As the Worship Team Leader in my home church of LifeChurch Manchester, I often get asked why it is that we put so much emphasis, time and resources into singing worship songs on a Sunday. I get asked questions ranging from “What is so special about singing?” to “Is the way we ‘do corporate worship’ Biblical?” I hear countless opinions on what musical styles we should incorporate into our song pools and new songs we should introduce – “we do too much Chris Tomlin and Hillsong” or “we need more ‘meaty’ hymns with deeper theology” spring to mind. I hear arguments on one side which express that singing together is essential in expressing and building unity within the church and that it is a powerful way for us to pour out our thanks and praise to God together (Ephesians 5:19), yet on the other side that “worship is a lifestyle” (Romans 12:1), “it should lead us to remembrance” (1 Corinthians 11) and “it should lead us to God’s heart of serving the poor and those in need, seeking justice and equip us for mission” (Isaiah 58:6, James 1:27). Personally, I believe that the above are, in fact, all true. God is after our heartfelt response to Him in all aspects of our existence. However, I am also convinced that there is still so much more to sung worship than what meets the eye. My aim now is to communicate something that I feel is rarely spoken about, that worship through music and song actually is an extremely powerful weapon in spiritual warfare, a tool God chooses to use to outwork His purposes and therefore has a significant role in the life of the church.
In 2 Chronicles chapter 20, we find a remarkable story. Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, had just received word that many nations around him were about to wage war against him. Challenging in itself, Jehoshaphat’s response was to “set his face to seek the Lord” (v. 3) and to ascribe sovereign power to God (vv.6-12) in the midst of the situation. Following on from this, after receiving a prophetic word of promise from the prophet Jahaziel that “the battle is not yours, but God’s” (v. 17), we read in verse 18: “Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the Lord, worshipping the Lord.” Fair enough. If I was in this situation, I would like to think bowing in worship would feature somewhere in the midst of panic and fear. Jehoshaphat’s, Judah’s and Jerusalem’s response actually makes sense to me. However, what I find remarkable is that in the context of what seems like an awe-filled, reverent, ‘holy moment’, waiting on the Lord,“…The Levites… stood up to praise the Lord, the God of Israel, with a very loud voice.”
As someone who has spent a year part-time studying at King’s School of Theology, I have been trained to appreciate that all scripture should first be understood in its original context, so when I first read this passage I was determined to research more about who the Levites were and whether there was any significance behind them doing this. If there was not, it would appear at first glance that some random singers had decided to spontaneously erupt in praise at a rather inappropriate time. My research, however, led me to 1 Chronicles chapter 6, which informs us that the Levites were “men David put in charge of the music in the house of the Lord after the ark came to rest there” (v.31), who “ministered with music before the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, until Solomon built the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem…” and who “performed their duties according to the regulations laid down for them.” (v. 32). In other words, the Levites were not a random group of charismatics, nor were they being inappropriate. They were the choir of Israel who, since the time of David, had been appointed the task of leading God’s people in music and song, that is, corporate sung worship. They had a wealth of experience yet a great deal of responsibility and in this moment were using their role to help people praise God in advance for the victory over their enemies, which God had promised. They were actually taking the spiritual lead in the situation.
I wonder how this may apply to us, particularly worship leaders and musicians, today. I have led quite a few times of sung corporate worship where I am aware of many battles taking place within the people. I can often sense in those times that people are finding it hard to engage in worship because they are struggling to find or trust God in their situation and that the last thing that they want to do is worship God when they are, for example, in the midst of significant financial debt or wrestling with the illness of a family member who is yet to be healed after years of persistent prayer. I am therefore challenged by this scripture as rarely has my response in those contexts been to lead worship, praising God as if such battles are God’s and have already been won. As someone whose tendency is to be pastoral and long to care for the people, I have been quicker to resort to “I am trusting You in the dark”, “Comfort me, Lord” type songs which will relate to where the people are at than I have loud, extravagant praise. Yet the calling on the Levites in the context of this battle was to help shift the eyes of the people from worrying about their imminent situation and on to God, who is sovereign “over all the Kingdoms and nations” (v.6), and they did this through praising God with a “very loud voice”.
The story doesn’t end there though. In verses 20-21, we read:
“Early in the morning they left for the Desert of Tekoa. As they set out, Jehoshaphat stood and said, ‘Listen to me, Judah and people of Jerusalem! Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld; have faith in his prophets and you will be successful.’ After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendour of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying:
‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures for ever.’”
I love this. Where in most war contexts you would assume that those at the front of the battle would be well trained swordsmen with thoroughly thought through strategies for attack, in this case Jehoshaphat appoints a choir to lead the way. On the surface this seems ridiculous, however God had spoken through the prophet Jahaziel that He would indeed fight the battle for him, so what better way to fight than with songs of triumphant victory?
My favourite part of this story, however, occurs in verses 22-23:
“As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated. The Ammonites and Moabites rose up against the men from Mount Seir to destroy and annihilate them. After they finished slaughtering the men from Seir, they helped to destroy one another.”
What’s fascinating about this is that God could have driven out the enemies without any interaction from the people. However, He chose to wait and outwork His plan as they began to sing and praise. More than that, these songs caused the enemies to be thrown into confusion and resulted in them killing each other. In other words, as a direct result of the worship coming from those appointed to sing at the frontline of the battle, the enemies were defeated!
A similar story takes place in the book of Acts, chapter 16. Here, Paul and Silas were severely beaten and thrown into jail after commanding a demon to flee a slave girl, yet in the midst of being tortured, they chose to not just pray to God for help, as I imagine most people would have expected them to do, but to sing:
“Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening…”
What’s fascinating about this is that Paul and Silas’ determination, willingness and choice to worship God in the midst of a rather extreme trial (where they were on the verge of being flogged again and killed), whilst being radical in itself, directly resulted in God moving powerfully amongst them:
“…and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened”
As was the case in the story of Jehoshaphat, as soon as Paul and Silas started to sing, it was as if God received their praise and converted it into an opportunity for Him to reveal His power. What’s more, God did not just do this to set Paul and Silas free – He did it with an ultimate purpose of revealing His glory. God turned the situation around resulting in the jailor, who was on the verge of committing suicide, being saved. The moral of the story: when you are at the lowest possible place, in the midst of the most challenging and dark of situations and there is seemingly nothing left to do, worship makes a difference, even if it feels ridiculous!
I want to say at this stage, however, that we don’t (or at least, shouldn’t) worship God with a mind-set of benefitting from it or solely because we want to see victories in our personal battles. Our God is always worthy to be praised (Psalm 18:3, Revelation 4:11) and deserves the very best we can offer Him in any and every situation life throws at us, however difficult. Worship, amongst many other things, is our heartfelt response to who God is in His character and Trinitarian nature, not just our response to how He has helped us in our trials and if we only worship when we are looking for answers, we have missed the point. That said, we are in the midst of a spiritual battle (Ephesians 6:10-17) and these scriptures remind us that worship is an authoritative tool for spiritual warfare with incredible power to demolish strongholds and bring freedom and release.
In conclusion, I want to ask a question. Do we realise how strong a weapon sung worship is and what it accomplishes in the spiritual realm or do we merely see it as something that we are expected to do when we go to a church service but in reality see little purpose in it? I wonder whether, as contemporary worship leaders and musicians particularly, we can either fall into the trap of doubting whether what we contribute to church life is even worthwhile or important (particularly when going through a dry season) or, on the flip side, of seeing sung worship as a time of musical entertainment that is only successful if it went to plan, was musically, audibly and visually excellent and resulted in every hand raised. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you cannot see the purpose of sung worship, be encouraged and challenged by these scriptures. There is always power and purpose in it. The truth is that ascribing worth and giving glory to our great, sovereign, just, good, merciful, gracious, loving, saving, healing God is reason enough to partake in it anyway, yet on a spiritual level it does far more than we can ever comprehend, whether we can see the outcomes as clearly as Jehoshaphat, Paul and Silas did, or not.
Author: Chris Greenhalgh, Worship Team Leader, LifeChurch Manchester.
Copyright © 2014 Chris Greenhalgh