Singing in sorrow, then, is one more way God conforms us to the image of his beloved Son. Here, as we suffer with him in song, Jesus teaches us to say, “Our God still reigns. Our God will deliver. And someone needs to hear of his surpassing worth.”
In all likelihood, no song had ever touched the walls of this cell or drifted through its bars. Moaning, cursing, yelling — these were the usual sounds rising from the dark heart of the prison. Not singing.
And especially not at midnight. Here was the hour of gloom, the first long hallway in the mansion of night, darkness without the faintest shade of dawn.
The other prisoners couldn’t mistake the sound. Some had woken under the strange melody, certain they were lost in a dream. Others, catching the first notes, lay wondering whether madness had seized the two men. It had seized many a man in chains before. These, however, were not the howling strains of the mad.
Midnight made its lonely march, and still the men went on: beaten, bloodied, cuffed — and singing.
How Could They Sing?
The events of that day make the song of Paul and Silas all the more surprising. A mob had attacked the two missionaries after Paul cast out a demon from a slave girl (Acts 16:16–21). The city magistrates, dispensing with due process, stripped the men and oversaw their public beating before delivering them to the city’s jailer, who “put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks” (Acts 16:24).
Darkness fell, and then that strange sound rose:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25)
Praying we can fathom. Who among us would not cry out for deliverance from such an unjust dungeon? Yet Paul and Silas not only prayed, but sang. They tuned their heartache with a hymn, and met the darkness of midnight with a melody.
And as they did, they joined a great chorus of saints who sung by faith and not by sight. They joined King Jehoshaphat, who walked into war with praises rising (2 Chronicles 20:20–21). They joined Jeremiah, who gave his most bitter lamentation a tune (Lamentations 1–5). They joined psalmist after psalmist who, though feeling afflicted and forgotten, raised a “song in the night” (Psalm 77:6).
Again and again, the saints of God meet sorrow not only with prayer, but with song. So what did Paul and Silas see that freed their hearts to sing?
Our God still reigns.
From one perspective, Paul and Silas’s day was a picture of perfect mayhem. Their spiritual power was slandered; their gospel trampled by a mob; their innocence silenced by injustice. They appeared like two victims caught in the chaos of a merciless, purposeless world.
But such was not their perspective. For Paul and Silas, all the day’s sorrows rested in the hand of a sovereign God. God had called them to Philippi through a midnight vision (Acts 16:9–10). Was he now any less sovereign in a midnight prison? God had used them in Philippi to save Lydia and her household (Acts 16:11–15). Had he discarded them now? No, prison could neither thwart the plans of God nor remove them from his sight; of this they were sure.
Years later, locked in yet another jail, Paul reminds the Philippian church of God’s surprising sovereignty:
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. (Philippians 1:12–13)
God had taught Paul and Silas to see his good purposes wherever they looked, even when they looked through the bars of a prison cell.