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Description: True spiritual singing and worship only comes from within a heart that is filled with Christ's joy and life.
How Can I Keep From Singing?
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
The verse is Ephesians 5 verse 19, “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
You remember the brief summary of the gospel in Ephesians 2: 4-10, “But God, who is rich in mercy,
out of the great love with which he loves us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us
alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us
sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the
immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been
saved through faith; and this is not our own doing, it is the gift of God –not because of works lest
any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which
God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” And that’s the gospel; we are now at God’s
right hand in Jesus and that’s reality.
It’s very hard to enjoy that together – to express that to each other. Even that wonderful
expression of it in the Bible is complex and deep and profound and it’s quite difficult for me to
say to you “you know at this moment we’re really at God’s right hand, at this moment we’re really in
heaven.” And you say yes, yes to that, but it’s really hard; how would you behave in heaven – do
you give out the harps? How do you do it? With hymns and psalms – it’s something miraculous.
That’s what God is after; the singing and the hymns. There is something in music that is
miraculous. Somehow it dealt with the evil spirit in song. Somehow David playing the lyre did the
job on the evil spirit. And there is undoubtedly a harmony in music that borders on the
I don’t know if you remember the opening scene of the movie “2001 A Space Odyssey” with the
spaceship going through and the music, but to one of the quantum physicists it’s still one of his
favorites. The significance of that is that if you did much reading in the Greek and Roman authors
you’d find the whole truth that they emphasized of the music of the spheres. That was their whole
belief: that there was a music that the spheres created and how on earth they got that idea I don’t
know because they had no telescopes. But they believed that there was music that as the spheres
went in their regular orbit around other planets that they created music, a heavenly music and that
there is a beauty and something supernatural about music and of course that’s part of this plan that
That’s why he does give it as a command, he does say it very definitely, “addressing one another in
psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart”
because in that way it’s possible to get something of the wonder of heaven, something of the
experience of reality. It’s a way of enabling us to live above ourselves. Now I agree with you
that for somebody that starts a song in a kind of soulish way it’s a driving thing; whether it’s in
the middle of a prayer or it’s in a service. So undoubtedly I agree with you that the whole thing
can be massacred by our attitude to it. But if it’s done in the way that God has outlined here in
this verse it can bring us into a very real fellowship together in Jesus at God’s right hand.
It can lift us above ourselves and undoubtedly that’s what happened in the Evangelical revival in
the 18th century when these crude, rough, often half-drunken miners would be lifted to the very gate
of heaven by some of these old Methodist hymns because it took them above themselves. They didn’t
have the words, they didn’t have the education to phrase the language, but they could sing “And can
it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood! Died he for me? Who caused his pain!
For me? Who him to death pursued? Amazing love! How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for
me? Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night; thine eye diffused a
quickening ray; I woke the dungeon flamed with light.” (Charles Wesley) So it can be with us.
I wasn’t there for my Mum’s funeral, but I lived in Belfast when my Dad died and I conducted a
service in the house. “In heavenly love abiding, no change my heart shall fear; and safe is such
confiding for nothing changes here: the storm may roar about me; my heart may low be laid; but God
is round about me, and can I be dismayed? Green pastures are before me, which yet I have not seen;
bright skies will soon be o’er me, where the dark clouds have been: My life I cannot measure, the
path of life is free; my Savior has my treasure, and He will walk with me.” (Anna Letitia Waring)
The hymns, the psalms, can take us above ourselves and can lift us into the presence of God.
And so there is something miraculous that is possible in the combination; the music is not
everything, it’s the combination of the music and the words. Indeed the Bible would say the words
and the music and obviously it is not talking about unknown tongues; it’s talking about speaking in
language that you can understand. But there is a miracle of God’s presence that can be brought
about or can be made possible through the combination of music and words.
And that’s why for the early church, and for the Jews themselves, it was not just an optional extra;
it was something that was an important part of their worship. It was something that allowed them to
rise above their own limited language and their own finite minds and be lifted into a realm that was
above themselves. It could give ordinary people some of the mystical experience of St. John of the
Cross or of Thomas a Kempis.
That’s what it did in the 18th century in those revival meetings (John) Wesley had with the miners
in those outdoor scenes. That’s what still continues from time to time; there is a moment where, as
my wife Irene would say, God came upon the stage. God comes upon the scene. There are things that
can take place in the middle of a hymn that can take place nowhere else and there are revelations
that can come to you of God even as you sing a hymn in a car. There are revelations that can come;
there’s a beauty in the music.
The hymn for me, in recent days, that expresses something to me is that hymn “My Life Flows on In
Endless Song.” I printed out a little of what it said on the website that apparently the first
publication of the words was on August 7 1868 in the New York Observer entitled “Always Rejoicing”
and it was attributed to Pauline T. But nobody knew who Pauline T was and if you look at the words
published at the bottom it says “these are the words of Robert Lowery published in his 1869 songbook
“Bright Jewels for the Sunday School.” Here Lowery claims credit for the music but gives no
indication as to who wrote the words. These words were also published in a British periodical in
1869, the Christian Pioneer.” Nobody knows who wrote the words. “Sankey (Ira) published his own
setting of the words in Gospel Hymns No.3 1878 writing that the words were anonymous.” That’s the
situation. The only light about that is that at the bottom of the article “Doris Penn learned the
original hymn from her grandmother who reportedly believed that they dated from the earliest days of
So it’s one of those miracles where the song is beyond what I could have imagined. “My life goes on
in endless song above earth’s lamentations.” I mean, how could you express that the life of Christ
is a life of joy and that lifts you into that joyful life above, always, an earth that is condemned
and has fallen and is not in the state that is should be. In two lines they express what I have
taken months and years to express; that this world itself is not the way that God wanted it. “I hear
the real though far off hymn that hails a new creation.” All that: God has crucified the world in
Christ; he has reconciled the world to himself; he has made it anew. God has planted eternity in
man’s heart, yet so that he is not able to find it – all of that is there; “I hear the real though
far off hymn that hails a new creation.”
Even ordinary, non-Christians could say, “Shouldn’t it be better than this?” Don’t we at times hear
that – it should be better? “Through all the tumult and the strife” – yes as Christians we live in
the midst of tumult and strife you’re going to have it. Not the light, so called Christian idea of
“life is wonderful once you come to Christ.” “Through all the tumult and the strife I hear the
music ringing” I still set my eyes on the things that are above where Christ is. “It finds an echo
in my soul” because I feel that’s right; we are made new. Yes, there is a better life that is ready
for me, “how can I keep from singing? What though my joys and comfort die.’”
You know that Catholic saint that we read who said don’t expect to be free all the time from grief
and sorrow. “Though all my joy and comforts die, yet the Lord my Savior liveth.” So no “easy
believism” there, no; at times your joy and comforts will die, but you have Jesus. “What though the
darkness gather round.” You mean I could come into darkness, you mean I could come into depression,
you mean I could come into worry and anxiety? “What though the darkness gather round, songs in the
night He giveth.” That’s that scripture verse that He gives songs in the night. The darkness is
not dark to thee; even darkness is as light to thee.
“No storm can shake my inmost calm” it doesn’t matter what difficulty I’m going through, I’ve an
inner serenity that is steady and that remains “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that
refuge clinging,” while I cling hard to Jesus and keep my arms tight around him and keep my eyes
upon him, then there’ll be calm in my heart. “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth” he’s in
charge of everything anyway and he’s only using these temporary problems to bring me into a deeper
relationship with himself, how can I keep from singing? There is none of this “Oh life is hard for
me. Oh I’m coming into difficulties.”
“I lift my eyes,” This dear heart, whoever it is, I look forward to meeting her or him, this person
has been through every step, “I life my eyes” from the bank account, from the cancer, from the chaos
of my job,” I lift my eyes the cloud” around me that is preventing me from seeing God “grows thin.”
I see through that cloud, through all the difficulty. “I see the blue above it” I see God is in
charge, he is running this whole show. “And day by day this pathway” this pathway that I’m on of
seeing that I and the world have been crucified in Christ and we’ve been remade and we’ve been
reconciled to God and he has everything organized. “And day by day this pathway smoothes” it gets
smoother; I stop being caught out by the bad thing that happens “since first I learned to love it.
The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart” as I share the peace that Jesus has in his Father, as his
heart beats in mine it makes my heart fresh, “a fountain ever springing.” All the time within me I
sense Christ rising inside. “All things are mine, since I am His, how can I keep from singing?”
The author, whoever she was, knew it all. I couldn’t write a better summary for Christian Corps and
of God’s gospel to us. So that’s part of the value of the hymns.
I’ll get back to Barnes; Barnes is one of the commentaries that you’ll find if you have the
electronic sword –e-sword — on your computer. He says about Ephesians 5:19, “addressing one
another” isn’t that interesting – so it’s a horizontal, not a vertical relationship; “addressing one
another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” I wouldn’t make a big thing about the divisions
of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs; they all are poetry in some way. The psalms were certainly
what the Old Testament people used, the hymns were what the early church used and the spiritual
songs are I suppose are what we have there in the song “How Can I Keep From Singing” but there is no
important difference between those words – they’re almost synonymous.
But “addressing one another” is a way of strengthening each other. That’s what happens when we sing
together and we allow the music to carry us, then we are actually able to speak to one another.
“How firm a foundation ye saints of the Lord” is found in those words; you’re speaking to each
other. You’re saying to each other that these things are possible for us and this is the reality in
which we live. So it’s partly that we strengthen each other; that’s what happens when we sing. We
speak to each other through the hymn. We say things that we can’t say directly to each other either
because we haven’t the authority to say it or we haven’t the intimacy to say it.
Then it goes on “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making
melody to the Lord with all your heart.” A melody is a sequence of notes that have a beauty to them
and an order and a unity and it’s a way of bringing you and your whole being into oneness with God’s
will. So you sing and you make melody to the Lord with all your heart and the emphasis is that you
make melody with all your heart — singing is heart worship. That’s why it’s not right to lay
emphasis even on the outward sound, or the cleverness of the words, or the cleverness of the music,
or whether we like the music or the lilt of the music — all of that is paganism and idolatry.
It’s singing from your heart, it’s singing with all of your heart to the Lord and as you do that you
also minister to each other, but your eyes are first on the Lord and then out of that comes strength
and life to the others in the fellowship. But the emphasis is on singing with all of your heart.
In fact you can see “pneumatikos” is the Greek word for spiritual and is used to describe spiritual
songs, songs that are filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s the weakness of a lot of the modern
Christian music that we have; it has little of that emphasis. It’s often hard and harsh; it often
has little interest or preoccupation with Christ or little respect or reverence for him and it is
preoccupied, usually, with itself and it has little of the Spirit in it.
So singing spiritually is different from merely singing and making noise. It’s the whole weakness
of the band; it’s very difficult to have a drummer up there (on stage) and not have the whole
attention of the church drawn to the drummer and to the music itself. It’s very difficult to have
all that emphasis on the performance and have it be the worship that God has outlined here.
So Barnes is good; he’s an ordinary, conventional commentator, but he’s good to tackle because it
shows you what they understand this to mean. He says “speaking to yourselves, speaking among
yourselves, that is endeavoring to edify one another.” Edify is “aedificare” in Latin and means “to
build up.” Barnes goes on to say “endeavoring to edify one another and to promote purity of heart by
songs of praise. This has the force of a command and it is a matter of obligation on Christians.
From the beginning praise was an important part of public worship and is designed to be to the end
of the world. Nothing is more clear than that it was practiced by the Saviour himself and the
apostles, and by the primitive church, as well as by the great body of Christians in all ages. The
Psalms of David were sung by the Jews at the temple, and by the early Christians (notes Matthew
26:30), and the singing of those psalms has constituted a delightful part of public worship in all
ages. They speak the language of devotion at all times, and a large part of them are as well suited
to the services of the sanctuary now as they were when first composed.
And hymns -(cid:160)It is not easy to determine precisely what the difference is in the meaning of the words
used here, or to designate the kind of compositions which were used in the early churches. Spiritual
“odes” or songs relating to spiritual things in contradistinction from these which were sung in
places of festivity and revelry. An “ode” is properly a short poem or song adapted to be set to
music, or to be sung; a lyric poem. A “hymn” is properly a song or ode in honor of God. And making
melody -(cid:160)“Melody” is an agreeable succession of sounds; a succession so regulated and modulated as
to please the ear. It differs from “harmony,” inasmuch as melody is an agreeable succession of
sounds by a single voice.
And it seems that’s the importance of it; you’re making melody to the Lord by offering your own life
up as a sequence of ordered and integrated events and words and thoughts to him and that brings
pleasure to him as you offer up the melody of your own life and your own voice to him. That’s why
it’s so right to be sure your life is right before yourself and God, before yourself and everybody
else before you come into his presence so that in fact you have an integrated life that you’re
offering to him that is pure and clean.
Then Barnes says “It is not certain, however, that the apostle here had reference to what is
properly called “melody.” The word which he uses – psallo – means to touch, twitch, pluck – as the
hair, the beard; and then to twitch a string – to “twang” it – as the string of a bow, and then the
string of an instrument of music. It is most frequently used in the sense of touching or playing a
lyre, or a harp; and then it denotes to make music in general, to sing – perhaps usually with the
idea of being accompanied with a lyre or harp.”
So it’s interesting that he brings out the fact that in some way it refers to an instrument. Then
he says “The idea here is that of singing in the heart, or praising God from the heart. The psalms,
and hymns, and songs were to be sung so that the heart should be engaged, and not so as to be mere
music, or a mere external performance.” And that’s why sometimes my wife has said I don’t like a
song is because of the way some performer sings it. Well what I don’t like at times is when a
spiritual song is not sung from the heart and it’s sung because the people like the feeling, but
it’s not really sung from the heart. It seems to me that the singing talked about here is singing
that is done from the heart. That is the bad thing about taking sacred songs and having them sung
by someone who really is not given to the Lord. I would even be careful of how much I would do of
Eva Cassidy’s song because she was a dear girl, but you don’t know exactly where she was
spiritually. It does seem that she catches the real meaning of it, though for me it was the black
person at the end that catches it more who says “thank you Lord!” To me that is more of God’s
Back to Barnes: “To the Lord – In praise of the Lord, or addressed to him. Singing, as here meant,
is a direct and solemn act of worship, and should be considered such as really as prayer. In singing
we should regard ourselves as speaking directly to God, and the words, therefore, should be spoken
with a solemnity and awe becoming such a direct address to the great Yahweh. So Pliny says of the
early Christians, “Carmenquc Christo quasi Deo dicere secure invicem” – “and they sang among
themselves hymns to Christ as God.” If this be the true nature and design of public psalmody, then
(1) That all should regard it as an act of solemn worship in which they should engage – in “heart”
at least, if they cannot themselves sing.
(2) Public psalmody should not be entrusted wholly to the light and frivolous; to the trifling and
careless part of a congregation.
(3) They who conduct this part of public worship ought to be pious. The leader “ought” to be a
Christian; and they who join in it “ought” also to give their hearts to the Redeemer.(cid:160)
But it seems to me that there is something of God in hymn singing and music that go beyond the sound
and go beyond the technical quality of the singing; it touches something that can connect you with
the communion of saints. Even by the vary fact that it’s a way of seeing and being occupied by
God’s words and enjoying the beauty of God’s word in your own heart and your emotions and your
spirit independent of what somebody else is doing. And in that way it seems to facilitate the
reality that Jesus promised “Where two or three are gathered together in my name that am I in the
It is possible to experience the reality of the transfiguration right here among us. So it is
something holy and something much more than just a nice hymn or a nice song. It’s something that
God has commanded us to do as a way of sharing the life of Jesus with each other.
Let us pray.