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Should We Sing “To” God or “About” God?

And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.
Isaiah 6:3 (ESV)

And the four living creatures… day and night they never cease to say,”Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Revelation 4:8 (ESV)

I recently got a text from a young worship leader friend of mine. Here’s how it went (names omitted):

Him: “Just listened to a sermon by Preacher X on worship. The entire thing was KILLER. So great. He gets to the end and says something about how corporate worship lyrics need to be to God, not about God… not sure I agree.”

Me: “I don’t agree at all. If he’s right then the angelic host of heaven is doing corporate worship incorrectly. I don’t usually bet against the angels.”

There was more, but after that I mostly got snarky and unkind, so I’ll spare you. Instead I’d like to focus on the to God/about God question; “horizontal” versus “vertical” language in corporate worship.

Let me say upfront that I don’t think this is an “either/or” thing. I’m not here to point you away from vertical language in worship. As a worship leader I write and lead “vertical” expressions quite often. So I’m not trying to start (or perpetuate) pendulum-swing extremism. On the contrary. I just want to make sure I address what seems to be a point of confusion for some folks.

Here’s my brief take on it. It’s not complicated.

The angels can’t be wrong. Look at the language of the passages I quoted above.

“… and one cried unto another…”
“… day and night they never cease to say…”
And, in both passages, notice the verb choice:
“… holy is the Lord…”

Not “holy are You Lord.” Perhaps I’m cherry picking, but it’s worth noting that both passages essentially paint the exact same picture. And it’s this: all day long the angels – who are God-assigned in their every action – tell each other, over and over, that God is holy. And what’s good enough for the angels, well…

But of course this isn’t the only place we see this in scripture. The Psalms (which are, of course, songs of worship) are filled with “about God” language. You can almost turn at random to any psalm and see something like “sing to the Lord,” “bless the Lord,” or “the Lord is…”

But listen, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well-aware of the biblical precedent for horizontal worship language. If you’re still skeptical, you probably have other reasons.

“Sure, I know it’s biblical, but it just seems impersonal and emotionally distant to speak about God when He’s right there with us.”

Or maybe, like one preacher/author has been known to say,

“it’s offensive to talk about God like He’s not in the room.”

So before I’m done (and I’m almost done), I’d like to deal with that. Is “horizontal” language less emotionally engaging for the worshiper? Is it offensive or impersonal to God?

I’m going to give you a metaphor. And like any metaphor that attempts to bring understanding to an almighty and infinite God, this one is imperfect.

Imagine you’re walking down the hallway of your church-gathering place, when suddenly you’re pulled aside by an acquaintance who proceeds to encourage and thank you profusely, citing your selfless, church-affirming use of talents, time and gifts. You are of course blessed and humbled by their words. You express your appreciation and the two of you go your separate ways.

A few steps further down the hall, you pass an open door. Through that door you overhear your name being spoken. Curious, you casually eavesdrop (we all would, right?). You hear one person gushing about you to another, citing (again) your selfless, church-affirming use of your talents, time and gifts. The second person agrees, saying “you’re absolutely right …” and then begins to expound and elaborate, in unreserved agreement about how wonderful you are. Suddenly, they notice you in the doorway and say “we were just talking about you! Come on in!” At which point the gushing continues with you now in the room.

Now, before you pick apart my analogy (I warned you it was imperfect), consider this: each of those scenarios conveys sincere appreciation and love on the part of the encourager, and each of those scenarios would cause any normal person to feel sincerely appreciated and loved.

Of course I know God doesn’t need my encouragement or anyone else’s. Nor does he eavesdrop on rooms in church hallways (oh but if He did!). But here’s what I want you to consider:

1) When I’m excited about something, I tell people about it. It’s kind of hard not to. I speak openly, with joy and conviction. And if the people whom I tell happen to agree, that just affirms my beliefs and feelings.

2) If I were to hear someone speaking kind, selfless words about me, I would be pleased, even if they weren’t addressing me directly.

I won’t speak for God, but it seems unlikely that God would be anything but blessed to hear His people (following the example of His angels), telling each other how great He is. It seems highly unlikely that He’d be offended. And I can only speak for one worshiper (me), but I can assure you that there is something very intimate and powerful – and worshipful! – about telling others of the wonders of my God, and hearing them tell me the same.

In worship, we should speak to God because we can, and about God because we must.

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