Wednesday, October 26, 2011

On Singing Hymns, among other things

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16
My recent discussion of the singing of Psalms in church prompted an unexpected and lively internet discussion with some friends from all over the globe as to the distinctions between the three types of singing mentioned in Paul's words to the Colossian and Ephesian churches. The initial concern seemed to be that I was implying that only the Psalms should be sung in churches, a notion which had honestly never occurred to me.  I began this little mini-series with the intention of addressing the categories as I understood them, and as I believe they are most commonly understood. It hadn't really occurred to me that my view of them was so insular.  How typically American of me.  Having been made aware of just how much room there is for misunderstanding, I decided to examine the matter a little further before I commenced my gushing over the value of hymnody.

My sampling of sources mainly agreed that "psalms" here refers to the Old Testament Psalms. There are a few, however, who believe that these three "are all different descriptions of the Psalms, and that the Word of God in these passages requires the singing of Psalms and only the Psalms in worship.  These passages, then, teach what is sometimes called “exclusive Psalmody” — Psalms only in worship."

According to Vine's Dictionary, "Hymn" refers to "A song of praise addressed to God" and 'spiritual songs' refers to "songs of which the burden is the things revealed by the Spirit" .

John MacArthur states in his Study Bible notes*  that 'psalms' refers to "Old Testament psalms put to music, primarily, but the term was used also of vocal music in general....hymns. Perhaps songs of praise distinguished from the Psalms which exalted God, in that they focused on the Lord Jesus Christ. spiritual songs. Probably songs of personal testimony expressing truths of the grace of salvation in Christ."

The venerable Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on Eph. 5:19, doesn't bother with distinctions at all but focuses instead on the proper place of music among believers: "Drunkards are wont to sing obscene and profane songs.  The joy of Christians should express itself in songs of praise to their God. In these they should speak to themselves in their assemblies.  Though Christianity is an enemy to profane mirth, yet it encourages joy and gladness.  God's people have reason to rejoice, and to sing for joy."

My own pastor emphasizes that the Psalms were the musical heritage of the Jews. "Hymns", on the other hand, was the word the pagan Gentiles preferred for the music of their worship (and is presumably how the Greek for this word would have been understood by the church at Colossae). The sub-point being that the corporate worship of the church was to include the musical traditions of both Jew and Gentile believer. (The "hymns" of course would no longer be directed to pagan deities but to God, similarly to how Luther and others are said to have put their own Christian lyrics to the popular tunes of their times.) This inclusiveness of styles, would aid in including and unifying the two diverse groups of believers into one, and in building up all, since all had something unique to offer the body.

So, I learned, there is a certain amount of disagreement as to how the three categories should be defined, and a certain amount of overlap.  It seems clear that our common distinctions between hymns and spiritual songs don't exactly correlate with the Biblical distinctions. Many of what we call hymns, for example, since not addressing God directly, might fall under the category of spiritual song. Be that as it may, each kind is useful, and each kind encouraged for use in the church. What seems most clear to me, however, is that Paul's intent in writing to the Colossians was not to categorize, or to limit the type of songs being sung in the church setting so much as to encourage believers to sing with thankful hearts, to God and to each other, and to use all the kinds of God-glorifying music available to them or that comes to them, music so rich with biblical meaning that it will serve as a means of conveying Christ's word to those who sing and those who hear.

And on that note I feel comfortable in returning, for the sake of the rest of my little series, to the somewhat loose and overlapping but commonly understood distinctions with which I began: Psalms = the Old Testament Psalms, hymns = songs commonly found in hymnbooks, and spiritual songs = all the rest, including gospel music, contemporary Christian music, worship choruses, etc.

image via

* from commentary on Ephesians 5:19, a parallel passage to Col. 3:16

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On Singing Psalms

Did you know the Psalms are actually songs? Of course you did. Anyone who's spent any time at all in Sunday School knows that. But have you ever really stopped to think about what that means?  I've had that piece of information stored in my cranium for decades, but never really gave it much thought. I still tend to think of the Psalms as the poems that I was assigned to memorize when I was a kid, or as the words they taught us to chant in the Lutheran church of my childhood. Though they are lovely, when I read them I almost never think of them as music, and, since I'm not a very musical person, I've honestly never really thought it mattered one way or the other.

That changed this past Sunday. Our pastor began his sermon, the latest in a series on the church,  with a discussion of Psalm 118. He explained that it was originally written as a festival song, most likely for the Festival of Booths, and that it was sung responsively. The crowd gathered at the Temple to worship. The song-leader sang his part, and, from memory, the people sang their response. One of the points he was leading up to was that when verses from this and other Psalms are referred to in the New Testament, the Jewish audience would have immediately recognized the allusion and make the connection to the Psalm it was quoted from along with its context. 

So, for instance, when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the crowd burst into cheers, it was one of the response portions of Psalm 118 from which they drew their words of praise:

"Save us, we pray, O LORD!
O LORD, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
We bless you from the house of the LORD."
Ps. 118: 25-26

And again, when Jesus and the Apostles Peter and Paul made reference to "the cornerstone", they were alluding to another responsive portion of Psalm 118:

"The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the LORD's doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes."
Ps. 118:22-23

The pastor's point was that the use of the word "cornerstone" or statements such as "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" were a kind of shorthand that any Jews in the audience would immediately recognize. When they heard these words their thoughts went directly to the psalm they were drawn from. In other words, these were songs and the people knew the lyrics.

Unlike us, these folks didn't have radios playing everywhere in the background. They had the Psalms. This was their music. The Psalms were the soundtrack of their lives and their history, the songs of their faith, the songs of their nation, the reminders of their greatest triumphs and their deepest sorrows. The Psalms were the vehicle that carried the promises of God and the record of His faithfulness from one generation to the next. It is likely that Psalm 118 was to them something like what "God Bless America" is to us - an anthem of God and country and hope. They knew the words; they knew the music; and their hearts swelled with emotion with every word. When someone began a line, they could finish it. When it was quoted, they knew exactly what was being alluding to and what was being implied. 

What a rich treasury the Psalms were to Israel! How blessed they were to have words inspired by God committed to memory in such a way, to have such a common musical and scriptural heritage to draw from. How precious it must have been to hear a word from the lips of Christ or his apostles and know immediately the ancient words of prophecy to which it referred. What a tragedy it is that I do not know these songs, that they aren't imbedded in my heart, filling my mind, and ready to spring from my lips! What a waste it is that the modern church has not taken hold of such a glorious tradition. A few people in recent years have set a few of the psalms to music again in lovely and memorable ways, but only so very few. How sad it is that our English translations lend themselves so poorly to song, and that we American Christians are so little committed to finding ways to sing them. I hope and pray this will change.
"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." Col. 3:16

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Idea of You

or the Idea of You
by Laurie Mathers
Just a minute,
I'm reading about You

Wait a second,
I'm talking about You

Hold on,
I'm writing about You

Be right there,
I'm debating about You

Maybe tomorrow
I'll have time for you

You're so important to me.
Oh how I love You!