The Importance of Theologically Informed Music

by Tony Wray (of Hazakim)

One can argue that in recent decades the reach, audience, platform, and marketing power of faith-based music has grown significantly. Our studios, production teams, larger budgets, and increased media exposure rival that of the “mainstream” secular industry. Marketing campaigns replete with pretty faces, attractive graphics, special effects, clever hashtags, television appearances, and packed out stadiums have replaced poorly funded tours at small congregations. A variety of sounds and genres, including family-friendly alternatives of your favorite secular artists, abound. According to recent statistics, the Christian music industry boasts an impressive 1,400 radio stations and 80 million listeners nationally; bringing in half a billion dollars annually. While none of these facts are a moral problem in and of themselves, I would submit that amidst all of the glitz and glam, we run the risk of forgetting the “main thing”: namely, a Yeshua-centered, theologically informed approach to our music.

Among the myriad of Christian and Messianic artists that are signed to record labels and making music, the methods vary as greatly as do the musical styles. This article is, in no way, an attempt to generalize or paint with broad brushes the entire Christian and Messianic music world. Neither is it an indictment against the more popular artists in the Body of Messiah as a whole. Furthermore, I would never contend that there is only one way to do music ministry and that you must pack complex theology and apologetics into every song “Hazakim style”. I do believe, however, that some of the trends in more recent popular Christian music (and by extension Messianic music, to a lesser degree) should concern us.

Before I begin I feel it is important to define what I mean by the phrase, “theologically informed music.” Theology is the study of God and His attributes. If we, as believing musicians and artists, purport to communicate or share the truths of this God, namely the God of Israel, it should follow that a proper understanding of Him and His Word would inform our approach. Indeed, our music should rely and rest on good theology. So what is good theology? I’m glad you asked…

From the very beginning of the Torah, we learn that God created all things in the cosmos, including man and woman, for His glory. We were given dominion in the earth as custodians over creation and were gifted with life so that we might know God’s love and reciprocate that love back to Him and each other. When sin entered the world through humanity, death, decay, hatred, and deception came with it. The whole story of Scripture is the story of God’s unfolding plan to restore what was lost in the Garden of Eden. This plan was ultimately realized in the coming of Yeshua the Messiah through His death and resurrection, and will finally culminate with His glorious return when all things are placed under His feet.

Then the peace, fellowship, communion, and love that once existed between heaven and earth will be restored. This is the Good News, also known as “the Gospel.” So what or who is the focus of the Gospel? As Rav Sha’ul (the Apostle Paul) so eloquently stated in His letter to the Romans: “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever. Amen” (11:36).

The Gospel is undoubtedly the grace and love of God for us, on full display – but the focus is Him. In this Gospel story, He is the main character. He invites us to be supporting actors who participate in this glorious story with Him. Ultimately, even those who reject Him are playing a role in the story of His glory. Some will glorify Him through their own judgment, but through faith, we are able to glorify Him through salvation and eternal life. What an amazing Gospel!

Yeshua is the embodiment of the Divine Word through whom and for whom and to whom all things came into being – including sound, rhythm, rhyme, melody, harmony, and the very laws of music. The role of everything in creation, the very reason we were created, is to glorify God, which is why music was created.

Understanding this narrative – the narrative of Scripture – is theology. Making music for and about God with a poor understanding of this narrative leads to a skewed presentation of the Gospel. It has been said that theology without doxology (liturgical praise or worship) leads to cold, dead religion. When our approach to God is merely cerebral knowledge without a heart of praise, we are living outside of our intended purpose – to worship the Lord with all of our being. Doxology without theology, however, leads to something far more dangerous: idolatry. Without a clear understanding of God, His Gospel, His attributes, His story; we run the risk of creating gods in our own image. Often, when we as humans imagine God outside of an informed Biblical theology, the “god” we end up worshipping is ourselves.

I would argue that sometimes our worship music has more to do with us, than it does with God. At times the focus of our “praise and worship” is born out of a poor theology, focused on our own crown, and not an occasion for us to cast our crowns at His feet. In addition to this, we can sometimes produce theologically shallow music that seeks to connect with the listener solely through its introspective and emotional appeal. It is much easier for human beings to get excited about listening to another mundane creature’s struggles and feelings than it is for human beings to get excited about a complex and lofty God. But perhaps our lack of excitement about God-centered music as opposed to man-centered music is a symptom of the fall. Perhaps God doesn’t excite us because His glory steals the show… Either way, the lofty God is who we were created to know and adore!

Am I saying that emotional and introspective music is wrong or that every song has to be a sermon? Of course not! There are Books of the Bible, such as Esther and Ecclesiastes, that are less overtly theological and to some degree a personal, introspective kind of worship of God that is spiritually healthy. Even the Psalms of David are full of the king’s praises to God for the mighty deeds God performed on his behalf. It is good for us to worship God in a personal way saying, “thank you Lord for saving me and keeping me.” But David never ended his psalms with himself as the focus. The focus of David’s attention was the God of Israel: his rock, his fortress, his salvation, his Lord, and his deliverance.

David saw God’s deliverance as an occasion to magnify God’s attributes and even, at times, make very profound theological statements. Some of David’s music even prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Portions of his psalms, such as Psalm 22, would even be cited in the Messianic apologetics of Yeshua and His disciples and are used as “proof texts” for Yeshua’s Messiahship to this very day. The psalms of David were anything but theologically shallow. David possessed a sound theology. He understood, by Scripture, the attributes, story, and centrality of God and His Messiah. David understood that it was all about God. Praise God for His Word, which is sufficient to provide us with sound theology and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16).

In addition to the Psalms of David, the Bible contains many other illustrations of what theologically informed music should look like. In Exodus 15 we find the song of Moses, Miriam, and the newly delivered children of Israel. This song, while highlighting the wonderful deeds of the Lord on their behalf, gives all glory to God and magnifies His attributes of holiness, omnipotence, justice, mercy, and sovereignty. This song even makes boasts of the Lord that our modern day worship would be afraid to proclaim; praising God for the physical destruction of His foes! Indeed…this song is not shy about the power of God and is rich in theological content. They didn’t simply sing “We love the Lord because He makes us happy and gives us freedom…” Neither did they simply sing, “Nothing can stop us now…” No, they used God’s deliverance as an occasion to highlight and glorify His divine attributes and cast their crowns at his feet.

The Book of Revelation also contains several song passages. One such passage, which contains the song of four heavenly creatures, is Revelation 5:9 which reads, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” Again we see the four living creatures putting the Lamb’s glory on display – using His redemptive deeds as an occasion to glorify Him.

In this age of relativism, self-importance, and image based marketing, may the Lord enable us, by His Spirit, to worship Him in spirit and in truth. The truth is found in Scripture, and Scripture is the basis of our theology. Our theology informs our music and our art, and our art informs a dying world. In previous eras the battle to balance relevance and ministry, for the believing artist, was not as intense as it is now.

The temptation to make “me” the focus is much greater in a “me” centered world. Despite our given genre of music, we would all do well to take a page from the songs of Scripture as well as the hymns of old which glorified the Lord through theologically informed music. Lyrics containing such glorious truths that the hearer and participant can do nothing but extol the Living God and glorify Him, as they were created to do. In a world of moral insanity, where God’s glory is rarely put on display by human beings, we need lyrics like these now more than ever before. Even if we were to boast of Him in a million songs, it cannot make up for the degree to which He is dissed in our culture. In the words of a theologically rich hymn of old, let us boldly proclaim His Greatness!

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,

Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,

Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

When Messiah shall come, with shout of acclamation,

And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.

Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,

And then proclaim: "My God, how great Thou art!"

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art.

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,

How great Thou art, How great Thou art!