“I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” (Ps. 104:33) This is – or, rather, it should be – the motto of any church choir singer, as the fundamental purpose of singing in a church choir is to praise God. Thus the choir singers assume a liturgical, therefore a sacral role.
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them.” (1 Corinthians 12:4) “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). Therefore the gift of singing, too, is a gift from God. A church choir singer celebrates and glorifies God, the Giver, and reciprocates with his gift, thus returning to the Owner what he borrowed from Him.
The New Testament story about talents convinces us of this. We could also talk about God’s call upon certain talented individuals to serve Him using their gifts. The Old Testament king Hezekiah asks the Levites, the servants of God’s temple, not to be hesitant, as the Lord had chosen them to stand before Him and to serve Him (2 Chronicles 29:11).
It was customary for the singers of the Jerusalem Temple to be mentioned along with the priests and the Levites. And the whole world, every being that breathes and exists, has been created to praise and celebrate the Lord, each in its own way. This is what we sing daily at the morning services. The singers, “trained and skilled” as they are called in the Bible (1 Chronicles 25:7), are chosen to do so in the most beautiful way by nothing else than God’s grace. From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:7).
Singers who praise God join in the indescribable heavenly celebration, the angelic choir of cherubim and seraphim, who cheer as they hover around the Throne of God: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) The Cherubim song, the one the Orthodox choirs sing most solemnly, strengthen this conviction in us. It is this pleroma, and this unity of Heaven and Earth, that the purpose of God’s creative engagement lies in. Man, as the culmination of God’s creation, is called upon to praise his Creator together with everything created. The Prophet Isaiah calls everyone to praise God. “Sing to the Lord” – cries the Prophet – “a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.Let the wilderness and its towns raise their voices; let the settlements where Kedar lives rejoice. Let the people of Sela sing for joy; let them shout from the mountaintops.Let them give glory to the Lord and proclaim his praise in the islands.” (Isaiah 42:10-12)
Praising God is not a matter of our good will; it is our duty. This is what we read from the Prophet Jeremiah: “Give glory to the Lord your God before he brings the darkness, before your feet stumble on the darkening hills. You hope for light, but he will turn it to utter darkness and change it to deep gloom.” (Jeremiah 13:16)
As we can see, all this is the Old Testament concept of our responsibilities to God.
The New Testament brings this concept further along. For our sake, and for our salvation, God took on human flesh, endured the humiliations and the crucifixion, and resurrected to lead us people into eternal glory. As they were “bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20), the Apostle Paul calls upon the Corinthians: “Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:20) A Christian’s every movement, every action, should serve the purpose of praising God. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)
Praising God, however, needs to be sincere, with all one’s heart and all one’s mind. Not just formal and not just verbal. Sincere God’s praise pleases God more than sacrificial offerings. А great poet, wise king David, whose psalms are the most sublime ode to God’s name, exclaims: “I will praise God’s name in song and glorify him with thanksgiving. This will please the Lord more than an ox, more than a bull with its horns and hooves.” (Psalms 69:30,31)
There is a fundamental difference between ordinary, secular singing, and sacral, liturgical singing. The latter praises God. Church singers have always been liturgists in a way. In the Old Testament it was them who sang during the sacrificial offerings. They were segregated from other people and, as they had a role in the divine services, they had access to the sanctum. The book of 1 Chronicles lists all those present at the most solemn moment, when the Holy of Holies of the Old Testament, the ark of the Covenant, was being set up. Among the priests and the Levites there were “those who were musicians, heads of Levite families” (1 Chronicles 9:33)
In those times, that was already a distinct occupation, that they, just like the priests, did for a living. It is said that they “stayed in the rooms of the temple and were exempt from other duties because they were responsible for the work day and night.” (1 Chronicles 9:33) Thus the Jerusalem temple singers distinguished themselves into a kind of clergy. They lived off their singing. “For it was the king’s command concerning them that a certain portion should be for the singers, a quota day by day.” (Nehemiah 11:23) Just as it is was done for the priests, portions of wheat, wine and oil were also assigned to them.
Consequently, they were not supposed to do secular work. In the same book, Book of Nehemiah, we learn that, after these portions were denied to them at some point, Nehemiah had to put an end to this abuse. “I also learned” – he tells – “that the portions assigned to the Levites had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and musicians responsible for the service had gone back to their own fields.” (Nehemiah 13:10) He gathered them again and returned them to the temple where they continued to receive their portions.
Just like the priests and the Levites, the singers, too, were exempted from taxes and tributes, as well as from any customs duty. (Ezra 7:24) The fact that they are always listed along with priests and Levites, further affirms the distinction of the singers of the Old Testament. It is stated who their ancestors are (Nehemiah 11:12), where they had settled (Nehemiah 12:29), how many of them were there (1 Chronicles 25:7), which families they were chosen from (1 Chronicles 25:1), who their supervisors were (1 Chronicles 25:6), when their service in the temple was established (Nehemia 12:46), those who returned back from slavery are listed by names etc.
Even in prophets’ dreams, singers were sure to have their place in the visioned Jerusalem temple (Ezekiel 40:44) – that is how highly they were regarded.
The singers did not celebrate God’s name only through the songs. As they possessed godly charisma, God often performed miracles and manifested his holy will through them. The destruction of Jericho, which we read about in the first chapters of the Book of Joshua, is a unique example, but certainly not the only one. In the 2 Chronicles book we read an exciting account about how Jehoshaphat defeated the sons of Ammon and Moab. “After consulting the people, Jehoshaphat appointed men to sing to the Lord and to praise him for the splendor of his holiness as they went out at the head of the army, saying: ‘Give thanks to the Lord, for his love endures forever.’ As they began to sing and praise,” – the story follows – “the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated.” (2 Chronicles 20:21-22)
Their song can be more magnificent than a priest’s service and more pleasing to God, which God shows in a tangible way. One such case is described in the 2 Chronicles book. “The trumpeters and musicians joined in unison to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals and other instruments, the singers raised their voices in praise to the Lord and sang: ‘He is good; his love endures forever.’ Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:13-14)
Serving God and giving praise to God calls for a dedicated life, worthy of such a service. Were the temple’s singers not to mix with the laity, then they could not allow themselves to do all that they could as lay people. They had to be role models for everyone. Living this sacral life of theirs, they were separated “from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand” (Nehemiah 10:28)
What is said about the singers of the Old Testament applies equally to the role of the singers in the divine services of today.
A good choir and harmonious and prayerful singing contribute to the magnificence of divine services, making them easy to take in and attractive to the contemporary person. This missionary component should not be disregarded. Today we are noticing that certain sects – otherwise theologically and ecclesiologically very hollow – base their entire identity on their members’ group singing. We can even notice a certain religious streak in the contemporary music genres: rock, punk, etc.
We, Orthodox Christians, however, base our approach to the Church and our activities within it on Christ’s promise: “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:19-20) If the choir singers are unison in love, thought and faith, then their prayer does appear before God. He, who prays in song, doubles the effect of his prayer.
A church choir develops its singers, shaping each one of them to their proper individual measure of humanness and personal humility. A choir unites and does not allow any selfish promotion of oneself or of one’s voice and its strength or beauty. First and foremost, everything serves the purpose of praising God. Therefore, any separation from the others is out of place, as it points to someone who has separated and turns service to God into service to him or herself. A church choir should and must stay just that – a church choir. Any separation of the choir singers outside or above the Church distances them from their primary call to praise and serve God.
I cannot resist concluding with the verses of the greatest of God’s worshippers, a poet and singer, King David. I wish to take him as an example for all the singers. David cheers:
“It is good to praise the Lord
and make music to your name, O Most High,
proclaiming your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
to the music of the ten-stringed lyre
and the melody of the harp.
For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
I sing for joy at what your hands have done.
How great are your works, Lord,
how profound your thoughts!”