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The Power of Sacred Music

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Romans 10:16–21

People do not reject the gospel because it is too difficult to understand. Salvation by grace is just something they do not want. Yet we can be confident God is still working and patiently waiting on unbelievers, appealing to them through us, as we proclaim the gospel of Christ.


Has it ever occurred to you that when we sing, we are joining in a practice that has been around since the creation of the world? The book of Job speaks of the original gospel choir of angels singing as God created the universe (Job 38:6-7), and the book of Revelation indicates that we will join the angels in singing God’s praise throughout eternity (Revelation 15:3).

Every time you sing to the Lord, you are tuning up to join that choir. And that music on Sunday morning is not a prelude to what matters—music matters all by itself.

Martin Luther, the reformer once said that “sacred music is the handmaiden of theology.” He wrote a number of hymns for his congregation to sing, like “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” We have been singing that ever since.

One Roman Catholic priest complained back in the sixteenth century about the lingering effects of Martin Luther’s reformation ministry. In particular he noted, “Luther has [stolen away] more people with his hymns than with his sermons.”

Even in the secular world, the effects of music are undeniable. I read some time ago of a medical doctor who said that half an hour of good music can produce the same effect as ten milligrams of anti-anxiety medicine.

Are you troubled or anxious today? Are you being tempted today? What kind of music are you listening to on your way to work or school? Who are your musical counselors? 

Now as we sail back into Romans 10, Paul is going to summarize his teaching by quoting some sacred music. He is going to cite three songs and use them to show that the unbelieving world is responsible for their unbelief.

Let’s pick up our study now in verses 16-18:

But they [unbelievers] have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have.

Paul anticipates his Jewish audience saying, “Wait, if faith comes by hearing the gospel, when did the nation of Israel ever hear the gospel?” And it is as if Paul says, “Let me answer that question by playing you a song right out of your own sacred hymnal. It’s hymn number 19.” We call it Psalm 19. In that psalm David writes these lyrics:

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. . . . Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (verses 1, 4)

Paul quotes that last line here in Romans 10:18: “Their voice has gone out to all the earth.”

The Greek word Paul uses for “voice” is pthongos. It is a word created to sound like that which it describes. Pthongos refers to the vibration of a musical string being plucked—pthong. Paul is saying that the truth of God’s creation is vibrating throughout the universe.

Everybody is exposed to the Creator’s musical masterpiece. It is putting on a show of God’s creativity every day and then every night.

The whole world, in effect, hears the sounds of creation—we call this general revelation. Some people hear even more: the sound of special revelation—that is, the Bible. Yet in either case, through created nature or through inspired Scripture, the world refuses to listen. The world has lost its hearing, so to speak, in its defiance of God.

I heard a humorous story about an older man who was concerned over his wife’s hearing loss. He was convinced she would never admit to it, so he asked his doctor for advice. The doctor asked how bad her hearing was, and he answered, “Well, I think it’s getting pretty bad.” The doctor said, “Well, let’s experiment to find out. When you go home today, say something to her when her back is turned to you. If she doesn’t respond, get a little closer and speak a little louder. Do that until she responds, and we will be able to determine how much hearing loss she is experiencing.” When the man arrived at home, he found his wife at the kitchen sink. He stood behind her in the doorway and quietly asked, “What’s for supper?” No response. He walked a little closer and said louder, “What’s for supper?” No response. He got right behind her and loudly said, “What’s for supper?” She turned around and said, “Well, for the third time, we’re having chicken soup.”

Just like that man, the Jewish people thought nobody could hear God like they could. But in reality, their ears were not hearing any of this glorious, universal gospel music.

In verse 19 Paul voices another objection of the Jewish people: “But I ask, did Israel not understand?” In other words, maybe they heard but did not understand the gospel? Once again, Paul says, “Let me play you another gospel song to answer that. This song was written by Moses.”

Paul then quotes from Deuteronomy 32:21 here in verse 19: “I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.” Well, that does not sound like musical lyrics to me! But Moses did sing this after commissioning Joshua as his successor. His entire song recounted the grace of God throughout the history of Israel. The song also prophesied that Israel would become jealous and angry when God redeemed Gentiles.

Paul then goes on to cite the prophet Isaiah, who is singing the same tune (Isaiah 65:1). Paul quotes him in verse 20: “I [God] have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.”

These are shocking lyrics. The Jewish people thought they had exclusive rights to God. But now, as the gospel is going to Gentiles, the Jewish world is becoming angry and jealous.

But wait a second. I thought the objection back in verse 19 was that Israel didn’t understand the gospel. So, how does Israel’s jealousy answer that? Well, they did understand because if they had not, they would not have cared if the Gentiles believed it. Their jealousy and anger indicated that they understood it was the true gospel of God.

By the way, when you share the gospel with people today, they might get angry with you and say, “I don’t care about God at all! I don’t need saving, and I don’t need Jesus!” Well, why are they so angry about it? Beloved, their anger reveals their anxiety and their inward awareness that it is true: nature points to the Creator, and the truth is revealed in Scripture.

What is God doing about Israel’s unbelief? Paul answers in verse 21: “But of Israel [the Lord] says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands.’” You want a true picture of God? He has His hands outstretched in a patient invitation to mankind. And beloved, those are nail-pierced hands.

Paul goes on here to say that God has His hands out to a “disobedient and contrary people.” “Disobedient” refers to a stubborn refusal to believe. The word here for “contrary” means to “speak against.” It is not enough for unbelievers to refuse Christ. They have to speak against Him. They have to use His name as a curse word. Jesus Christ is a name unbelievers use in every possible way today—except to worship.

And what is God doing about it? Well, we are told here—and this is amazing news to me—God is still holding out His hands today, inviting the world to believe.

So, let’s demonstrate the same kind of persistence and patience and grace. And let’s keep tuning up our voices—let’s keep singing the songs of the gospel.

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