Are songs and prayers sometimes one and the same?
Ask any five year old if there is a difference between singing and praying and you will likely receive the “you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me” look. “Everyone knows there is a difference between singing and praying.” A song is composed of words and music. Its words are “uttered in musical tones and with musical inflections and modulations” (“Sing,” 2010). A prayer is “an address (as a petition) to God…in word or thought” (“Prayer,” 2010; cf. 1 Samuel 1:12-13). Prayers are without musical tones and inflections, right?
Although praying and singing are often two distinct acts of worship (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:15; Acts 16:25-26), sometimes they are one and the same. That is, occasionally (or perhaps oftentimes) petitions to God are sung to Him. The Greek word most frequently translated “prayer” in the New Testament is proseuche. It is defined simply as a “petition addressed to deity, prayer” (Danker, 2000, p. 878, emp. in orig.). In the Old Testament, the English word “prayer” is derived most frequently from the Hebrew word te pillâ. This word is found 76 times in the Old Testament. Interestingly, this word for prayer occurs most often (32 times) in the book of Psalms. Psalms are songs that were (and are) sung (cf. Psalm 105:2; 1 Chronicles 16:9; Colossians 3:16; James 5:13). The Israelites titled this collection of inspired poems tehillim, meaning “songs of praise or hymns” (“Psalms,” 1988).
Admittedly, simply because a song contains the word “prayer” (or “pray,” “praying,” etc.) does not make the song a type of prayer. However, as Harris, Archer, and Waltke observed in their Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “five Psalms are specifically called ‘prayers’ in their superscription (Ps 17, 86, 90, 102, 142)” (1980, p. 726). Bible publishers often add headings to each of the psalms in an attempt to help the reader easily recognize the subject matter. Thomas Nelson Publishers added the word “prayer” to the subject headings of some 25 psalms in their New King James translation of the book of Psalms. They also used prayer terminology (e.g., “a plea” or “an appeal”) to label several other psalms. Obviously, both the ancients (who gave us Psalms’ superscriptions) and certain modern-day Bible publishing companies have seen many of the psalms for what they are: prayers.
Consider a few of the psalms in which David and others prayed.
- “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; have mercy on me, and hear my prayer. How long, O you sons of men, will you turn my glory to shame? How long will you love worthlessness and seek falsehood? Selah” (4:1-2). [NOTE: “Selah” is found 71 times in the book of Psalms. Although its precise import is unknown, “it is generally agreed that Selah must be a musical or liturgical sign” (Wiseman, 1996, p. 1074).]
- “Hear a just cause, O LORD, attend to my cry; give ear to my prayer which is not from deceitful lips” (17:1).
- “And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You...Selah. Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry” (39:7,11-12).
- “Save me, O God, by Your name, and vindicate me by Your strength. Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth...Selah (54:1-3).
- “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and do not hide Yourself from my supplication. Attend to me, and hear me” (55:1-2).
- “Hear my cry, O God; attend to my prayer.... I will sing praise to your name forever” (61:1,8).
- “O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah” (84:8).
- “Bow down Your ear, O LORD, hear me.... Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer” (86:1,6).
- “Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come to You…. Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands” (102:1,25). [NOTE: According to Hebrews 1:8-12, the psalmist was actually speaking (i.e., praying) to Jesus, “the Son”.]
Consider also Habakkuk three. The prophet begins the chapter with these words: “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on Shigionoth” (emp. added). It is evident, however, that Habakkuk’s prayer is also a type of song. First, the musical/liturgical term Selah is repeated three times (vss. 3,9,13). Second, when the prayer was repeated it was to be accompanied with “stringed instruments” (vs. 19). What’s more, though the exact meaning of “Shigionoth” in verse one is unknown, commentators are confident that it has some connection to music. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown believe it is “a musical phrase ‘after the manner of elegies,’ or mournful odes” (1997). Barnes concludes that the term probably “means a psalm with music expressive of strong emotion, ‘erratic’ or ‘dithyrambi’ ” (1997).
Generally speaking, songs and prayers are distinguished by songs being uttered with musical tones and inflections, and prayers being worded without musical accompaniment. However, one lesson learned from the inspired book of Psalms, the ancient hymnbook of the Jews, as well as from Habakkuk three, is that prayers may also be sung. That is, a song that petitions our Heavenly Father and Savior is both a song and a prayer.
Barnes, Albert (1997), Barnes’ Notes (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Danker, Frederick William, William Arndt, and F.W. Gingrich, (2000), Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer, Jr. and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Jamieson, Robert, et al. (1997), Jamieson, Fausset, Brown Bible Commentary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
“Prayer” (2010), Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prayer.
“Psalms” (1988), The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
“Sing” (2010), Merriam-Webster, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sing?show=0&t=1284488817.
Wiseman, D.J. (1996), “Selah,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), third edition.
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