By David Faust
They preached the gospel in the Greek city of Philippi, baptizing the businesswoman Lydia and her family. However, after freeing a girl from enslavement by a demon, they ran into strong opposition from the girl’s owners. Unjustly accused and charged with civic insurrection, Paul and Silas were flogged, leaving them bruised and wounded; then they were thrown into the inner cell of a prison with their feet fastened in stocks. The pain must have been excruciating, the loneliness oppressive, the injustice infuriating. The cell, chains, and stocks felt claustrophobic.
Yet “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
What Did They Sing?
When those two male voices rang out in the prison that night, they were “singing hymns to God,” but their hymns sounded different from ours. It would be about 1,500 years before Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The book of Psalms was their hymnbook, and their music probably sounded more like a rabbinical cantor’s chant than a four-part gospel song.
Perhaps they found inspiration in Psalm 42:8, which says, “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life.” We don’t know exactly what Paul and Silas sang, but we can surmise why they sang.
Why Did They Sing?
They sang to cope with suffering. Music is an outlet for celebration, and it’s a soothing balm for the suffering soul. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise” (James 5:13).
They sang as a testimony to others. “The other prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Did those other prisoners wish their two new cell-mates would stop their late-night crooning so everyone could get some sleep? Or did the apostles’ midnight songs provide a welcome diversion? I suspect the other prisoners were curious and wondered, What kind of God inspires songs of praise in the midst of so much pain?
Paul and Silas sang to voice their confidence in God. In the midst of adversity, they praised the Lord. Their faith was rewarded when an earthquake loosened their chains, and God used their imprisonment to open a door for the gospel. Before sunrise the next morning, the head jailer and his family joyfully believed in Christ and were baptized.
Christians grieve, but not like those “who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Jesus’ followers aren’t immune to arthritis and Alzheimer’s, colds and cancer, depression and death—but we face them with hope. We encounter the same stressful challenges common to the rest of humanity. We suffer, but not alone. Paul’s friends in Philippi probably recalled his midnight songs in the prison when he later wrote and told them, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” and “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11, 13).
There’s another time the Bible mentions that the apostles sang. In an upstairs room on a spring night in Jerusalem, Jesus sang a hymn with his disciples before heading to Gethsemane and then to the cross (Matthew 26:30). To sing with Jesus—now that would be a joyous privilege indeed. Someday when our sufferings are over, I believe we will have the chance to do just that.
1. What songs best express your faith?
2. If you had been in prison that night with Paul and Silas, would you have been singing and praying?
David Faust is president of Cincinnati Christian University, Cincinnati, Ohio, and past Executive Editor of The Lookout.
The Lookout’s Bible Reading Plan for February 2, 2014
Use this guide to read through the Bible in 12 months. Follow David Faust’s comments on the highlighted text in every issue of The Lookout.