The God Who Sings

My parish is in the process of installing and blessing bells. It is a joyous milestone in our parish’s life and an important addition to the proclamation of the gospel. According to Orthodox thought, the sound of a Church bell is an icon of the voice of God. It’s blessing reaches as far as the bell is heard. Thinking about this coming event has given thought to an article from the past – “Why Does God Sing?” I look forward to His voice sounding across our small city.


Why would God sing? The question may sound strange and yet it is said in Zephaniah (3:17), “He will rejoice over thee with singing.” I first noticed this verse when I was a very young Christian and have puzzled about it for nearly forty years. Equally puzzling to our modern way of thought is the question, “Why does anybody sing?” I have been to plenty of operas and have to admit that even the ones in English need subtitles – singing does not necessarily make something more easily understood. And yet we sing.

God sings. Angels sing. Man sings.

Other than some adaptations that have been made in a few places in the modern period, any Orthodox service of worship is sung (or chanted) from beginning to end (with the exception of the sermon). Like opera, this musical approach to the liturgy does not mean that it will be better understood. And yet, the Christian Tradition, until the Reformation, was largely universal in its use of singing as the mode of worship. In the Western Church there was a development of the “Low Mass” in which little chanting was used – though this never found a place in the East.

This is not solely a Christian phenomenon. As a teenager I had a close friend who was Jewish. As a young teenager he began training to become a Cantor (the main singer in a congregation – second only in importance to the Rabbi himself). I was curious about Hebrew so he began to instruct me privately. Hebrew is a great language – particularly as published in Hebrew Scriptures.

I mastered the alphabet and began to understand that most vowels were not letters at all, just dots and lines, strategically placed to indicate their sound. I felt somewhat proud the first time I read a line aloud without prompting. I recall that when I finished I pointed at yet another set of markings that my friend had yet to mention.

“What are these?” I asked.

“They’re for the Cantor,” he explained. He also had to explain what a Cantor was and, fortunately, was able to demonstrate when I asked him how the musical markings worked. The sound would have compared easily to Byzantine chant – perhaps with lines of kinship. Several years ago I became acutely aware of another singing religion: Islam. My wife and I made pilgrimage to the Holy Land in September [2008]. The first morning (it was the Islamic holy month of Ramadan) a canon went off at sunrise (that will wake you up in Jerusalem!) and suddenly a plaintive chant blared across the city as the Muezzin chanted the morning call to prayer.

Indeed, if you made a study of world religions, you’d be hard pressed to find any people who prayed or worshipped without singing (almost exclusively) other than forms of Christianity that have been influenced by the Protestant Reformation. In light of that fact it might be more appropriate to ask, “If God sings, and the angels sing, the Jews sing, the Muslims sing: why don’t Protestants chant their services?” What is it about modern man that changed his religious tune?

I’ll come back to that question in just a few moments. However, I would first like to take a tour through some experiences I’ve had with music and pastoral care. Wherever in our brain that the ability to sing and understand music resides – it is not the same place as pure speech. I have been making pastoral visits with patients for nearly thirty years. During that time I have frequently noticed stroke patients, who had lost one particular brain function (governed by the area effected by the stroke) be perfectly normal in another area not affected by the stroke. It’s as simple as being paralyzed on one side of your body but not on the other (a common result of strokes).

In the same way, I have seen any number of patients who could not speak or respond to speech, who, nevertheless, could sing and respond to music. The most extreme case I ever saw was in a patient suffering from multiple infarct dementia (thousands of tiny strokes). He was a paraplegic and virtually unresponsive. However, his devout Christian wife had discovered that he responded to both music and to prayer. He would say, “Amen,” at the end of a prayer and tried to join in when you sang a familiar hymn.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. And so the mystery grows.

A surprising musical experience for me came in visiting St. Thekla’s Summer Camp (in South Carolina). We have youth in our Church, including some who attend the summer camp. My experience in Church is that, like most teens surrounded by adults, youth in Church remain quiet. However, at the summer camp, surrounded by their peers, they sang with all the gusto of their youth. It was completely natural. Kids sing.

God sings. The angels sing. Jews sing. Muslims sing. George, with multiple infarct dementia sings. Kids sing.

So what happened in the Protestant West that made them change their tune? To their credit they did not completely stop singing. Some of the finest hymns in Christian history were written during the Reformation. Hymns that sang doctrine and offered praise to God – all these were part of the hymnody of Protestant worship. And yet something different did take place. What was different was a shift in understanding how or if we know God and the place that worship plays in all that.

For many in the Reformation God could be known only as He made Himself known in Scripture. Knowing God as He had made Himself known in Christ was a description of knowing what Christ said and did in the New Testament. God was distanced from the sacraments in most cases. He was distanced from worship. We could offer worship to God in our assemblies, but not necessarily because He was present.

The distance that arose between man and God at the time of the Reformation had many causes. Among the most important were the politics of severing God, the individual and the Church (particularly the Roman Catholic Church). Such a severing created the secular sphere as we know it today and at last established the state as superior to the Church with, for the most part, the happy cooperation of the newly minted Churches. For most centuries the Reformation has been studied on the basis of its religious issues – indeed “religion” has unfairly borne the blame for years of hatred and wars. The role of politics has  been downplayed – indeed even seen as the force which intervened and spared Europe from further religious madness. The state, as secular state, was seen as the hero of the Reformation. However it is quite possible to understand the history of that period as the history of the rise of the secular state and the state’s manipulation of religion for the interests of the state (Eamon Duffy’s work on this topic is quite revealing).

The Reformation itself brought something of an ideological revolution, a redefinition of man as a religious being. The new thought saw man as an understanding, rational, choosing individual. Thus religious services began to have a growing center of the spoken word. God was reasoning with man through the medium of the spoken word. In most places of the new reforms, efforts were made to establish a radical break with the sacramental past. However God might be present with His people – it was not to be in the drama of the Liturgy. Vestments were exchanged for academic gowns, or no vestments at all. The minister was an expounder of the word, not a priest. The altar that had once clearly been an altar, a place where the bloodless sacrifice took place – a holy place where Christ Body and Blood were present – became a simple table – usually with the minister standing in a position that was meant to indicate that he was performing no priestly action.

The words surrounding the Liturgy were spoken and not sung. Singing at such moments were associated with acts of magic. Thus the “hoc est enim corpus meum” of the Roman Rite, was ridiculed as “hocus pocus,” ever to be associated with magic. Chanting was for witches, not for Christians.

Music did not disappear at the Reformation. As noted earlier, many great hymns were written as part of that movement – and have marked every major “revival” within Protestantism. People sing. But what do people sing?

There is no doubt that vast changes in much of Protestant Church music have taken place in the latter half of the 20th century. The same was true in parts of the 19th century. In efforts to remain “contemporary” much music has taken contemporary form. The influence of Pentecostal worship forms have also shaped contemporary “praise” music.

In many ways a revolution as profound as the Reformation itself has taken place within Protestant Christianity. Whereas the founders of the Reformation saw reason as the primary mode of communicating the gospel – contemporary Protestantism has become far more comfortable with emotion. An interesting player in this modern revolution has been the “science” of marketing which has made careful study of how it is that people actually make decisions and on what basis do they “choose” as consumers. From an Orthodox perspective, it is the science of the passions.

In this light it is important to say that people sing for many different reasons and that not all music in worship is the same. Orthodoxy has long held the maxim that music should be “neptic,” that is, should be guided by sobriety and not by the passions. Thus, there have been criticisms from time to time within the Russian Church that the great works of some modern Church composers are too “operatic” or too “emotional.” That conversation continues.

But why do we sing?

Here we finally come to the question that has no easy answer – just a suggestion based on human experience. We sing because God sings. We sing because the angels sing. We sing because all of creation sings. We are not always able to hear the song – usually because we do not sing enough. I will put forward that singing is the natural mode of worship (particularly if we follow the model of the angels) and that there is much that can enter the heart as we sing that is stopped dead in its tracks by the spoken word.

It is not for nothing that the one book of Old Testament Scripture that finds more usage in the Church (at least among the Orthodox) than the New Testament, is the book of Psalms, all of which are meant to be sung (and are sung within Orthodox worship). Years ago when I was a young Anglican priest – I introduced the sung mass at a mission Church where I was assigned. A teenager confided to me after the service that the chanting had made her feel “spooky.” She was clearly stuck in a Reformation “only witches chant” mode. She also had not learned to worship. In time, it grew on her and she grew with it.

The heart of worship is an exchange. It is an exchange where we offer to God all we are and all we have and receive in return Who He is and what He has. The exchange takes place as we sing to Him and He sings to us.

I have heard the singing of angels. I am not certain that I have heard God singing – though it is something of an open question to me. But without fail, I hear His voice singing in the person of the priest: “Take, eat. This is my Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins.” And I have heard the choir sing, in the voice of the people: “I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”

God sings and so should everything else.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





33 responses to “The God Who Sings”

  1. Nonna Avatar

    beautiful… and revealing… 🙂

  2. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Heh — there’s a folk song in German (a canon, or round) that goes, “The devil has many, many, many, many tricks — but he can’t sing.” Not a bad reason for singing by itself!

  3. Lainie Horwedel Avatar

    Thank you, for these exquisite words! I am the children’s choir director at Transfiguration Orthodox Church in Austin and this was forwarded to me by a church friend. My Master’s is in Opera and singing is DAILY for me. I strive to make my prayer like my singing…constant. There is always a song in my head or a melody. This is a beautiful way to think of the importance of singing. Thank you!

  4. StayinAnglican Avatar

    I just have a small quibble. Don’t call the Muslim call to prayer singing or music. The Muslim actually believes that there is no place for singing in worship and most can quote chapter and verse where Allah states that he does not want music at worship. They will tell you that singing is entertainment not proper worship.

    I learned this when I visited a mosque one time. It was not what you would call a radical mosque at all. After the call to prayer sounded, I happened to make the same point that you just made that it is musical. I got such horrified looks in return. “Its NOT singing!” one woman gasped.


  5. StayinAnglican Avatar

    I just have a small quibble. Don’t call the Muslim call to prayer singing or music. The Muslim actually believes that there is no place for singing in worship and most can quote chapter and verse where Allah states that he does not want music at worship. They will tell you that singing is entertainment not proper worship.

    I learned this when I visited a mosque one time. It was not what you would call a radical mosque at all. After the call to prayer sounded, I happened to make the same point that you just made, that it is something musical, a chant. I got such horrified looks in return. “Its NOT singing!” one woman gasped.

    While, it may seem like splitting hairs to us. To them the distinction is very important. For them music has no place in worship. I think that it is very sad for any religion to banish music. The love of God makes one want to sing. I can’t imagine stifling such a profound instinct and then calling that a good thing

  6. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Lainie (and anyone else who’s interested) — if you want to learn the Tones of the Orthodox Church, there’s no better place than the Summer School of Liturgical Music at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY (near the Baseball Museum in Cooperstown). Once you learn the Tones, you really *can* sing your prayers!

  7. Michael Basham Avatar

    What an absolutely wonderful message. Thanks you. In my return to Orthodoxy it was the singing–the singing as only God can sing– that captured me and has not let me go. This “ole” child of a Greek Orthodox emigrant, who spent his adult life in Reformed tradition churches encountered in Orthodoxy God’s loving and winsome voice flowing out through the priests, deacons, readers, choir and congratulation. May we never take for granted the loving voice of our Father singing to us.

  8. reedettes Avatar

    I love this. I’ve always been so attracted to beautiful song sung by purity. I’ve often heard it in distant places in my mind. I have also longed to sing in such purity and freedom but my vocal chords just aren’t heavenly. But it still attracts and I long for the release of this physical body in this physical realm where I can sing enraptured in praise to Him. Every sense of myself longs for that song.

  9. franzwa Avatar

    No wonder I like songs! I know there is something about songs I just don’t know what that something is. But lately, i’m understanding there is actually a message in music (even without words) that comes from the insturments alone. An example: I went to a farm this past week, and I heard one lady play pion like i’ve never heard before. When she was done, she started to explain what the music was doing in the atmosphere. I was blown away because it was what i was sensing inside me, but I didn’t have the words she used to explain it. I enjoy your post. Thanks for sharing this

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’ve taught me something I didn’t know – though when I think about it – it makes complete sense within what I know of Islam. Interesting.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    St. Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.”

  12. Mary Cook Avatar
    Mary Cook

    I grew up (literally – going to church was second nature) in the Southern Baptist Church and music was part of the air I breathed. Now in my 50s and an Orthodox Christian, those old hymns are very dear to me and I can sing so many of them by heart. For that I’m profoundly grateful. Besides being fun to sing, I’m pretty sure they are theologically sound, especially the “praise” hymns – “To God Be The Glory,” “O Worship the King,” to name only a couple. I must admit, there are times when I miss going to church and listening to the piano and the organ (in my day, S.B.’s didn’t use any other instruments). I will always remember a dear music leader who often sang “The Holy City,” a thrilling old song that always brought tears to our eyes. Thank you for writing so articulately on this subject!

  13. joelrva Avatar

    How very strange…. I have had you as a direct link on my desktop ever since your first article on “God who sings” which I had bookmarked. When I clicked on it today, I thought, O heck, it is clicking back to the old article and wow! now this. Thank you. May the Voice of God ring out from your Church to the ends of the earth!

  14. Darrell Lahay Avatar
    Darrell Lahay

    Thanks father..very well composed. I am a worship leader myself in the protestant cirles i share leadership in. I always enjoy employing songs, hymns and spiritual songs, not just one or the other! Great insight!

    PS: i can’t seem to find a contact for you anywhere else. i have a request..i was wondering if you could write a breif post on the whole “filoque” schizm and where it finds its place in our modern worlds. i am vey new at this portion of church history and I figure you would have much to say on this matter..


  15. Lina Avatar

    And I heard on the radio today that lakes sing when there is a light drizzle or even snow. The droplets hitting the water make a ping and the multiple pings blend together to make music,

  16. PA Avatar

    Very edifying. A question, though: why in some Orthodox churches are the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed not sung? I think mostly all churches that come from the Russian/Slavic traditions sing these, yet when I have worshipped at Antiochian churches, the Lord’s Prayer and Creed are recited (said), not sung. Is there a theological reason for this? It didn’t make sense to me, but someone once told me that these should not be sung. Is that true?

    Thank you

  17. fatherstephen Avatar

    Your observation is correct. Whether these are adaptations of the Greek Church in America or the Antiochian Church in America (such as pews), I do not know. I know the Slavic practice sings the Creed and Lord’s Prayer – my parish is Slavic – so I’m not sure about the other practice. I do know that Slavic practice uses a different Typicon for its services (and thus will different in certain ways – for instance we cense the Church in a different order) but exactly how much such differences one can find I’m not sure. The “not singing” has always struck me as odd, but my Orthodoxy was formed in a slavic context.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    Though I have many thoughts on the filioque issue, it’s more than I would want to post on. I will look for some good sources for references online.

  19. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Having worshipped in both traditions, I do know that one of the Ecumenical Patriarchs expressed the opinion that neither the Creed nor the Lord’s Prayer should ever be sung; so, in the Violakis Typicon, they are not. In the Sabbaite Typicon, they are. The Violakis Typicon also eliminates the Beatitudes, the singing of the Prokeimenon, the Alleluia verses, and (for reasons unfathomable to me) that wonderful prayer after Communion, “Let our mouths be filled with Thy praise, O Lord.” During one of the Bible studies I attended, the priest there said that the intent was to shorten the service, but I don’t see any appreciable difference in length between the two traditions. (Also, the Greeks disapprove of choral singing. Until recently, they were able to rely on cantors to provide the particulars of any given service, but as these have begun to die off without any replacements, congregational unison singing has become a trend in many parishes. Since it’s usually pitched for lower voices, this effectively means that people in a higher voice range, like me, are silenced.)

  20. Ancuta Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    I have just noticed that in the Akathist “Glory to God for all things!”, in the English version you put on this site in 2007, in Ikos XII a line is missing, that is “Glory to Thee, all Holy Son, the Way, the Truth, and the Life,”.
    There is a wonderful version of the Akathist sung in Romanian, you can listen to it here (the first 4 minutes are the beginning prayers):

    Ancuta from Romania

  21. Georg Avatar

    Du meine Seele, singe,
    wohlauf, und singe schön
    dem, welchem alle Dinge
    zu Dienst und Willen stehn.
    Ich will den HErren droben
    hier preisen auf der Erd,
    ich will ihn herzlich loben,
    So lang ich leben werd.

  22. Romanós Avatar

    When I opened your blog and this post appeared, for a moment I almost thought you had republished something I had written at my blog, because of two things: the title ‘The God Who Sings’, and the ikon by Vasnetsov.

    The title startled me because I had written a post titled ‘The faith that sings’:

    The ikon startled me because when I first discovered it, and the other paintings by the same artist, I wrote two posts in which this ikon was used: ‘Sunday of the Last Judgment’,, and ‘Ikons’,

    As for singing, yes, singing seems to me to be God’s therapy for the human condition. The less we sing the more unhuman we become. Francesco di Bernardone declares in the film ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon,’ “I want to sing like the birds…” and I know what he means.

    Excellent post, Father Stephen! Axios!


  23. Ken Kannady Avatar
    Ken Kannady

    From a Catholic brother, excellent! There is more, much more, to your article than singing. Regards, Ken

  24. Mule Chewing Briars Avatar
    Mule Chewing Briars

    I sing because I’m happy
    I sing because I’m free
    For His eye is on the sparrow
    And I know He watches me

  25. Karen Avatar

    Thanks again for the repost, Father. In my OCA parish, we do say, rather than sing the Creed, though we sing the Lord’s Prayer. In my parish and born from necessity in its earliest years, we have a tradition of the entire congregation being the choir. This has been a blessing to me since I find worshipping by singing to be a healing experience, but could not easily at this point in my life with my current family obligations commit time to practicing and singing formally in the choir at church.

  26. Steven Clark Avatar

    There is a comment in the Talmud, put in the mouth of God: “Are my statues so ugly that they cannot be sung?”

  27. Stephen Martin Reynolds Avatar
    Stephen Martin Reynolds

    A belated correction to Mrs Mutton’s comment at July 23, 2011 at 6:23 am: Please refer to the _Protheoria of the Biolakes Typikon_ translated by Fr Konstantinos Terzopoulos. Violakis prescribes the Typika + Beatitudes for Sundays, the Antiphons for feasts that have them in the Menaion–the same as Russian usage. The parishes simply don’t follow any printed Typikon on this point. While everyone says that the Sunday Antiphons are a recent change, I suspect that they are no such thing and go back to the days before the (neo-)Sabbaite Typikon was introduced. Violakis says nothing about the Prokeimenon; usual practice in my experience is that whoever reads the Epistle reads the Prokeimenon as a psalm verse at the beginning. Violakis calls for the Alleluia but is unclear about whether the psalm verses should be chanted with them except for Paschaltide, when he does call for them. Fr Konstaninos comments (note 20, pp. 104f): “The Biolakes Protheoria and Konstantinos Typika are silent regarding the communion perisse _May my mouth be filled with Thy praise…. Today, it is common in many parishes and newer publications of the Divine Liturgy.”

  28. Stephen Martin Reynolds Avatar
    Stephen Martin Reynolds

    Oh, and StayinAnglican may be interested to know that traditional Greek cantors make a very clear differentiation between what they do–psaltiki–and mousiki. The latter is entertainment; the former is enhanced prayer. They regard the notion of “church music” as fallacious. Of course they recognize that psaltiki uses the same means as mousiki–pitch and rhythm–but the two are absolutely different in purpose and must not be confused. The distinction does not come out so clearly in Slavonic.

  29. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr Reynolds I am sure you are correct in the distinction but that is not the same as the iconoclastic impluse to banish music altogether.

  30. AR Avatar

    Father Stephen, you have heard angels singing? Can you tell us about this or is that something to keep veiled? I think my daughter has had that experience.

    Stephen Martin Reynolds, would you be so kind as to expound on this idea that “church music” is fallacious? You identified the difference as one of purpose. Is this one of those things where people from a different culture want us to use one of our English words differently because its etymology goes back to their own language? If so, isn’t it enough to know that music, in English, refers to every arrangement of sustained tones and carries no necessary idea of entertainment? No word ever translates completely between Greek and English, after all.

    The problem is that if we say (in English) that the psaltic art is not music at all, we are basically saying that God has rejected this human activity of music-making as something fit for his worship, and in substitution has given us something that oddly resembles it instead. The implication is that normal human activities (like eating and drinking) are also not fit to offer God.

  31. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    AR that would be the iconoclastic understanding. I’m sure that is not what was meant. The is a difference between music that uplifts the soul and that which excites the passions. Between what is natural and what is set apart.

    English is a beautiful and poetic language but not a particularly precise one. We need to relearn our poetry.

  32. Karen Avatar


    Are you familiar with this testimony by eyewitnesses from the Huaorani people in Ecuador who murdered Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and three other missionaries who were trying to reach them in 1956? It is very moving.

    I remember reading this testimony in Christianity Today Magazine in the 1990s shortly after it came out decades after the incident.

  33. […] was reminded of an article I had read a few weeks back, The God Who Sings. In it, Fr. Freeman writes about singing, the ancient tradition give to us by God, one that anyone […]

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