Over the past few decades, there has been a tremendous emphasis placed upon exposition in the church. The benefits of this are too many to count. A revival has taken place where a number of churches have moved away from a surface level study of God’s word (like skipping a rock on the ocean), to an in-depth comprehensive study of the text––exposition (like dropping an anchor down to the ocean floor).
After all, if God’s word is breathed by Him and therefore sourced in Him, then it is incumbent upon us as His people to draw the last drops of sweet nectar that we can from every single word. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Tim 3:16–17, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be equipped, having been thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Since the Scriptures are profitable to equip us for every single good work prepared for us, we should not just know a little bit of them, we must live in them (cf. Matt 4:4; Eph 2:10).
Many pastors have written books on the topic of expository preaching. That is, preaching that seeks to understand a text within its larger context and draw out the God-laden meaning from the words and grammar that has been used by the Biblical writers. G. Campbell Morgan put it this way, “The sermon is the text repeated more fully." That’s the idea.
In a related but slightly different direction, in 2010, Ken Ramey wrote a book entitled, Expository Listening. His work is a primer on how God’s people should approach listening to an expository sermon. It is based on passages like Jas 1:22, “But become doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Building off of the momentum, in 2017, Josh Neimi released the book entitled, Expository Parenting. The book aims to show parents that they must expose and lay bare the pure milk of the Scriptures to their children.
With that being said, you opened this article expecting to learn about a different type of exposition. At this point, I do want to speak about expository singing. Now, there are two ways that we might approach this topic. The first would be more for worship leaders. Expository singing could mean the way that writing hymns and spiritual songs should be done, based on the exposition or explanation of the meaning of the Scriptures. That’s one way, but that’s not what I intend with this article.
The second approach is seen in thinking about expository singing, not from the approach of creating content, but rather based on how we approach the songs that we sing to the Lord each Sunday (or throughout the week). Well-written hymns and spiritual songs are expository in nature. The Scriptures are the light unto our path, and good praise songs will emphasize the light of the Lord through His word and bring us near to Him (Ps 119:105).
With that in mind, there are four principles that I want to deliver to you that should cause you to enjoy God more through song when rightly appropriated. In finding your enjoyment in God, you bring honor to Him in fulfilling your created purpose… the exaltation of His name (Ps 34:3).
What makes a good Christian song? Is it the date in which it was written (a pre-1900 hymn with preferably some old English mixed in)? Is it the melody that the song has or its tempo, upbeat or slow? What about the instruments used or lack thereof (drums, guitars, cymbals, harps, a cappella)? How about the number of times the chorus is sung? Here’s the answer. None of those make a good Christian song, inherently.
What makes a good praise song is the words. It’s the content. After Jesus’ ostensible disciples depart from Him, there’s this precious interaction between Jesus and his disciples in John 6:67–68. “So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go?’ Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.’” Where else can we go, but you Lord? We sing songs that make much of the God of our salvation.
But here’s the rub, how many of those words do you actually think about when you sing them on Sunday morning (or ideally throughout the week)? It is so ingrained in our culture and in our world to value songs that have catchy beats and rifts and then to mindlessly puppet the words the artist sings. That has no place in Christianity. This is the first principle of expository singing, we must be engaged singers.
We must be engaged singers
There are two quotes that I use often but have never been able to find (if you can identify them please let me know). The first is from Charles Spurgeon (at least I think) concerning sanctification, “we must move, but He must move us.” I love that quote, but I can’t find it anywhere. The second pertains to our topic. Paul Washer once said (at least I think) that “we never lie more than in our singing of songs of praise.” Why would Paul Washer say that?
It’s all too common for people to sing glorious lyrics on Sunday morning but not truly mean them. If I told you, “I like your outfit,” but I didn't mean it, what would you call me? You’d call me a liar. But doesn’t that happen with how we approach God through song? Yes, I said “we,” I am guilty of this too. Here are some relatively well-known lyrics… through introspection, answer as to whether or not you meant them fully when you last sang them. “My soul finds rest in God alone; All glory, laud, and honor to Thee, Redeemer, King; I will tell the wondrous story how, my lost estate to save, in His boundless love and mercy He the ransom freely gave; When morning gilds the skies, My heart awaking cries, May Jesus Christ be praised; I will not boast in anything, No gifts, no pow’r, no wisdom.”
To be an expository singer, one must be engaged with what he or she is saying. Our words matter to God. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees in Matt 15:7–8 saying, “You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me.’” We are not to be a people that go through the motions, but rather, we are to be a people motivated by joy to declare the truths of God.
Words are important to the Lord. I know this is a text that concerns the judgment of unbelievers, but it’s helpful for us to see what the Lord thinks of idle words or those that flow unguarded from the mouth. In Matt 12:36, Jesus says, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.” We are not to be idle singers but rather, engaged singers.
I do recognize that out of the gate some of you might be thinking, “this is a bit more of a tense article than I was expecting on the topic of expository singing.” We are starting hard out of the gate, but all of this is shared for your joy. There is more joy to be found in Christ when we sing the rich content of Scripture-saturated songs with our minds engaged. It’s what God desires, and it’s where we find our delight––in the knowledge of Him.
We must be responsive singers
The second principle of expository singing is this, and it piggybacks off the first point, we must be responsive singers. What I mean is this, we must not be those that sing empty words. We should mean what we say, and we should act upon what we say.
For example, if we sing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” what should our response be? To aid you here with the lyrics, “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; go tell it on the mountain, that Jesus Christ is born.” The heart of the song is evangelistic. When Jesus was born into the world, the appropriate response was to tell others that the Messiah had come. When we sing that song today, our response should not be indifference, it should be the same resolve to tell others about Jesus.
After teaching among a crowd, Jesus had a fascinating encounter with a woman within the crowd in Luke 11:27–28. “Now it happened that while Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.’ But He said, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’” Sometimes you may have the tendency of thinking that the only blessing in the Bible given for heeding what is written is found in the book of Revelation (Rev 1:3). Yet, here we see Jesus say the blessing is for those that heed God’s word at large. When we are singing Bible-based songs, our response should be seen in obeying the call of God’s word. It’s joy-motivated obedience, and through obedience, we find more joy in the Lord.
We must be wholehearted singers
The third principle of expository singing is that we are to sing with our whole heart. God delights in external obedience when it is fueled by the whole heart. In Deut 6:5, we see the model of how we are to live. Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus tells us the same (cf. Matt 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In Micah 6:8 we read, “He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does Yahweh require of you But to do justice, to love lovingkindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” God’s people are to do justice, but the motives of the heart matter to God, we are to love lovingkindness. In Hos 6:6, we see an exposition on 1 Sam 15:22, “For I delight in lovingkindness rather than sacrifice, And in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” What matters most to God is what fuels our obedience, and it should be love.
When we come before the Lord in song, it’s not enough to merely be engaged with the words intellectually, it’s not even enough to follow through on what we sing, we must be a people that love God in these realities. That’s what the Lord desires.
In 2 Chron 25:2, Amaziah is at first commended and then rebuked. “And he did what was right in the sight of Yahweh, yet not with a whole heart.” Hannah says of God in 1 Sam 2:3, that “... with Him actions are weighed.” God knows the heart and knows our reasons for singing. Built into the New Covenant we see that we are to be those that love God with our whole heart. Jer 24:7 reads, “I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am Yahweh; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.” God is speaking of Israel, but the broader application of the New Covenant through Jesus’ inauguration of it extends to the church at large (Luke 22:20). As Jesus shed His blood for His people, the New Covenant is for them––per His argument.
All this being said, when the rubber meets the road, you may come to church on Sunday morning and not be in a place where your whole heart is engaged. Pray to the Lord at that moment. Pray that the Lord would cause you to delight in Him and that He would receive the worship He is due from your lips. Pray that you would be like David whose soul thirsts for the Lord, whose flesh yearns for Him (Ps 63:1–4). That’s a prayer that the Lord delights in answering.
We must be expository singers
This brings me to the final principle. We are to be expository singers. Yes… I did just give you the title of the article as the final point. What I am emphasizing here is that we are to be a people, if we are physically able, that do sing to the Lord from our hearts that are enraptured by Him.
If you have heard of the Shepherds’ Conference before, then you might be aware that The Master’s Seminary students open the conference in song. It’s an impactful and special moment to see men in ministry, who are training further for ministry, belt out songs to the Lord… at least most of them do.
Being a student at The Master’s Seminary in the past, I have had the opportunity to have a behind-the-scenes look at the rehearsal process for the conference opening. I remember every year, the music director would tell us, “some of you are audio, others of you are video.” What he meant by that was, some of you can sing on key, others of you cannot, if you cannot, please refrain from singing… but look like you are singing. It certainly made for a more pleasurable listening experience for the conference attendees.
Here’s the concern. Some people bring that mentality to church every Sunday. It’s understandable for a conference performance to have some individuals who are video only, but God delights in the singing of His people. Ps 33:2, “Give thanks to Yahweh with the lyre; Sing praises to Him with a harp of ten strings.” 1 Chron 16:23, “Sing to Yahweh, all the earth; Proclaim good news of His salvation from day to day.” We are to be, as Paul says in Eph 5:32, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.”
Not everyone has been gifted vocally, but we have all been called to sing. Ps 100:1, “Make a loud shout to Yahweh, all the earth.” We are to be a people who sing His praises, and who do so corporately. Ps 149:1, “Praise Yah! Sing to Yahweh a new song, His praise in the assembly of the holy ones.” It is a grace given to us in the Christian life, and out of the overflow of our hearts, our mouths should burst forth in praise.
My hope and prayer is that you would love being an expository singer because expository singing doesn’t end in this life (Rev 5:9; 14:3). So, let's enjoy now what we'll enjoy forever. Ps 89:1, “I will sing of the lovingkindnesses of Yahweh forever.” Ps 30:12, “... O Yahweh my God, I will give thanks to You forever.” Ps 145:2, “Every day I will bless You, And I will praise Your name forever and ever.” An appropriate way to respond to what you’ve seen of the Lord in this article is found in the title, be an expository singer. Pick out one of your favorites and make much of the Lord through song. He’s worthy of it.