The music of the faith is meant to teach us theology—songology, we might call it. Not so much systematically, but for sure, but artistically, emotionally, and viscerally. Church music should be evaluated by this and this alone: what does it teach us about God and our relationship to him. If it doesn’t teach doctrine, inspire trust and lead us to obedience, then no matter how lovely the lyrics or moving the melody, perhaps the best thing we could do with it is to toss it in the “we’re done with it” bin.
Going Deep // Focus: Deuteronomy 32:4,9
Moses recited this entire song publicly to the assembly of Israel: I will proclaim the name of the Lord; how glorious is our God! He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! …For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession.
I love church songs—hymns, simple choruses of the faith and modern worship music. But I’m a little bit weird; I don’t just love the music, it’s the lyrics that move me—or not. When a song skill teaches good theology, I’m a fan! Let’s call it songology. I think that is what the music of the faith is meant to do: teach us theology—not so much systematically, but artistically, emotionally and viscerally. If it doesn’t, no matter how lovely the lyrics and moving the melody, I am okay with tossing it into the “we’re done with it” bin. Don’t worry; it won’t be lonely. There is a great multitude of other church songs there.
Moses wrote a song for the Israelites toward the very end of his days as their leader. He was about to “go the way of all the earth.” That is code for, “I’m about to die.” He was passing the baton of leadership to Joshua, and in his final words to Israel—which went on for several chapters—he was rehearsing their history with God over the past forty years. His last will and testament was at times charming, profound, moving and tender, but then it would take a turn into deadly seriousness: Moses was not pulling his punches with their characteristic whiny and rebellious nature. He was also letting loose on what he feared most: that they would wander from God and end up in full on spiritual rebellion in the future, probably sooner than later, knowing them. Fearing that, he warned them in no uncertain terms of what the consequences would be for their unfaithfulness to God.
To put the exclamation mark on his words, he wrote this song that comprises Deuteronomy 32. The song is not just a happy little ditty from their happy old granddaddy. No, much of the song is a foreboding alert—again, he is putting into writing that which will stand as a prophetic testimony against them when they have sunk into rebellion and are experiencing the nasty consequences.
You can listen to the song for yourself. Make sure you read the entire score because while it is often harsh, it reminds us of some very important theology—the doctrine of God that should be heard again in our generation and passed on to the next. But for time’s sake, let me just mention a few bits and pieces of this songology that stuck out to me:
- The Doctrine of God: He is our strength, just and fair, perfect in all his ways and utterly righteous. This is especially critical to grasp as you read of the punishment he will unleash on the persistently rebellious. If you read only the imprecatory portions of God’s warning, you will think of him only as an angry Deity. He is not at all. And he would be none of the things God should be if he didn’t do what he warned he would do.
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! (Deuteronomy 32:4)
- The Reality of Sin: Sin is not simply a mistake, nor is it merely satisfying our preferences. Sin is not God’s children exercising their freedom; it is full on rebellion against the just and righteous Creator. In fact, to persistently live in rebellion against God should call into question the legitimacy of their spiritual heritage.
But they have acted corruptly toward him; when they act so perversely, are they really his children? They are a deceitful and twisted generation. (Deuteronomy 32:5)
- The Rule of God: Perhaps forgetting that God is our Father, our Maker, and the One who established us on the planet is the fundamental reason we sin against God. If we kept in mind that our lives are not our own, we would never ask, “what do I want?” but “what does my Owner desire from me?” God has supreme right and authority of rulership over us.
Isn’t he your Father who created you? Has he not made you and established you? … He established the boundaries of the peoples according to the number in his heavenly court. For the people of Israel belong to the Lord; Jacob is his special possession. (Deuteronomy 32:6, 8-9)
- The Sovereignty of God: God’s self-existence, his supreme authority, his authorship of salvation, his Fatherhood over all mankind are not just lofty doctrine that only the theologians grasp and appreciate; this is practical and meaningful theology for our everyday lives. Theology serves as a continual reminder that we must never allow the goodness of life to lull us into independence from the very One who gives us our life, supplies our every breath, and deserves our moment-by-moment loyalty.
But Israel soon became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them; they made light of the Rock of their salvation. …You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth. (Deuteronomy 32:15,18)
- The Praiseworthiness of God: the obvious implication of all this theology is that our response of worship, now and as the ceaseless activity of our lives, is only right and fitting. The sovereign, life-giving, just, fair and righteous God alone is worthy to be praised.
I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand! …Rejoice with him, you heavens, and let all of God’s angels worship him. Rejoice with his people, you Gentiles, and let all the angels be strengthened in him. (Deuteronomy 32:15,18)
Yep, there’s good songology in Moses’ hymn. And while we don’t know if the music that accompanied it was moving, if the band was hot, if he had backup singers and dancers (which I kind of doubt) or if it hit the Billboard Top Ten Chart, we do know that the words of the song were literally inspired by the Holy Spirit for our benefit. In fact, Moses himself said as post-commentary on the song,
These instructions are not empty words—they are your life! By obeying them you will enjoy a long life in the land you will occupy when you cross the Jordan River. (Deuteronomy 32:47)
If that is literally true—which it is, by the way—then we had better start singing.