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. And he taught them not only to see those purposes, but to sing of them. And so he does with us.
Even apart from the words, the very act of singing in sorrow defies the unbelief that would see no meaning in such pain. Songs send rhythm and order, harmony and progression into the suffering we do not yet understand — and so they testify, even in our deepest confusion, that our God still reigns.
‘Our God will deliver.’
If God reigns, then he can also rescue, no matter how protected the prison or how fast the chains. “Suddenly,” in the middle of Paul and Silas’s song, “there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened” (Acts 16:26). The Philippian authorities did not know, it seems, that the God of Paul and Silas had once shattered a prison far stronger than theirs.
Notice, however, that the men sang not after God shook the earth, but before. Why? Because they had rooted their deepest joys in a deeper deliverance. Consider what the imprisoned Paul goes on to write to his Philippian brothers:
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. (Philippians 1:18–20)
Paul knows God will deliver him — but the deliverance he hopes for rests on something deeper than “life or . . . death.” What kind of deliverance does he have in mind? Not first and foremost deliverance from sorrow, but deliverance from dishonoring Christ in his sorrow. Whether freed or chained, exonerated or executed, Paul was sure of this: by the Spirit’s power, “Christ will be honored in my body.” Therefore, he says, “I will rejoice” — and even sing.
God can deliver us from the sorrows that wrap round us like chains. He can heal diseases, restore relationships, save loved ones, and bury depression once for all. Yes, he can, and we rightly pray that he would. But we need something greater than deliverance from our sorrows — we need deliverance from dishonoring him in our sorrows. And in Christ, this is the deliverance he ultimately promises us here. So in every lonely midnight, we can sing of certain rescue: whether with a sound or broken body, whether in happiness or heartache, whether through life or death, sorrow will not steal our satisfaction in Christ.
One day, we will sing to Jesus, unchained from every sorrow. Today, we sound his worth by singing even in our chains.
‘Someone is listening.’
As Paul and Silas prayed and sang, Luke tells us, “the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Perhaps they listened with annoyance, perhaps with surprise, perhaps even with wonder. Whatever the case, they listened. And soon, another person joins their song.
Once God shakes the prison, opens the doors, and unfastens the chains, the jailer falls down before Paul and Silas. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Paul and Silas reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Believe in the Savior worth singing to in sorrow. Believe in the Christ who gives midnight songs. Believe in the Lord who reigns and rescues. And so we read, “He rejoiced along with his entire household” (Acts 16:34). A new house sang Paul and Silas’s song.
Luke doesn’t tell us whether the jailer himself had heard the men singing, but the point is incidental. He could sense the men had singing hearts. And so with us: whether our literal songs reach the ears of others or not, they will hear what kind of hearts we have. Our friends and family, coworkers and neighbors will hear the difference between an inner grumble and a melody, between a sufferer caved in on himself and one who, miraculously, lifts his voice to God and his hand to others.
Everyone in the world knows something of sorrow. And oh how desperately they need to hear how God can fill our sorrows with song.
Suffer with Him in Song
Those who sing with Paul and Silas join a great chorus of saints, from Jehoshaphat and Jeremiah to Asaph and David. But the greatest in that chorus is Jesus.
On the night of his betrayal, after he had broken the bread and shared the cup, after he had washed his disciples’ feet and handed their hearts to the Father, he led the twelve in singing a hymn (Mark 14:26). He sent a melody into the darkest night; he wrapped his sorrow with a song. Nor did he stop singing, even as the mob cried “Crucify!” and injustice pierced his hands and feet. As he hung on the cross, he bled Psalms (Matthew 27:46; Luke 23:46; John 19:28).
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.”