Scarcely any experience in life gives more joy than the birth of a child. Parents, grandparents, family, friends and indeed all the ecclesia rejoice at this new life, innocent, still, full of promise.

Praise at the birth of the Saviour

So the first instance of praise in the chronology of the New Testament is from the lips of Mary when, in the presence of Elisabeth, she bursts into a “song” of praise acknowledging that God’s eternal work of salvation would flow from that Divinely ordered conception, newly wrought in her. This humble “handmaiden” as she saw herself, has taught us much concerning the fitness and language of praise in her lovely words recorded in Luke 1:46–55. When three months later John the Baptist was born, his father Zacharias, filled with the Holy Spirit, was also moved to express praise to God, and again it was that same theme, the outworking of God’s purpose of redemption and salvation to which he so eloquently gave voice (Luke 1:64–79).

When he comes to record the birth of the Son of God, Luke’s language is measured, matter of fact in tone, even to the very moment of that humble birth: “And she brought forth her firstborn son…” (Luke 2:7). But heaven itself cannot contain the overwhelming joy of the angels of God as they observe this amazing event. They reveal themselves to the fearful shepherds: first one angel, Gabriel surely, then “a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” Again the cause of this wonderful outburst of praise and worship had been carefully pointed out: “behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

The shepherds having seen the newborn Saviour, “returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen.” And as the shepherds became witnesses to what they had seen and heard, so those simple terms, “seen and heard”, became the catch cry of the apostles as they witnessed to the risen Lord, “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard” (Acts 4: 20).

Praise in pain and persecution

“And when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts5:40–41). We read such words with wonder, not just at the apostles’ courage and determination, but at the Godly hearts which produced such thinking. Does such a spirit exist today?

On another occasion, faithful servants of God suffered in His name. It was Paul and Silas at Philippi. The multitude had been stirred up against them by unscrupulous men. A weak magistracy “rent off their clothes and commanded to beat them”. Enthusiastic brutes “laid many stripes upon them” and cast them into prison. Rough and careless hands made their feet fast in the stocks of the inner prison. And there they were left, bruised, lacerated, bleeding, in agony, to pass the painful hours as best they could.

And in the utter darkness of midnight, sounds never heard within those cruel walls woke the prisoners. It was their new companions, Paul and Silas, in too much pain to sleep, whose voices rang out in prayer and songs of praise to their God. Elihu, in the book of Job speaks of “God… who giveth songs in the night” (Job 35:10), while the Psalmist declares: “I have remembered thy name, O Yahweh, in the night, and have kept thy law” (Psa 119:55). Those fitful sounds, heard by the prisoners, were heard, too, beyond the prison walls, not by human ears. In highest heaven, Almighty God, Who never slumbers or sleeps, heard every word. And so moved was He by their faithful worship, in such painful extremity of suffering, that He tore that prison apart to get them out! A message of salvation had taken them into that prison, and it was with a message of salvation to the hapless keeper of the prison that they emerged: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). And the record is teaching us again that thanksgiving, worship and praise are the proper response to God’s message of salvation.

Praise – advice from the Apostle Paul

In Colossians 3:16 the apostle exhorts believers, then and now to: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” We are all familiar with the role of music and song in teaching. The melody aids the memory, so we can often remember words put to music more readily than by just trying to memorise prose. So our scripturally based hymns, besides giving pleasure in the singing, are a valuable way of remembering Godly concepts and principles to guide us through life. Godly thoughts, put to music, sung in small groups or in larger gatherings, also have a role in admonishing or warning us where we might go astray. So we admonish each other when we sing:

“When doubts and fears arise, teach me

Thy Way;

When storms o’erspread the skies, teach me

Thy Way.”

The apostle reminds us, too, that when we sing our hymns with gusto we are not only encouraging “one another”, but also we are singing “to the Lord”. Surely we all feel this as we sing praise. Whether in a small group of family and friends around the piano at home, or in our larger ecclesial gatherings, we are filled with joy as songs of praise, sung with grace in our hearts, revive our spirits as brethren and sisters together, and give due honour to our God.

This encouragement by the Apostle Paul to the Colossians to engage in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” came at the end of a number of verses filled with solemn warning and exhortation. Only when the matters mentioned by the apostle had been fully accepted and lives changed would brethren and sisters be ready to engage in the joyous exercises of song and praise mentioned in Colossians 3:16. This is the end of a process, not its beginning. The process involves being risen with Christ to seek those things which are above (Col 3:1); it involves putting to death the grosser evils of the flesh (v5). Paul commands us to put off anger, wrath, malice etc, all those things which belong to “the old man with his deeds” (v8–9), and to put on rather the new man with all the positive virtues outlined in verses 10–16. This work of change and the vivid experience of the word of Christ dwelling in us and working in our life, will result in a desire to praise our God in prayer and song.

Writing to the Ephesians the apostle, having encouraged them to “walk in love” (5:2), to “walk as children of light” (5:8), in short to transform their lives in Christ, declared the result would be seen in brethren and sisters “speaking to (themselves) in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in (their) hearts to the Lord” (5:19). That expression “making melody” has the sense of playing with a stringed instrument, plucking the strings of the heart. What a wonderful metaphor of a heart singing in tune with God.

In our ecclesial hymn singing, in our combined meetings with a wonderful tradition of “Song and Praise” evenings, and even in small groups singing together at home, we can feel that spirit of joy which comes from worship and praise rendered to God in harmony.

Praise in personal devotions

Worship and praise can be a special joy when engaged in with our brethren and sisters. But our personal devotions can be a source of rich contentment too. “Let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name” (Heb 13:15). Such spontaneous thanksgiving and praise can, and should be part of our experience in the service of our God in daily life. Daniel the prophet left us a wonderful example of a life bounded by the exercises of disciplined prayer, three times a day. This habit was “as he did aforetime” (Dan 6:10). It was part of the fabric of his life, and known to be so by all around him. The Psalmist speaks of a similar discipline in prayer: “Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (Psa 55:17). Have we built such beneficial disciplines into our life, or are we content to drift along? These examples are there, not to be wondered at, but to be followed!

But as well as regular scheduled exercises of prayer and thanksgiving, there must be moments of spontaneity as well. Who has not been compelled oft-times in the course of reading and thinking about the Word to offer up a brief prayer of thanksgiving in contemplation of God’s great goodness to us. Sometimes we can scarcely find the words to express the depths of our feelings to God. He knows our hearts, as Paul tells us in Romans 8:26, “for we do not know how to pray aright, but the Spirit pleads for us with sighs that are beyond words” (moffat).

In times of happiness, James exhorts: “Is any merry? Let him sing psalms” (Jas 5:13). If we are cheerful, we will pluck the strings of our heart – yes, it is the same expression as “making melody” in Ephesians 5:19. It is worth noting that the word for “merry” or “good cheer” used by James occurs in only one other context. It is in Acts 27, the occasion of the shipwreck of the Apostle Paul on the island of Melita when all were in dire peril:

27:22 “And now I exhort you to be of good cheer, for there shall be no loss of any man’s life…”

27:25 “Wherefore, sirs, be of good cheer: for I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me.”

27:36 “Then were they all of good cheer…”

Well, of course, they were of good cheer, they were being saved from certain death! And isn’t that the case with each one of us? God, through Christ, is saving us from certain death. So let us respond to God’s goodness every day with sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise.

“Praise in the common things of life,

In goings out and in;

Praise in each duty and each deed

However small and mean.” (Hymn 82)