is a fascinating table which ranks songs according to how many different organisations have used them at least once over a 6 month period. (Of course, it only covers hymns and songs that are still in copyright. And it doesn’t show how often a song has been used in each particular place.)
The list for churches is interesting, though unsurprising. What I didn’t realise until recently is that there’s a separate table for what schools report. And when I look at what is being sung most widely in schools, it makes my heart yearn – for some real depth! I yearn for the great truths of the Christian story: something that might perhaps be more likely to ‘confront’ us as it lives ‘unforgotten’ in our national consciousness. It’s not that the top songs are necessarily bad; it’s not that there aren’t a few nuggets of gold (especially further down the list); and it’s not even that the top six are all things that I sang at primary school(!); it’s just that….well, you check it out.
To be honest, I have similar thoughts at the weddings of those who aren’t regular church members. Yes, I’m delighted that they want to marry in church; I’m glad that the doctrine of creation is in “All things bright and beautiful”; I rejoice that “Lord of the Dance” has at least something of the Cross and Resurrection; but how I wish that the familiar few hymns and songs that are evidently still lodged in the mind had a little more to them!
So, let’s be truly thankful for all those who are writing and using great lyrics along with great tunes, in churches, in schools, and elsewhere. Over the past few years, we have seen a fresh wave of contemporary, biblical, child-friendly songs being written. And let’s challenge ourselves to plant wholesome songs in hearts and minds, particularly in the hearts and minds of children. Songs that will feed and nourish the soul today. And songs which will stick in the back of the mind, so that one day, when God is all but forgotten, they might rise up, confront, and perhaps restore people to him.