Letters on Singing: 2. With the Spirit and With the Understanding

1 Corinthians 14:15  •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
In my last letter I pointed out that, according to 1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15), singing in the assembly should be with both the spirit and understanding. And as this direction embodies the principle enforced throughout that chapter, it may be helpful to consider the injunction rather more narrowly.
A careful survey of the context of 1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15) will indicate, I think, that “spirit” in this portion refers rather to the new nature— “that which is born of the Spirit” (John 3:66That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:6))—than to the Holy Spirit Himself. In 1 Cor. 12, where the origin and energy of the gifts in the assembly are treated of, the Holy Ghost is fitly presented as the sovereign mover of all. But here we have the responsibility of the one possessing the gift; and hence the capacity with which he is endowed is brought into prominence, that capacity which enables him to participate in spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:1212Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. (1 Corinthians 2:12)). Thus one speaking in a tongue may speak mysteries “in (the) spirit” ver. 2. We may pray, sing, and bless “in (the) spirit” (vers. 15, 16). But that the Holy Ghost is not thereby meant is clear from ver. 32. “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” It could not be said the Holy Ghost was subject to a prophet. But it was necessary to remind those accustomed to the frenzied extravagances of Delphi that prophecy was not an uncontrollable impulse apart from the responsibility of the one prophesying; on the contrary, the prophet's spirit was subject to him, and he was therefore responsible to act in an orderly manner to the edification and comfort of the assembly.
It is not intended in any wise to weaken, much less ignore, the equally important fact that the Holy Spirit, the divine Paraclete, supplies the power for all assembly action. This is, indeed, first of all stated to the Corinthians in chap. xii., as has before been noted. But it is plain they had allowed themselves to be carried away with excitement, and had been indulging in the unbridled and indiscriminate exercise of their gifts. Hence the apostle enforces their individual responsibility. Antinomianism in spiritual things is as reprehensible as antinomianism in moral things. It is true I am saved by grace alone; but that affords no reason why I should not keep my body under. It is also true that the Holy Spirit is the sole effectual power for worship and ministry in the assembly; but that gives no ground why I should not judge every action undertaken there by the word of God.
Now nothing has a more sobering effect than the sense of having to do with God. It is of itself a sufficient check upon the vagaries of human will and sentiment. And it is taken for granted that this was understood by the assembly at Corinth. The apostle supposes that the spirit was in exercise, in speaking mysteries, praying, singing, giving thanks and prophesying. And if so, God would be before the soul. For the spirit given to the believer at his new creation enables him by the Holy Ghost to have communion with the Father and the Son, even as the spirit of life from Jehovah at the beginning constituted man not only an intelligent being, but responsible withal in his soul to his Maker (Gen. 2:77And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)).
Singing, therefore, which is the subject of this letter more particularly, should be of necessity “in the spirit.” It is certain that only spiritual praise is acceptable to God. Such a thought is truly a solemn warning against everything fleshly, but it need not engender bondage. For the Spirit within us is a well of water springing up. Its tendency is Godward. Nevertheless it is useless to deny the danger that singing may without watchfulness degenerate into mere vocal exercise apart from the heart and spirit, (I do not say accompanying, but) prompting and directing. Against this error we do well to take heed.
But in the assembly singing is not simply a personal exercise between the soul of the individual and God. It is that and something more; for there is no such thing as isolation in assembly worship. Collective praise is not composed of a hundred songs sung by a hundred people at the same time; but one song sung by a hundred saints with one accord expressing to the Lord the one thing on the hearts and minds of all.
It is in this connection that the function of the renewed understanding (mind) as spoken of in our chapter is necessary. It is possible to address the Lord in praise or prayer without using the voice, even as Hannah spake in her heart to the Lord (1 Sam. 1). But clearly there can be no fellowship until there is audible expression. For if the spirit is, so to speak, the link with God, the understanding is the link one with another; since by its means there is communication with each other, and the saints are able thereby “with one mind and one mouth to glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:66That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:6)).
It has been said that the verse (1 Cor. 14:1515What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14:15)) means that I myself will understand what I am singing. This is true, but far short of the whole truth, making the apostle's argument without force or cohesion. For he is blaming the Corinthians for speaking in the assembly so that others were unable to understand. He exhorts them to have regard for others, and to speak so as to be understood by all, that there might be fellowship. Singing and praying therefore should be in such a sort that not only I (the individual whoever he may be) may understand myself what I say, but that my brethren may intelligently join and thus offer united songs or petitions to God.
This unity of action is especially characteristic of the assembly of God. There was a unity of the Israelitish nation; but it was a unity composed of twelve other unities, since each tribe was complete in itself. While Israel was represented by the twelve loaves of shewbread, we are one loaf, one body (1 Cor. 10:1717For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17)). And this unity is to be expressed in all assembly action, such as breaking of bread, discipline, prayer, and singing.
The singing of the people of Israel was not of this nature, but, like other branches of the ritual, performed by deputy. A section of the Levites was appointed over the service of song (1 Chron. 6:3131And these are they whom David set over the service of song in the house of the Lord, after that the ark had rest. (1 Chronicles 6:31)), who were instructed in the songs of the Lord, that is, in the Psalms (1 Chron. 25:77So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the Lord, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight. (1 Chronicles 25:7)). So that the people only sang representatively, as we find in the days of Nehemiah. “And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to keep the dedication with gladness both with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps” (Neh. 12:2727And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps. (Nehemiah 12:27)).
The unity therefore of Israel in this respect was principally in the outward performance and among the Levitical singers and instrumentalists. Such a unity we read of at the dedication of Solomon's temple. “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking Jehovah; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised Jehovah,” &c. (2 Chron. 5:1313It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever: that then the house was filled with a cloud, even the house of the Lord; (2 Chronicles 5:13)).
This was in perfect keeping with the external and symbolic form of worship given to men of that age. But we have now a different kind of worship, as the Lord Himself said to the woman of Samaria, viz. “in spirit and in truth” (John 4). It is not an improvement upon the old, but a contrast. The shadows are past: we now have the substance. In lieu of the type we have the antitype. The seen is now supplanted by the unseen, the earthly by the heavenly, the natural by the spiritual. Hence suitable inward thoughts and feelings take the place of a rigid exactitude in the external performance.
In the ancient ritual of praise, therefore, unity was secured by the act being always performed in a prescribed way; but to-day the unity is produced by the Spirit of God filling and animating every mind with the same truth. We know that, in the books of Psalms, the Israelites possessed inspired songs, often prefaced by inspired directions as to the character of the psalm and the manner of its performance. And in order that the ceremonial might he duly observed, a number of Levites were told off to attend solely to this very thing. Now in the New Testament we have no inspired hymn book, and it is certain the Jewish Psalms were never intended for Christian worship. We have not so much as a word as to the formation of a choir to ensure efficient singing. We are unable to find a syllable in the writings of the apostles as to instrumental accompaniments of any kind. But we are carefully instructed as to the effectual purging of the worshipper and his endowment with a new and divine nature, thus giving him fitness to approach God and ability to offer acceptable praise to Him. Not a section or a selection of believers, but each one in the assembly is fully qualified as a singer by the work of Christ for him and by the work of the Spirit in him.
Nevertheless responsibility remains to sing with the spirit and the understanding; in other words, to consciously address God and that in concert with the brethren. Each of these considerations is calculated to have great moral influence upon singing in the assembly. What will induce feelings of becoming gravity and reverence like a definite sense upon the spirit of the immediate presence of a divine Person? For example, such a hymn is to be sung as that, “O Lord, we adore Thee, for Thou art the slain One That livest forever, enthroned in heaven” &c. Let us suppose it sung to a suitable and expressive tune by professional vocalists, accompanied by strains of instrumental music. The judgment of artistic listeners may be that it equals man's highest conception of a sacred musical performance. But when we bring God in, the case changes. This is not what the Father seeks according to John 4. Musical talent was owned formerly; but He now seeks the adoration of the spirit according to the truth of the gospel. And while but few of God's children could be qualified for the former, all are for the latter.
Now if the Lord Who is addressed in the above named hymn be personally before the spirit, the feelings due to that One, once crucified but now crowned on high, will at once be awakened. Such emotion is inseparable from singing in the spirit and affords an incense of praise which is acceptable on high.
Moreover, if such a hymn be sung in the assembly at the right and fitting moment, it will form the common expression of all to the Lord. For the death and consequent exaltation of Christ are truths in which the feeblest believer is instructed; so that, through the spiritual understanding which each has received, they are able intelligently to unite in this ascription of praise and adoration.
Another remark may be made before closing this letter. The scripture before us plainly speaks of “singing.” Voices as well as hearts are expected to be in accord. And that this end may be attained, a simple and familiar tune commends itself. For assembly singing is not the occasion to display the higher capabilities of the human voice for extraordinary musical effects; but it is the means of a united expression of the praises of the Lord. Therefore difficult or unfamiliar tunes should be avoided as not contributing to the fellowship of the saints; while straining after the harmony and melody of mere sound is a virtual abandonment of Christian position and repugnant to every faithful soul.
For the present I must close.
Yours faithfully in Christ,