Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Singing Hymns

"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

"And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart..." Eph. 5:18,19
Have you ever noticed the parallel between these separate passages from two of Paul's letters? Years ago a pastor called it to my attention when I asked what being filled with the Holy Spirit meant, or what it looked or felt like. He showed me the connection between the statements, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly..." and "...be filled with the Spirit..."  Aha! Paul equates being filled with the Spirit with letting "the word of Christ dwell in you richly". This is helpful!

More recently my current pastor followed the parallels a bit further. In the Ephesians passage Paul begins by explicitly commanding the church to abandon drunkenness and to instead be filled with the Spirit. (His use of the imperative tells me that this "being filled" is something we can determine to do, that being filled with the Spirit is an intensely practical matter and not merely a passive experience.) He goes on immediately to tell us how to do it: through speaking and singing. To be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be full of the word of Christ, which comes to us through teaching and admonishment, which come through both the spoken word and music. 

There are a couple of the clear implications here. The first is that the indwelling of the Spirit of God is not merely an individual matter; it is a corporate one. The second is that the music we are to sing with and to one another is to be full of God's Word and wisdom. It's purpose is to teach and admonish us - to fill us with sound doctrine. God intends for music to play a key role in both the education and corporate life of His people. Music, it seems, is essential to the building up of God's church.

This is why the greatest and most timeless hymns are full of teaching. Much like sermons, hymns are often meditations based directly upon a particular passage of Scripture, and sometimes upon the applications of key teachings of Scriptures to our lives. This makes a hymn a unique gift to the church. It is sermon put to music, but in a way it is better than a sermon. How many sermons, after all, do you know by heart?  How many can you fall asleep singing and wake up humming? Songs have a way of burrowing permanently into our souls. What better way to embed the Word of Christ into our hearts?

For this reason, I believe the church should be fighting to maintain and build upon her ancient tradition of hymnody. The hymns that have stood the test of history tend to be those that fill exactly this purpose. They teach us; they admonish us; they fill our hearts and minds with wisdom from God and with thanksgiving to Him. With them we worship Him with our lips. With them we strengthen His body, the church, educating her, warning her, encouraging her. All of this glorifies Him. God is not only glorified by sounds coming from our lips. He is glorified in the strength and beauty of His church as His Spirit indwells her.

These past several decades, the church in America seems to have lost much of her interest in hymnody.  Following the musical tastes and popular music of the day she has focused nearly exclusively on what I would characterize as "spiritual songs". While such music also plays a vital role in the church, it should never do so to the exclusion of psalms and hymns. I have two big hopes: one is that the musicians of this and upcoming generations of the church will embrace the church's greatest historical hymns, perhaps creating new and innovative arrangements for some of them; the other is that new hymns will be written - hymns that will continue to build a foundation of faith, that will fill the church with wisdom and the word of Christ so that she may filled with the Holy Spirit of God.

"Oh sing to the LORD a new song,
   for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
   have worked salvation for him." Ps. 98:1

I'm not a musician, but overwhelmed in contemplating the great doctrine known as the hypostatic union, even I was once moved to attempt words for a hymn.  Perhaps one of you, one more talented than I, will consider doing the same.

So let me leave you with a beautiful modern rendition of one of my favorite hymns.  It is over two hundred years old and rich with scriptural truth - a meditation on the faithfulness of God to uphold His people through the most difficult times.  It is everything a Christian hymn should be, full of reminders of the character of God and the strength He is and gives to all who hope in Him. 

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said—
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

“Fear not, I am with thee, oh, be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious, omnipotent hand.

“When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy trouble to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

“The soul that on Jesus doth lean for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.”




4 comments:

WhiteStone said...

Oh, Laurie, I do wish you lived just down the street because if you did, I'd surely show up on your doorstep (not necessarily unannounced...lol) for a cup of coffee and much sharing. Bless you!

Laurie M. said...

Judy, unannounced is an even bigger blessing! I wish the same. Love to you. I hope you and your hubby are well.

Lobbans said...

Thank you again, Laurie! Have you still got a record of your attempted hymn-writing? So many edifying and blessed points in your post! I'm still not clear on what the difference between a hymn and a spiritual song is. Can it be that today's doctrine-filled modern spiritual song will be termed "hymn" in time..or do they already qualify as hymns now? With you,I'm so encouraged by "How firm a foundation" - stirring! The song-book we use in our church is called "Praise!"subtitled, Psalms,Hymns, Songs, etc. We often sing the hymn you quoted, but in this book modern words are used in the place of "ye" and similar words. Bring on the hymns! (and the psalms and spiritual songs)

Laurie M. said...

Estelle, I always love your comments! If you click on the word "hymn" in the sentence where I mentioned trying to write one, it will take you to it. (Now don't get your expectations too high!)

As for the distinctions between the three types of songs, as I mentioned briefly in my last post, there is quite a lot of overlap. For instance, I would classify Stuart Townend's songs: In Christ Alone (I Stand), and How Deep the Father's Love for Us as hymns, even though they are only a few years old. They have the weight and rich doctrine I associate with hymns. But that's me. Others might call those spiritual songs....I don't know. Others, of a more charismatic bent, may say spiritual songs are made up by people full of the Holy Spirit (kind of like speaking in tongues or a a prophetic word)....I'm not sure what THAT distinction would mean either. How would one discern whether it is such a song or not?

So, as I emphasized when I began this little series, the point really should be that we be sure to include all categories of Christian sacred/worship music and exclude none. I also think there should be a clear emphasis on songs that teach and convey scriptural messages.

Also, the recorded version of How Firm a Foundation which I included in the post has removed the Ye's, etc, and added a little chorus near the end which I really like. He did change the last verse somewhat, but not in any way I find particularly objectionable, other than that I like the bit about not being deserted to our foes.