It is obvious from the Bible that God is a God of song. God loves music, and the heavens resound with it. He puts a song in the hearts of his people. From the beginning of the Bible to the end, there is singing. Moses leads the people of Israel in song after passing through the Red Sea. His sister Miriam joins and, with a great timbral chorus, dances before the Lord and sings the song of victory: "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously."
In the book of Revelation the saints who have conquered sing songs of praise to God. The strange quartet of the four holy creatures never cease to sing, day and night, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." And this quartet is joined by the triple octet of twenty-four elders, singing before the Lord: "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you did create all things, and by your will they existed and were created." And then the sound of a multitude, a great oratorio chorus crying, "Hallelujah! For the Lord God Almighty reigns."
The psalms are filled with song; the Scriptures are filled with song; the world is filled with song. From beginning to end God's people sing.
The Bible's Hymnbook
That part of the Bible most associated with song is, of course, the Psalms, the hymnbook of the temple of God. In the psalms, God's people are invited to sing. The psalms give personal testimony that it is good to sing to the Lord.
The people of God sing to God because he is good, because he is faithful, because he is merciful, because he is their strength, because he is their creator, and because he is their redeemer. In fact, the psalms call the whole creation to sing forth: The trees sing for joy, the mountains sing for joy, the hills clap their hands, and even the floods sing and roar. All nature sings and round us rings the music of the spheres. In Psalm 92:1-4 we read, "It is good to praise the LORD and make music to your name, O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night, to the music of the ten-stringed lyre and the melody of the harp. For you make me glad by your deeds, O LORD; I sing for joy at the works of your hands."
Away with the Noise of Your Songs!
Song, praise, thanksgiving, and joy all go together in the life of God's people. We sing when we are in the heights; we cry to God from out of the depths.
With such overwhelming encouragement from the psalmist, with such great testimony to the goodness of God, with the incessant exhortation to sing, and the undeniable reasons for it, it is rather shocking to read in Amos 5, "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps."
Away with the noise of your songs? I will not listen to the music of your harps? The prophet is certainly singing a different tune than the psalmist.
God's people sing; God tunes them out? How can this be? The psalmist encourages song; the prophet tells us that God won't listen. What's going on here? When the great oratorio society of Israel was engaged in its praisefest, God was not only the audience, but also the reviewer. And from the reviewer's box, God shouted, "Stop the music! Away with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the music of your harps." And we ask, "Why, God? Why? Don't you like the choice of our music? Too many Dutch psalms? Not enough choruses? Do you want more contemporary music?"
"Away with the noise of your songs." Why God? Don't you like amplified music?
"I will not listen to the music of your harps." "Why, God? Don't you like stringed instruments? Shouldn't we have guitars in church? More organ perhaps?"
"What is it that you don't like about our music?" That disturbing question is enough to occupy the music committees of the churches for decades. "Perhaps you don't like the tune, God, or the harmony. Are we singing in the wrong key?"
Living in Sync
No, says the Lord, you are not singing in the wrong key. The problem is, Israel, that you are living in the wrong key. Your songs are fine. They are the songs of the psalmist. But your life is not in harmony. The static coming through from your daily living is so loud and dissonant that I can't hear what you are singing. Your lyrics and your life are out of sync.
You see, you can't sing of the righteousness of God and then live unrighteously. You can't sing, "Great is your faithfulness" and then live unfaithfully. You can't sing "Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty," that song which elevates you to the very presence of God, and then live unholy lives. You can't sing, "God is King" and then give your allegiance to something else. You can't sing, "Red and yellow, black, and white, all are precious in his sight" and then live a prejudiced and biased life, cutting off some of God's children from your very presence. "Take away the noise of your songs," says the Lord, "to the melody of your harps I will not listen."
Doxology and deeds have to be in the same key. No dissonance, no disharmony. That's true of all life, isn't it? Can you imagine anyone singing to a spouse or a boyfriend or girlfriend, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine" while having other people or events or resources that light up his or her life just around the corner? Can you imagine anyone singing, "I only have eyes for you" while looking lustfully at an old flame? Certainly if the spouse or the boyfriend or girlfriend got wind of that, they might use the language of Scripture, "Away with the noise of your songs!" Get lost. I won't listen. The noise of songs and the melody of liturgy rings hollow before the Lord when liturgy and life are out of sync.
So it was in Israel, and so it is today. Amos was not only talking about singing; he was talking about the whole liturgy of life. Feast days, offerings, gatherings, singing, and musical instruments. And the Lord says through the prophet Amos, "I don't want any of that. I want none of it if it is not coming from a heart and life that are filled with praise."
The conclusion we should come to after listening to Amos is not that we need better singing—not that we need to improve the bass section or the tenor section. Amos's message really has nothing to do with music or liturgy. The most famous line in the prophecy of Amos is Amos 5:24, which comes after this statement about song. After Amos says, "Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps," he adds, "But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" The corrective in this case has nothing to do with liturgy or song. The corrective in this case has to do with life.
Are you ready to live your liturgy? Are you ready to live your hymns? Your songs? Let it not be said of any of us what Jesus said to some of those in his company: "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." May our doxology and deeds forever blend in beautiful harmony.