Background: In Acts 16, Paul, Silas, and Timothy were pressing westward through the area of Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey. They finally went as far as they could, to the port city of Troas, where Paul had a vision of a man from Northern Greece begging Him to come and preach there.
They did so, and the city they entered was a vast Roman metropolis called Philippi. As they evangelized, Paul and Silas were whipped and then incarcerated in stocks in the city prison.
Acts 16:25 says: About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.
Three Lessons from Acts 16:25
Let’s notice three things about their singing.
- First, it doesn’t say they were singing at midnight. These men had been severely flogged. I suppose it took some time for their pain to subside enough for them to even think. It takes time for us to process the things that happen to us. I don’t know, but I suppose Paul and Silas had a long conversation: What happened to us? Why did this happen to us? Why did God allow this? The more they talked, the more they reminded each other of God’s truth, promises, and grace. They started to pray, and suddenly they were singing. It takes time for us to process the things that happen to us.
Learning to process the things that happen to us is vital, and some of the Psalms are living examples. Look at Psalm 59. It begins: Deliver me from my enemies, O God…. The writer is facing terrible opposition that has him torn to pieces inside. But he spends 17 verses processing his reactions, and look at the final verse: You are my strength, I sing praise to You; You, God, are my Fortress, My God on whom I can rely.
He moved from a sigh to a song, but it took time. We have to give ourselves time to heal, to work through difficult emotions, and to keep our hearts healthy. But that’s where the hymns can help. By the midnight hour, Paul and Silas were singing praises to God.
- Second, notice the other prisoners were listening to them. When we have a song in our hearts, it attracts others to Christ. And when we sing and worship God, it draws attention to Him. A church that is full of wonderful worshipful music is magnetic. They didn’t dilute the message of the song. They simply worshiped—and the prisoners had never seen or heard anything like it. I’m certain some of them became believers and joined the new church as soon as they were released.
- Third, notice that their songs coincided with the earthquake that set them free. It’s hard for Satan to keep a singing soul tied down. In Then Sings My Soul Book 3, I tell a story given to me by Cliff Barrows. His father, an avid Gideon, once traveled to Rangoon. The area was under an oppressive government, and Gideon Bibles had been removed from the hotel rooms. While there, he attended a meeting of the local Gideons who were trying to get Bibles back into the hotels. Two men began singing hymns in the room. Mr. Barrows had trouble hearing because of their volume. Finally he asked, “Why are those men singing while we’re trying to have this meeting?” The local Gideon replied, “Because this room is bugged, and the singing confuses the enemy who is trying to listen to us.” Glancing over to me, Cliff said, “There’s a spiritual lesson in that. When we sing, it confuses the enemy and allows the Lord’s work to proceed.”
The Philippian church was born amid suffering and songs. Here, then, 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.
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.
What I Might Have Sung
This message has guided me through 50 years of pastoral ministry: Older people badly need newer music, and younger people badly need older hymns. Like every other generation since the days of David, we should appreciate the great spiritual songs that have stood the test of time, allowing each generation to add to them.
One of my favorite songs is “He is exalted, the King is exalted on high. I will praise Him!” Another song by Rich Mullins says: “Our God is an awesome God. He reigns from heaven above with wisdom, power, and love.”
I have two favorite songs from the last twenty years. The first says, “Hide me now under Your wings. Cover me within Your mighty hand. When the oceans rise and thunders roar I will soar with You above the storm. Father, You are King over the flood. I will be still and know you are God.”
We sang this song during a never-to-be-forgotten worship service following the flood in 2010 that devastated our area in Nashville.
My other song is “Your Grace Still Amazes Me” by Phillips, Craig, and Dean.
The problem facing pastors and worship leaders today is the very short shelf life of today’s songs. After singing a song for a short period of time, we discard it. A recent study said the average life of a popular modern worship song is three years, but that’s generous.
The result is we’re depriving worshippers of the very thing Paul and Silas possessed in their cell—an internalized hymnbook in their minds.
By singing songs that only last a few months, we’re preventing our people from having a song in their hearts.
While I love newer music, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the classic hymns that have outlived the trends and pop charts. Had I been Paul and Silas, I believe I would have sung the songs I knew the best and loved the most.
- O worship the King, all glorious above, and gratefully sing, His power and His love.
- Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation. O, my soul, praise Him, for He is thy health and salvation.
- Rejoice the Lord is King, your King and Lord adore. Rejoice, give thanks, and sing, and triumph evermore.
- Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father, there is no shadow of turning with Thee.
- Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O, what a foretaste of glory divine.
- Jesus, what a Friend for sinners, Jesus lover of my soul. Friends may fail me, foes assail me, He my Savior makes me whole.
- Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise.
- I sing the mighty power of God that made the mountains rise. That spread the flowing seas abroad and built the lofty skies.
- God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.
- My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I sing these to my grandchildren, on long plane rides when I can’t sleep, when I awaken, and when I go to bed. They calm me during the midnight hour when pain or anxiety is keeping me awake.
How Can We Develop Our Own Mental Collection of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs?
Practically, let’s consider these five steps.
First, create your own hymns playlist. I have a Spotify playlist called “Favorite Hymns.” I play it each morning, and it prepares me for my morning quiet time. We’re the first generation to have this kind of access to music old and new. Play it in the car for your children. Play it at home while the kids get ready for school.
Second, keep a hymnbook by your Bible. You can find hymnbooks almost anywhere. And my series of books, Then Sings My Soul, has the words and the music to each of the listed hymns, along with the story behind it. In years gone by, every Christian had his own Bible and hymnbook that he brought with him to church each week, and the hymnals were sometimes called the working man’s theology books.
Third, ask your worship leader for more hymns to be woven into the fabric of the public worship services.
Fourth, learn to meditate on the hymns. One night my wife, Katrina, was declining and I was weary and heavy-hearted. Suddenly the words of a Gospel song came to mind. I didn’t know them very well, so I listened to it on my phone. It was as though the Lord Himself was standing there with a message: “I trust in God, wherever I may be, upon the land or on the rolling sea. For come what may, from day to day, my Heavenly Father watches over me.” That song sustained me during the final weeks of my wife’s earthly time.
Finally, pass on the hymns to your children and to the children in your church. Wesley Hardin has a wonderful book entitled Game Plan: Be Ready to Pass Your Torch to the Next Generation. He recalled a time when he and his family were climbing up a mountain. It wasn’t a long trail, but it was strenuous and more dangerous than one would suppose.
Wesley said they began to have misgivings, passing a sign that said, “One Way. No Climbing Down.” His seven-year-old son scampered over the boulders, but the others were having problems, having to cling to the side of the mountain.
Suddenly they came to a place where there was a giant opening—a cleft in the rock where they could huddle, rest, and regroup as other hikers passed by. As he stood there, Wesley sang the words of an old hymn: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee.”
He explained it to his children while they were literally seeking refuge in a cleft in the rock, and he told them how the Lord had promised protection. They prayed together and finished their hike with no problems. The view from the top was worth the effort, and the children will never forget the Rock of ages, cleft for them.
Since the days of King David, one of the ways believers and worshippers have passed on the legacy of their faith to the next generation is through their songs, with each generation adding to what came before without discarding the heritage that preceded them.
So whatever happens, sing.
Sing in the morning, sing in the evening, and like Paul and Silas, sing in the midnight hour.