What Was That Song?
“And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them.”Acts 16:25
The Bible is a musical book. Not just for well-metered lines to be put to music, but for music theory.
Some dry personality would scoff, there is not a note of music written in the Scripture. True, but had there been a note, would it have been described with Guido of Arezzo’s primitive bars? Would it find its register in the Renaissance, the Baroque, or perhaps the Classical period of musical history? So you pick one, and then I’d have to ask you why would a Jewish book with all Hebrew authors submit to a primarily European notation?
The music of Scripture is the song of the soul, not just of the ear or of the eye. Its cadences can be felt, as well as timed. Its crescendoes speak to the operetta virtuoso as well as the musically illiterate. Whether you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, it stills your spirit. Even if you can tell what ‘sfz‘ means on an octavo, it is still the words of God that “are spirit, and they are life.” (John 6:63)
But there is some clue to the musical genre of these two bloodied street preachers. These disciples of Christ chose to sink instead of sob when they were beaten for Christ’s sake. And the essence of their gritty determination to praise God cements this account as one of the mightiest moments of hymn history.
The Bible says “the prisoners heard them.” There is alot to learn about a song by the reaction of those who listen to it.
The melody of this song couldn’t have needed heavy percussive beats to keep it moving. It wasn’t accompanied by electric basses or even the most modest of instruments. It was just two guys singing.
Their duet didn’t inspire mayhem, anger, or even rile up the passions against injustice. Truly, Paul and Silas were innocent, but they didn’t waste breath singing of their ‘hard times’. (It wasn’t a country-western song.) They sang of something, some event or Person that captivated the attention of the prisoners long after their chains had been broken and the doors unhinged. The tune brought sobriety and calm.
On one occasion in Paul’s ministry, he heals a lame man who had been crippled since birth. So amazed was the crowd, that they praised Paul and Barnabas, and tried to worship them! “And when the people saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in the speech of Lycaonia, The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men.” (Acts 14:11)
Isn’t it strange how man can take credit for gifts God gave them? The world will try to steal glory from God by turning the attention to the performer instead of to the Power that enabled him. Paul didn’t let that happen in Lycaonia in Acts 14, and it doesn’t happen in Philippi in Acts 16.
Remember, the prisoners heard them. Yet the jailer came and “brought them out.” (Acts 16:30) Every freed man in that prison knew it wasn’t the ability of Paul and Silas to sing that freed them. It was the Saviour that they sang about.
We may be accused of speculation in this point. The fact of bringing up a text at all seems a stretch, but hear what I say.
The Bible speaks of ‘psalms’. We have a book of Psalms, 150 chapters’ worth. The Bible speaks of ‘spiritual songs’. We understand the difference between a carnal song and a spiritual one, and there are many printed for us in Scripture. (Deuteronomy 32, Song of Solomon 1, Revelation 15) The Bible speaks of one other type of praise, called, ‘hymns’. Peculiar to this kind of music is this infamy: not one word of a hymn text is recorded in the Bible.
Christ sang a hymn with his disciples. “And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26) No words or examples of this hymn exist in writing.
I believe Paul and Barnabas sung an hymn. Hymns are an expression of personal relationship with God. My experience won’t be the same as yours, and the words I may use you wouldn’t recognize. Isaac Watts, the ‘father of English hymnody’ called such songs: “hymns of human composure.”
Christ sang an hymn- perhaps a song of his own composing-just before He was crucified. Even if we had those words, we wouldn’t understand. Same is true of Paul and Silas’ prison song.
So the next time you reach for that hymnbook, and feel like you’ve sang them a thousand times. Remember, it was songs like those that rocked the jail to its foundation; the jailer to his core. The missionary pair sang a testimony, THEIR testimony, of God’s amazing grace. Such a hymn text doesn’t always stand the test of time, but it will stand the test of eternity. Just ask the prisoners, they heard it.
What is your song?