DISCERNING MUSIC by J. Parnell McCarter
There is sinful music which incites people to sin. As the Westminster Larger Catechism states: “The sins forbidden in the seventh commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are…lascivious songs, books, pictures, dancings, stage plays; and all other provocations to, or acts of uncleanness, either in ourselves or others.” One of the Biblical prooftexts cited is Isaiah 23:15-17, which reads: “And it shall come to pass in that day, that Tyre shall be forgotten seventy years, according to the days of one king: after the end of seventy years shall Tyre sing as an harlot. Take an harp, go about the city, thou harlot that hast been forgotten; make sweet melody, sing many songs, that thou mayest be remembered. And it shall come to pass after the end of seventy years, that the LORD will visit Tyre, and she shall turn to her hire, and shall commit fornication with all the kingdoms of the world upon the face of the earth.”
Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Isaiah 23:15-17 text reads: “The Tyrians having returned from their captivity, and those that remained recovering new spirits thereupon, they shall contrive how to force a trade, shall procure the best choice of goods, under-sell their neighbours, and be obliging to all customers; as a harlot that has been forgotten, when she comes to be spoken of again, recommends herself to company by singing and playing, takes a harp, goes about the city, perhaps in the night, serenading, makes sweet melody, and sings many songs. These are innocent and allowable diversions, if soberly, and moderately, and modestly used; but those that value themselves upon their virtue should not be over-fond of them, nor ambitious to excel in them, because, whatever they are now, anciently they were some of the baits with which harlots used to entice fools. Tyre shall now by degrees come to be the mart of nations again; she shall return to her hire, to her traffic, and shall commit fornication (that is, she shall have dealings in trade, for the prophet carries on the similitude of a harlot) with all the kingdoms of the world that she had formerly traded with in her prosperity.”
John Calvin’s commentary on part of the Isaiah 23:15-17 text reads: “Sing many songs. That is, Tyre will add fraud to fraud, and allurements to allurements, that at length she may attract all to her, may be again remembered by men, and recover her former celebrity. In short, as an old harlot contrives methods for regaining the favor of men, and allures them by painting, and ornaments, and dress, and songs, and musical instruments, so will Tyre recover her wealth and power by the same arts with which she formerly succeeded.”
So music can tend to draw people into morally disobedient behavior, or it can tend to draw people towards morally obedient behavior. We have seen an example of the former in the Isaiah 23:15-17 passage. An example of the latter is found in David’s playing to Saul. We read this about it: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.“ (Samuel 16:23)
Since music can tend to draw us in either a good or bad direction, it behooves us to be very careful concerning the music we recreate by, and the extent to which we engage in it. As Matthew Henry notes, in order for music to be permissible, it must conform to certain Biblical principles. In order to be permissible, some necessary characteristics of music include:
1. Sober - “Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober.” (I Thes 5:6). It is defined this way: “to be calm and collected in spirit”.
2. Orderly - “Let all things be done decently and in order.” (I Cor 14:40) As Matthew Henry comments: “Manifest indecencies and disorders are to be carefully kept out of all Christian churches, and every part of divine worship. They should have nothing in them that is childish, absurd, ridiculous, wild, or tumultuous; but all parts of divine worship should be carried on in a manly, grave, rational, composed, and orderly manner. God is not to be dishonoured, nor his worship disgraced, by our unbecoming and disorderly performance of it and attendance at it.”
3. Not sexually licentious- “thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14)
4. Lyrics consistent with Biblical principles and truth (if there are lyrics at all) – “thou shalt not bear false witness…” (Exodus 20:16)
5. Avoiding appearance of evil – “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” (I Thes 5:22) As Matthew Henry notes: “We should therefore abstain from evil, and all appearances of evil, from sin, and that which looks like sin, leads to it, and borders upon it. He who is not shy of the appearances of sin, who shuns not the occasions of sin, and who avoids not the temptations and approaches to sin, will not long abstain from the actual commission of sin.”
6. Not worldly or conveying worldliness - “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” (I John 2:16, 17)
If these principles are faithfully and honestly applied, could much of the music popular in today’s world, including much of the music that has the label of “Christian” attached to it, pass these criteria? Consider so much of the music that falls under genres like rock, heavy metal, rap and hip hop, blues, country, and jazz today. Do these songs meet the Biblical criteria? Should Christians see how close to the edge of moral impropriety they can get without falling over into the most blatantly obvious forms of moral impropriety, or should they rather exercise caution and carefulness? And what of the witness of the Church, especially its officers? Should they not be careful, lest their actions should cause stumbling, not to mention the effect upon themselves and their families? Does not the Church have a responsibility to draw lines and boundaries, such that lascivious songs be not tolerated as entertainments of their communicant membership, lest scandal go undisciplined? May the love of Christ constrain us to discern music and not walk disorderly in our use of music.