November 21, 1999
THE SINGING SPIRIT
Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to God, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 5:18-20
As a teenager, Jonathan struggled with some hard questions about God. One thing especially bothered him. He disliked the Bible’s teaching that God is in charge and decides our destinies. “From my childhood up,” Jonathan said, “my mind had been full of objections against the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, in choosing whom he would to eternal life; and rejecting whom he pleased; leaving them eternally to perish, and be everlastingly tormented in hell.”
Somehow, though, Jonathan eventually came to see that it is “just and reasonable” for God to be supreme in everything, including the matter of who should be saved or lost. Not only did Jonathan come to believe in God’s sovereignty but he delighted in it. “There has been a wonderful alteration in my mind,” he wrote. “I have often since had not only a conviction but a delightful conviction … exceedingly pleasant, bright and sweet. Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God. But my first conviction was not so.”
“The first instance, that I remember, of that sort of inward, sweet delight in God and divine things … was on reading those words [from the Bible], 1 Tim. 1:17, ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.’ As I read the words, there came into my soul … a sense of the glory of the Divine Being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before. Never any words of Scripture seemed to me as these words did. I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was, and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be rapt up to him in heaven; and be as it were swallowed up in him forever! I kept saying, and as it were singing, over these words of Scripture to myself; and went to pray to God that I might enjoy him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do, with a new sort of affection.”
Something was happening inside eighteen-year-old Jonathan Edwards, giving him a glimpse of God’s glory and goodness, helping him sense that God is wise and good in all he does, making him glad such an excellent God is totally in charge–so glad it made him sing.
All Nature Sings
This young man began to have thoughts and feelings such as he’d never had before toward Jesus Christ and salvation. “An inward, sweet sense of these things came into my heart,” he writes. “And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him… The sense I had of divine things, would often of a sudden kindle up, as it were, a sweet burning in my heart, an ardor of soul, that I know not how to express.” The Holy Spirit was warming Jonathan’s heart with the fire of God’s love in Christ.
Not only did he feel God touching his heart and drawing him to Christ, but the creation all around him seemed to glow with the light of God: “God’s excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature. I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spend much time in viewing the clouds and the sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the meantime singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything, among all the works of nature, was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning: formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. Before, I used to be uncommonly terrified with thunder and struck with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising; but now, on the contrary, it rejoiced me. I felt God, if I may so speak, at the first appearance of a thunderstorm; and used to take the opportunity, at such times, to fix myself in order to view the clouds, and see the lightning play, and hear the majestic and awful voice of God’s thunders, which oftentimes was exceedingly entertaining, leading me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God. While thus engaged, it always seemed natural for me to sing or chant forth my meditations; or, to speak my thoughts with a singing voice.”
That’s what happens when God’s Holy Spirit floods your life and fills your heart: you sing. You taste the joy of salvation in Jesus, and you sing. You see the Lord’s creation and hear his voice all around you, and you sing. Spirit-filled Christians can sing, “Jesus, the very thought of Thee with sweetness fills my breast; but sweeter far Thy face to see, and in Thy presence rest.” Spirit-filled Christians can also sing, “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres… [This is my Father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair; in rustling grass I hear him pass–he speaks to me everywhere. This is my Father’s world: why should my heart be sad? The Lord is King, let heaven ring! God reigns; let earth be glad.”]
This week marks a special time for thanksgiving. There’s much more to thanksgiving than eating food, enjoying games, and feeling pleased that things have been going fairly well for you lately. To experience heartfelt, joyous thanksgiving, you need to delight in God himself. And to do that, you need a heart that is filled with God’s Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit inside you, God may seem like a vague idea or a distant power, not a living reality. You can’t address a real, personal prayer of thanksgiving “to whom it may concern.” Without the Holy Spirit inside you, the creation around you may not impress you with supernatural splendor. Stars are just distant balls of burning gas, and thunder is just something that rattles windows and perhaps scares you a little. You can’t feel the thrill of true thanksgiving if you don’t sense the glow of God’s glory in anything. But if, like Jonathan Edwards and so many others before and since, you are filled with the Holy Spirit, your heart will be filled with the music of joy and your mouth will sing songs of thanksgiving.
The Singing Spirit
In Ephesians 5 the Bible says, “Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to God, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:18-20). The key to heartfelt singing and thanksgiving is being filled with the Holy Spirit. He is the singing Spirit, and he makes our spirit sing. As the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit connects us with the other two Persons of the Trinity, God the Father and Christ the Son. When the Spirit fills our hearts, he thrills us with wonder at the Father’s goodness in all things and gives us joy in Jesus’ name. The Holy Spirit did that in the heart of Jonathan Edwards, he’s done it in the hearts of many others, and he can do it in your heart.
What Edwards experienced in his late teens wasn’t just a passing feeling; he continued to experience the Holy Spirit stirring him and moving him forward. The Spirit had sealed him with a strong assurance that he was saved and accepted by God, but that wasn’t enough to satisfy Jonathan. He had a burning desire to know God and Christ and to be holy.
There’s a reason why God’s Spirit is called the Holy Spirit: he is utterly pure and holy, and when he is living in your heart, he gives you a glimpse of the beauty of God’s holiness which stirs a deep desire to be holy yourself. “My longings after God and holiness were much increased,” said Edwards. “Holiness … appeared to me to be of a sweet, pleasant, charming, serene, calm nature; which brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness, and ravishment to the soul. As the Spirit shone the rays of God’s holiness into Jonathan’s heart, he longed for the perfect holiness and love of heaven: “The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness; to be with God, and to spend my eternity in divine love, and holy communion with Christ.”
One of the happiest things about heaven, said Jonathan Edwards, was that there at last “the saints would be able to express their love to Christ.” [He felt frustrated that what he felt inside couldn’t be expressed the way he wanted. In heaven, though, the flame in his heart would freely and fully express its love for Christ and for other people.] “Heaven appeared exceedingly delightful, as a world of love,” he writes. This love, he said, will move us to join together “to sing the praises of God and the Lamb.” The singing Spirit will give us a song in heaven which fully expresses our joy. Together with our fellow Christians and the holy angels, we will join in a perfect chorus of glad thanksgiving and celebration.
Now, if you know much about history, you know that Jonathan Edwards didn’t just have a personal, private experience of the Holy Spirit. He was also used by God to bring the Holy Spirit’s truth and life to others. Jonathan Edwards became a preacher. He was a mighty man of God during the Great Awakening, the spiritual revival which swept the American colonies in the mid-1700s and also touched Britain and other parts of Europe. The same Holy Spirit that filled him also came upon many others and filled them and had much the same effect on them as on Edwards.
Young people who partied too much and were aimless goof-offs suddenly wanted to be right with God and enjoy his holiness and love. Deadbeat church members who had only been going through the motions were filled with horror of their sins and then given wonderful certainty and enjoyment of God’s goodness to them. As Edwards described it, “The town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then… It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them… the congregations was alive in God’s service.” The people eagerly drank in the preaching of God’s Word and sometimes were moved to tears. “Our public praises were then greatly enlivened.” Nowhere, said Jonathan Edwards, were “their hearts so lifted up in ways of God, as in singing his praises.” Before, the congregation had sung well, but now they would “sing with an unusual elevation of heart and voice.” The singing Spirit was flooding that congregation and town, so that hundreds more in the town became Christians within a few months. The same thing was happening in many other towns as well, and thousands upon thousands of people were added to the churches.
[Many people experienced much the same delight in God as Edwards himself had, though the intensity varied from person to person. “The light and comfort which some of them enjoy,” Edwards wrote, “give a new relish to their common blessings, and cause all things about them to appear as it were beautiful, sweet, and pleasant. All things abroad, the sun, moon, and stars, the clouds and sky, the heavens and earth, appear as it were with a cast of divine glory and sweetness upon them… The supreme attention of their minds is to the glorious excellencies of God and Christ; and there is very often a ravishing sense of God’s love accompanying a sense of his excellency.”]
Why focus on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening and the tremendous joy and singing that burst forth from these people? Because it’s an especially striking case of what the Bible means when it says, “Be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to God, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Can History Be Repeated?
What if all of that merely seems like ancient history to you? What if you never feel like singing at all? What if Thanksgiving Day means little more to you than a long weekend with lots of food? Well, it’s probably because you’re not filled with the Spirit. If you don’t trust Jesus as your Savior, then you don’t have the Holy Spirit at all. In that case, it’s no wonder God means little to you. But even if you trust Jesus and have the Spirit living in you, it’s still possible that you’re not “filled with the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit may be living in you, and yet you might not be experiencing him as the dominant delight of your life. Even Christians who already have the Spirit are told in the Bible, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Don’t be satisfied with knowing the Holy Spirit has moved in and is somewhat of a factor in your life; seek to be filled and flooded by his personality, controlled by his wisdom, glad in his joy.
At certain times throughout history, the Holy Spirit has filled individuals and also groups of people in extraordinary ways. These times of revival often begin in distress and sorrow and fear because of sin and guilt, but once the Spirit moves people to hate sin and fear God’s judgment, he shows them the beauty of God’s holiness and fills them with joy at his love. And that joy often finds its expression in singing.
The great Reformation of the 1500s, led by Martin Luther and John Calvin and others, was a cleansing of church corruption and correction of errors and rediscovery of gospel truth, but it was also a mighty revival, a spiritual movement where the Holy Spirit set hearts aflame with assurance of God’s grace, delight in the Bible, and enjoyment of Christ. One result was that congregations weren’t content just to sit and listen to the chanting of choirs. The people in the pews wanted to express their own praise. In the Reformation, congregations that had long been silent wanted to sing again. They weren’t satisfied to be spectators; they wanted to participate and praise God themselves. Filled with the Spirit, they joyfully sang psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.
Spiritual renewal almost always leads to an outpouring of praise and singing from ordinary people. Spirit-filled praise is thrilling for Christians, and it can also make an impact on non-Christians. People who don’t know Christ begin to wonder why those Christians are singing and celebrating. What are they so excited about? Dry, dull Christians seldom attract anyone to Christ, but joyous, singing, Spirit-filled Christians draw the attention of others, and the Holy Spirit often changes those people as well.
One remarkable example of the Spirit filling people and directing their singing and drawing many more people to Christ occurred in Wales during 1904 and 1905. Here’s what happened in the Welsh revival. A young coal miner named Evan Roberts began to read the Bible and pray for revival when he was only in his teens. In the spring of 1902, when he was in his early twenties, he was praying on his knees at his bedside. “While I was on my knees,” he later wrote, “I was caught up into space, without time or place–communing with God. Before then I had only a God at a distance. I was frightened that night, never afterward.” For the next several months, Evan Roberts would experience about four hours every night of what he called “divine communion.”
Sometime later he was at a prayer meeting. “After several had prayed,” he said, “I felt ‘living force’ entering my heart… I would have burst had I not prayed … It was God singing the praise of his love that bent me.” Evan Roberts felt led by the Holy Spirit to begin preaching.
Soon revival swept through congregations and communities throughout Wales. Many churchgoers who previously had little or no spiritual life experienced living fellowship with Christ and were set aflame by the Spirit. Thousands who had been totally outside the church were drawn to Christ and joined the church. As with any revival sent by the Holy Spirit, there were some excesses due to people’s own failings and errors and Satan’s attempts to spoil a good thing. But the main result was a great advance of God’s kingdom. In just five weeks’ time the churches in Wales enrolled over twenty thousand new members, in addition to the many converts who had already been on church rolls and had only been going through the motions. The people who were converted didn’t just have an emotional high that came and went. The vast majority were truly transformed by the Spirit and remained vibrant church members the rest of their lives.
One thing that stands out about the Welsh revival is the singing. During the meetings, there was no program or order determined ahead of time, no hymnbooks, choirs, or organs playing. Someone would pray and then others would begin singing, then more prayer and people confessing their sins or speaking of their Savior, and then the people would join in singing again. As one witness put it, “Prayer and hymn followed and mingled, without a single halt or jar. It was as if an Invisible Harper had the string of each soul ready to his finger, awaking the finest music at His touch and making it fade again to hushed expectancy. Anything more orderly, more harmonious than that unconducted meeting I can scarcely conceive.”
When someone was asked whether the revival would spread elsewhere, he replied, “It depends upon whether you can sing.”
Another witness of some of these meetings, London preacher G. Campbell Morgan, said that in one sense there was no choir, but in another sense, “It was all choir,” directed by the Holy Spirit himself. And the effect reached far beyond the churches and meetings. “The fire zone,” said Morgan, “is where the meetings are actually held, and where you feel the flame that burns. But even when you come out of it, and go into railway trains, or into a shop, a bank, anywhere, men everywhere are talking of God.”
Again, let me ask, does hearing about the singing Spirit of the Welsh revival, or the Great Awakening, or the Reformation, or the New Testament church, sound like something from another time and place that has no connection with your own life? Or can history be repeated? Don’t be in a hurry to dismiss what you’ve heard. Don’t think it’s irrelevant to you. These things actually happened, and they were accomplished by the Holy Spirit of God. That same Holy Spirit is alive today, and he has not lost any of his power or his musical joy. So if you or I have a problem identifying with the kind of things we’ve considered on this program, we may be out of touch with the stunning reality of the living God. Granted, those revivals were times of exceptional blessing from heaven. But the Bible calls us to seek for the Spirit’s fullness in our lives to be the rule, not the exception. Pray that history may be repeated. Be filled with the Holy Spirit, so that your spirit may sing his song.
For your gift of God the Spirit, power to make our lives anew, pledge of life and hope of glory, Savior, we would worship you.
Father, grant your Holy Spirit in our hearts may rule today, grieved not, quenched not, but unhindered, work in us his sovereign way. Fill us with your holy fullness, God the Father, Spirit, Son; in us, through us, then forever, shall your perfect will be done. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.