10 Things You Should Know about Prophetic Worship
All genuine, Christ-exalting, Christ-enjoying worship is in or through or by means of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul meant when he said: “For we are the [true] circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). His point is that the Spirit evokes worship, directs our hearts and minds to Christ in worship, reminds us of all the right reasons for worship, and empowers and energizes us for worship.
The Apostle Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:29-32 that the Holy Spirit may reveal something to a person during a corporate (or small group) gathering of God’s people, which in turn is then communicated to the body of Christ at large. Their responsibility is then to “weigh” or “judge” what is said. I suggest that the same phenomenon may occur in the course of corporate singing where the Spirit reveals something to a member of the worship band who in turn communicates this by means of singing. If this is the case, the same guidelines that apply to the spoken prophetic word (judging, weighing, etc.) would apply to the sung word.
So what, then, is prophetic worship and how does it differ from the ordinary or routine expressions of praise and honor and gratitude that we read of in Scripture?
(1) We read this in Ephesians 5:18-21 – “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:18-21).
The most important point to draw from this passage is that Paul understands Christ-exalting worship to be the fruit of having been filled with the Holy Spirit. Apart from the Spirit’s empowering presence in us there can be no Christ-exalting singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. There may be singing, but little will be of value if not the result of being filled with the Spirit. Likewise, our giving of thanks to the Father in the name of Jesus must be the product of the Spirit’s work in our hearts. Simply put, all worship, and not just what we call “prophetic” worship, together with addressing one another in edifying ways, as well as expressions of gratitude to God in the name of Jesus, must flow out of the overflow of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.
Our concern is with vv. 19-20. Clearly, Paul envisions believers communicating truth and knowledge and instruction by means of these various forms of singing. But what’s the difference, if any, between “psalms” and “hymns” and “spiritual songs”? Some insist there is no difference between these items. But if he meant only one thing, what is the point of employing three different words? More likely Paul had a distinction in mind that’s important for us to note.
“Psalms” most likely refers to those inspired compositions in the OT book of that name. Luke uses the word in this way in his writings (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33) and Paul encouraged Christians to come to corporate worship with a “psalm” to offer (1 Cor. 14:26).
The word “hymns” would be any human composition that focuses on God or Christ. Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 or the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 would qualify, as would Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1. Perhaps the most explicit examples would be the so-called “Christ Hymns” in Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, and 1 Timothy 3:16.
Why is the third expression of singing designated not simply as “songs” but as “spiritual songs” (although some contend that this adjective applies to all three)? Could it be Paul’s way of differentiating between those songs that are previously composed as over against those that are spontaneously evoked by the Spirit himself? Yes, I think so. In other words, “spiritual songs” are most likely unrehearsed and improvised, perhaps short melodies or choruses extolling the beauty of Christ. They aren’t prepared in advance but are prompted by the Spirit and thus are uniquely and especially appropriate to the occasion or the emphasis of the moment.
These are probably songs that we sing under the immediate prompting and infilling of the Holy Spirit. I have in mind spontaneous songs that break out unexpectedly in the midst of our worship. In other words, there is a difference between those songs that a worship leader rehearses and practices before we gather together (whose words appear on the screen or in a song book), and the unplanned melodies and phrases and short choruses that break out spontaneously.
This interpretation strikes many as strange for the simple fact that, outside of charismatic churches, there are virtually no opportunities for expressions of spontaneous praise. The only songs permitted are those listed in the bulletin, the words of which are either in the hymnbook or included in the liturgy. In these churches, singing is highly structured, orchestrated, and carefully controlled (but not for that reason any less godly or edifying). There is typically a distinct beginning and ending without the possibility of improvisation or free vocalization. People are expected to sing what is written in the hymnal or projected on a screen, nothing more and nothing less.
But Paul seems to envision a “singing” in which the individual is given freedom to vocalize his/her own passions, prayers, and declarations of praise. Although this may strike some as chaotic and aimless the first time it is heard (it certainly did me!), it can quickly become a beautiful and inspiring experience as the Spirit is given free rein in the hearts of Christ’s people. As the instrumentalists play a simple chord progression or perhaps even the melody of a familiar song, the people spontaneously supply whatever words are most appropriate to their state of mind and heart.
On countless occasions I have been blessed and edified by what some have called “prophetic singing” (so called because it is believed the Spirit reveals something to the person who in turn puts it to music). Typically an individual who is part of a worship team is led by the Spirit into a spontaneous song that may well evoke another to respond antiphonally. Such “spiritual songs” can last a few seconds or several minutes. Often, what one person sings will stir up yet another with a similar refrain, which on occasion will lead back into a verse or the chorus of a hymn previously sung.
(2) What is the congregation to do on those occasions when prophetic worship occurs? Here are several suggestions.
First, listen and learn! Note again Ephesians 5:19a – “addressing one another” in “spiritual songs.” Meditate on what is being sung. Focus on the words. Turn them over again and again in your mind. Ask the Spirit to quicken in your own heart the truth of what is being sung and to stir your affections with joy and love. Be open to being taught in those times of prophetic worship. The Spirit may well have prepared something uniquely and especially for you!
Second, sing the same song. Listen for recurring phrases and the melody line and if it lasts long enough, join the singer in whatever “spiritual song” he/she is singing.
Third, sing your own “spiritual song”. Take whatever truth about God or Jesus the Spirit has awakened in your heart and put it in your own words, adapting it to the melody of the leader. It may be a short, simple phrase of praise or thanksgiving or proclamation or prayer. Those, such as yours truly, who possess the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues, will often take advantage of such times to sing in tongues. This is surely what Paul had in mind when he made known his resolve to “sing praise with my spirit” (1 Cor. 14:15; see also Acts 2:11; 10:46).
Fourth, pray. Use the time to intercede for yourself or others. Or perhaps take the truth of what is being sung and let that shape and form the content of your prayers. Turn their “spiritual song” into your own personal intercession!
Fifth, ive thanks (v. 20)! Spend time thanking God (either in prayer or in song) for all that he has done.
(3) The Holy Spirit can often speak or reveal something to a worship leader well in advance of the service. As he/she is praying over a potential set list, the Spirit can provide guidance and impress upon the heart something perhaps only tangentially related to what is contained in the song itself. This truth or emphasis may then be carried by the singer in his/her heart for days before Sunday arrives. During the course of the week they meditate upon it, pray it back to God, and ask for additional guidance on whether and when and how to introduce it into the worship set.
I would suspect that many of you who are worship leaders have often sensed God giving you a prophetic song days in advance of Sunday worship. You find yourself humming a melody or a specific lyric all through the week. That may be the Spirit’s way of prepping you to sing it on Sunday.
(4) Prophetic worship may also be the fruit of writing songs under the influence of the Spirit. I’m not claiming infallible inspiration for a song, any more than I claim such when I write a book. But in both composing a song and in writing a book one can often sense the Spirit’s leading, often with suggestions of a particular word or image to employ.
(5) Can prophetic worship be both horizontal and vertical in its focus? Yes. A horizontal focus means that the intent of the “song” or chorus is to communicate something directly to God’s people. A vertical focus means that its primary orientation is toward God in the form of explicit praise or adoration. But most often a prophetic song is a delicate combination of both.
(6) We must also consider the role of musical instrumentation in prophetic worship. We read in 1 Samuel 16 that music has more than simply a psychological or emotional effect on people. It also has the power to drive away, frustrate, and defeat demonic forces:
“And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Samuel 16:23).
Why or how did David’s music have this effect? Why did the demonic spirit depart from Saul such that he was refreshed and made well, every time David played on the lyre? There’s no indication that David sang. He played instrumentally. Others might have also played and nothing would happen. Why? What was so special about David? Why did his music carry such power?
The answer is in v. 18b – “and the Lord is with him.” There may well have been other musicians in Saul’s court who were more skilled than David. But something about David empowered his music to pierce through the soul of Saul. The Holy Spirit evidently infused the melodies and harmonies of David’s music with supernatural power. “The pleasing sounds rising from his instrument transformed his harp [or lyre] into a strategic weapon of war which drove the enemies of God into agitation and retreat” (John G. Elliott, “David’s Harp and the Demons,” TMS, Vol. 2, No. 2, 71).
If God had not been “with” (in a sense, the OT equivalent of being filled with the Spirit) David, his music might have been entertaining and sweet and enjoyable to hear, but it would not have carried the power to drive a demon from Saul’s soul and bring spiritual refreshment to him. There were probably others who were more skilled on the lyre than David, but in the absence of God their music would have left any demonic spirit firmly entrenched.
In other words, music played or sung by those who love God and are filled with God’s Spirit and who devote their talents to the glory of God irritates and agitates the enemy! This is why we often recommend to people who are under spiritual attack or are suffering from depression to constantly play both instrumental and vocal worship music, whether they are at home or in their car or at the office. Music devoted to God’s glory, played or sung by a person in whom the Spirit dwells, creates a spiritual atmosphere that is repellent and offensive to Satan and his hosts. There’s nothing magical in this. Demons don’t dislike music. It isn’t that they are offended by someone playing or singing off key. It is the presence of God in and with the one playing/singing that accounts for this powerful impact.
We read in 2 Samuel 22:1 that “David spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” It would appear then that David prophesied through singing.
Let’s look at another example. It is found in 2 Kings 3:15. The king of Israel was desperate to hear the word of the Lord regarding what would happen if he were to engage the Moabites in battle. So he sent for Elisha. Elisha then said: “But now bring me a musician. And when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him” (2 Kings 3:15). The result is that Elisha prophesied.
Why did Elisha want someone to play music? It would appear that, in a manner of speaking, music clears away the interference between heaven and earth. Anointed and godly music creates a spiritual atmosphere in which God’s voice can more readily be heard. It eliminates distractions and enables the heart to focus on God.
Elisha wanted to be quiet and calm before the Lord. He wanted to become emotionally and spiritually and mentally in tune with and sensitive to what God would say. Sometimes it’s important to put oneself in a mood that is more conducive to receiving and understanding divine revelation.
We see in 1 Samuel 10:5ff. that often times people would prophesy while playing instruments, in this case the harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre. We also read in 1 Chronicles 25:1 that “David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyres, with harps, and with cymbals” (1 Chron. 25:1). Others are said to have “prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the Lord” (1 Chron. 25:3).
In what sense, if at all, can it be said that the instruments themselves prophesied? Or was it that the individuals verbally prophesied to the accompaniment of their instruments. Or are we to understand that the music served to open lines of communication and enabled the prophets to accurately hear the word of the Lord.
I’ve often been asked why we play background instrumental music when we pray for people. Are we just trying to create a mood and manipulate someone’s emotions? Yes, we are trying to create a mood or atmosphere conducive to engaging with God and hearing his voice, and I make no apology for that. But No, we are not trying to manipulate anyone. We are simply seeking to minister effectively to people by acknowledging that the Holy Spirit is pleased to make use of music to soothe the heart of a person, to put them at ease emotionally, and to open their souls to God.
(7) The key to prophetic singing is familiarity with the Scriptures! Much prophetic singing occurs when the Spirit quickens in your mind a particular biblical passage that has special relevance to what is happening in the service at that very moment. Thus, in speaking of spontaneous songs that the Spirit sovereignly brings to mind we are not saying that all prophetic songs are unrelated to Scripture. It may be that the Holy Spirit suddenly brings to mind a passage that you then weave into the melody of a song.
(8) Absolutely essential to effective prophetic singing is humble prayer in advance, asking God to sensitize your heart and open your eyes and ears to be alert to his voice and leading. Otherwise you will end up being led by the flesh, perhaps with selfish, competitive, and ambitious motives.
(9) The most effective prophetic songs are those that flow naturally out of what the congregation has just sung. One should in most instances resist the temptation to create a diversion from the focus of the set. It is somewhat jolting and unedifying to move instantly out of sweet melodies about God’s love into loud and energetic declarations of wrath and judgment.
The content or focus of prophetic songs might conceivably cover a wide range of topics, such as: gratitude; a challenge to God’s people to respond; a prayer of intercession based on the truth of something just sung by all; a reaffirmation or pressing into the truth of something just sung; joyful celebration; encouragement; a cry for mercy; a call for repentance.
(10) Finally, there is what Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 14:14-15 as singing “with my spirit.” This undoubtedly refers to his regular practice of singing in tongues. Since tongues, whether in spoken words or in song, is the result of the Spirit’s empowering presence (“the Spirit gives utterance,” Acts 2:4), it has the potential to be prophetic. In any case, it must be subject to interpretation in the same way that a spoken word in tongues would be. Otherwise it should not be employed in the corporate gathering of the church. And once a song in tongues is interpreted, it is also to be judged or weighed in accordance with the instructions we find in 1 Cor. 14:29 and 1 Thess. 5:19-22.
There is a strong likelihood, however, that Paul primarily has in view his regular practice of singing in tongues during times of private devotional prayer and praise. In such cases, since no one else is present, no interpretation is needed. Even though Paul confesses that he does not understand what he is saying/singing (i.e., his “mind is unfruitful”), he is nevertheless determined to continue this spiritual exercise.