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. 3:16Have 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!
"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
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.
for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him." Ps. 98:1