Only a few people still read missionary biographies and autobiographies, but I’m one of them. They are full of the most remarkable stories and most breathtaking narratives you’ll ever encounter. This week I read the autobiography of Anna Kay Scott, who joined her husband, Edward Payson Scott, and went to a remote area of northeastern India. Nearby there was an ethnic group known as the Naga people, and they were exceedingly dangerous. Edward determined to venture into the area and take them the Gospel. At that time, India was under British control, and the governing officers begged him to abandon his plans. They said no British officer had been able to enter that area. They said that a young Naga warrior who wanted to marry had to show thirty sculls of human beings before he was considered brave enough to protect a wife.
The Naga warriors carried long spears that were poisoned at the tips.
But Edward Payson Scott was undeterred. He felt a compulsion to go. He took two things with him—his Bible and his violin. As he entered the Naga area, he had to pass through a narrow chasm, and suddenly he found himself surrounded by twelve warriors, each one holding a spear pointed directly at his heart.
He stopped, opened his violin case, and began playing a beloved hymn. There are several different accounts as to which hymn is was, and perhaps he, in fact, played several hymns. But in her autobiography, his wife said it was Isaac Watts’ great hymn: “Am I a soldier of the cross, and follower of the lamb? And shall I fear to own His cause or blush to speak His name?”
The warriors were mesmerized by the incredible sound of this violin. One by one, they dropped their spears and begged him to continue playing. Then they said, “You may come and stay among us as long as you bring that violin with you.” Edward went into their area, singing and playing and preaching, and many of that tribe came to Christ.
There is a special power to psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs that defies explanation. That’s why I want to speak on the subject: “Whatever Happens, Sing!”
Let’s consider, for example, what happened in the Roman city of Philippi in New Testament days.
In Acts 16, Paul and his assistant, Silas, started out on a missionary tour across Asia Minor, which is essentially modern-day Turkey. They were soon joined by a teenager named Timothy, and the three of them wanted to preach the Gospel wherever they could. But all the doors were closed to them for about a thousand miles until they finally got to the western-most city of Troas. That’s where Paul had a vision from a man in northern Greece begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”
Immediately Luke joined them and they booked passage across the Aegean Sea and went to the great city of Philippi. Now, I’ve visited Roman ruins in many great cities throughout Europe and the Middle East, but I’ve not yet been to Philippi. I’ve studied pictures of the archaeological sites there and it was a remarkable city, a huge city, a city with columns and a vast outdoor theater, and marketplaces, and colonnaded streets.
Let’s read the story of what happened there.
11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. 12 From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.
13 On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. 14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth.
In his writings, Luke took pains to point out the role of wealthy women in the spread of the Gospel. In Luke 8, he listed the wealthy women of Galilee who supported the Lord’s ministry. In Acts 8, he described the mother of John Mark, who had a large home and servants for the entertaining of Christians. Later he’s going to talk about Priscilla. Here in Philippi we meet another such woman—Lydia. She dealt in purple fabrics. If we could visit her booth in the Philippians marketplace, we would have been wide-eyed at her luxurious fabrics and colors.
In 2021, archaeologists in Israel announced the discovery of fragments of purple fabric that date back to the reigns of David and Solomon. They tell us the color purple was drawn from certain creatures of the sea, and creating this color of dye was extremely rare and expensive. Lydia’s home city of Thyatira was famous for its production of this cloth, so apparently Lydia exported it to Philippi and had a thriving business. Verse 14 also says:
She was a worshiper of God.
This likely means she was a Gentile who had adopted the Jewish religion in her attempt to become closer to the Lord. It’s often thought that the Jewish population of Philippi was too small for a synagogue so the handful of Jews and Gentile propylites had a meeting place by the river. Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke showed up there, and Paul explained his message of the coming of the Messiah. Verse 14 continues:
The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
Lydia, then, became Paul’s first convert in Europe and her house became the meeting place for the church that was starting to form in this vast city. Now, some time passes as Paul and his companions seek to share the Gospel with others. And then we have this incident:
16 Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” 18 She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
This servant girl became the second known convert. Two women had been saved—and they were at different ends of the social continuum. Lydia was a wealthy business owner and the slave girl was human traffic. But they became sisters in Christ and Paul’s first two known converts in Europe.
The deliverance and conversion of the slave girl triggered a violent reaction.
19 When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. 20 They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar 21 by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
22 The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. 23 After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24 When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
It’s impossible to imagine how painful this kind of beating would be. In the classic Civil Rights book, Twelve Years a Slave, a man named Solomon Northup was seized and forced into slavery. He said when he was being whipped that he thought he would die, that his whole body was on fire. We assume the rods badly bruised or cut through the skin, because later the text talks about their wounds. Thankfully, young Timothy and Doctor Luke avoided the beating, but Paul and Silas were taken, disrobed and battered, to the prison where they were placed in stocks, which probably means their hands were stretched above their heads and their feet fastened on the other end. Whether they were vertical or horizonal, we don’t know.
But now we come to one of the most remarkable scenes in the book of Acts.
25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
That’s the verse I want to come back to. But first let’s get the rest of the story.
26 Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. 27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”
32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
And so the church continued to grow at great cost. Had you or I been able to attend a Sunday service, we would have seen Lydia and her household, a slave girl, and a jailer and his family. Luke takes quite a bit of time to tell us about the founding of the church in Philippi, but the one truth I want to underscore is this—whatever happens, sing!
Let me expand on that, because this is a spiritual principle and a devotional discipline that has almost been lost to us—really, for the first time since the Reformation. Notice the setting. Paul and Silas were in throbbing pain, immobilized, and in total darkness. And yet, they were singing at midnight. That can only mean one thing. They both had the words – the lyrics – of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in the minds. They didn’t have a hymnbook with them, and there were no words projected on the walls of the prison. They sang from memory. They had an internalized hymnbook in their heads.
I’m sure this came from the Jewish heritage. I do not know if every Jew memorized each of the 150 Psalms or not. But every practicing Jew knew very many of them by heart. They sang them in the synagogues and they sang them at the temple and they sang them as they traveled to their festivals and they sang them in their private devotions. We’re told Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn during the Last Supper.
Here is my thesis: Apart from memorized Scripture, there is nothing more crucial to your emotional and spiritual well-being than having in your brain a selection of memorized psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
That is biblical.
Colossians 3:16 says: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
That implies the Word of Christ is filling your mind, and the songs of Christ are filling your heart.
And here’s the thing. We can memorize songs more easily and quickly than we memorize Scripture.
When our girls were all very small we taught them the alphabet very easily with a little song. A, B, C, D, E, F, G…. I don’t know how long it would have taken to have taught them 26 different unrelated syllables by rote, but they learned that song very quickly.
Now, a good hymn or praise song is a miniature Bible study, versified and set to music. That’s in essence what the book of Psalms is. David, who was both a theologian and a musician, studied the Torah—the first five books of Moses. That was, for all practical purposes, his Bible. He read it over and over, and he meditated day and night on Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.
From his meditations, he created little Bible studies, versified with parallelism, and set them to music. Many of them reflected episodes in his own life that had inspired the music. He was applying Scripture to life, and turning it into songs.
That became the book of Psalms, and the Hebrews memorized some or most or all of them. They could learn Psalm 23 by singing it much easier than they could memorize, say, Deuteronomy 4.
So from this heritage, Paul and Silas had a treasure trove of devotional material in their minds and hearts, and at the midnight hour it spilled out in singing. Paul was a Hebraic Jew and Silas was a Hellenistic Jew, but they both knew how to sing in the night and they had the songs already in their minds and hearts.
What would Paul have sung? Let’s look at some possibilities. I don’t know how the music would have sounded, but we do have the lyrics.
I love you, Lord, my strength.
2 The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
3 I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise,
and I have been saved from my enemies.
4 The cords of death entangled me;
the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.
5 The cords of the grave coiled around me;
the snares of death confronted me.
Now, listen to this:
6 In my distress I called to the Lord;
I cried to my God for help.
From his temple he heard my voice;
my cry came before him, into his ears.
7 The earth trembled and quaked,
and the foundations of the mountains shook;
Imagine—just imagine—if this was their selection when Paul Silas got to this point in singing Psalm 18, it actually happened. They called on the Lord in their distress in verse 6. And just as they sang verse 7, an earthquake shook the jail. The earth trembled and quaked, and the prison doors were jarred open.
Here’s another possibility.
The Lord is my light and my salvation—
whom shall I fear?
Remember they were in total darkness.
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me
to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes
who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me,
my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me,
even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
Or check out Psalm 68:
Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds;
rejoice before him—his name is the Lord.
5 A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows,
is God in his holy dwelling.
6 God sets the lonely in families,
he leads out the prisoners with singing;
That’s literally what happened to Paul and Silas. God in His Holy Dwelling led them out of the prison through singing. Or I think they may have sung Psalm 129. Listen to these words:
1 “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”
let Israel say;
2 “they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.
3 Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
4 But the Lord is righteous;
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”
The rods had plowed across their back with long furrows, but the enemy did not gain the victory.
My point is this: In the Bible, in the history of hymnody, and in our modern songs, God has given us the gift of music with lyrics for whatever we face in life. But we need our own internalized set of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Apart from memorized Scripture, there is nothing more crucial to your emotional and spiritual well-being than having in your brain a selection of memorized psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
Colossians 3:16 again: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.
That implies the Word of Christ is filling in your mind, and the songs of Christ are filling your heart, which allows you to sing in the midnight hours of life.
I began with a missionary story, so let me close with one. I’ve just finished reading the story of Walter and Aliene Hunt, who were missionaries to the Philippines. They served there with great fruitfulness for many years, and then the Lord lead them back to the United States where they served Him faithfully for several more years.
One day in 1978, Walter and Aliene learned the International Church in Manila needed a pastor. At first, they resisted the thought. Walter was engaged in a stateside ministry, and Aliene had just begun a counseling ministry. Frankly, they didn’t want to go at first, but they felt a tug from the Holy Spirit.
One day, Aliene was driving on a Texas highway, and a song came to her mind with tremendous force: “All to Jesus, I surrender; all to Him I freely give. I will ever love and trust Him, in His presence daily live. I surrender all, I surrender all. All to Thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.”
At that moment, she had total peace, joy, confidence, anticipation, and excitement. ‘OK, Lord, I will go,” she said. And they began preparing for their next stage of life and ministry.
When we have newer music and classic hymns stored away in our hearts, the Lord has a way of using it almost like memorized Scripture. So I’d like to suggest you select a song you like—new or old—and sing it enough to get the lyrics into your short-term and then into your long-term memory. It’s a practice now missing from most of the American church, but we can revive it.
I’ll have more about this next week. In the meantime, check out my course, Save, Sing, and Share the Hymns on the courses page of my website…
Thanks for digging into the riches of the Bible with me.
This episode was produced by Joshua Rowe and the marketing company Clearly Media
- Audio editing by Jared Brummet
- Print editing and blog posting by Sherry Anderson, Luke Tyler, and Carson Outlaw
- Music by Jordan Davis and Elijah Rowe
- Look for the transcript of this podcast soon on the blog page at my website, robertjmorgan.com, where you’ll also find many other resources.
Thanks for listening, and may God be with you until we meet again.