The seventh guideline for our hymnbook says:
In content and form, the songs of the Church must be free from artificiality, sentimentality, and individualism.
As the joint songbook committee considers hymns, we often end up discussing the application of this guideline.
When is a song artificial, sentimental, and/or individualistic? To apply this guideline consistently without prejudice either for or against a hymn is not so easy to do. Often a hymn which is someone's favourite is deemed to fail on the ground of this guideline. How to apply this guideline?
In broad terms, if the song says more about “me and my soul” than about “God and His work in creation and for the church” it is suspect. But someone will counter, do not the Psalms say a lot about “me and my soul?”
Yes, they do. And so we do well to look at the Psalms. As we have said before, the Book of Psalms is God's own inspired songbook and gift to the church. If we imitate the content and form of the Psalter for our Hymnal, we will not be far off the mark.
The Psalms are perfectly balanced in several ways: They are balanced in proclaiming, on the one hand, the great things God has done in creation and for our salvation, and, on the other hand, our response to God. They are also balanced in speaking about “I” and “we,” about the individual believer and the church.
We want to dwell on that latter symmetry using two examples from the Psalms.
Psalm 25 is very personal. It starts with:
“To you, O LORD I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.”
In this Psalm King David asks God to teach him, to show him His mercy, not to remember his sins of youth, etc. The words “I,” “me,” and “my” are repeated often. It seems to be a very individualistic Psalm about “me and my soul.” But notice how it ends:
“Redeem Israel, O God, from all their troubles.”
King David prays his personal prayer to the God who redeems the church. The individual prays within the context of the congregation.
There are more Psalms that begin with “I” and end with “we.” Then there are other Psalms that begin with “we” and end with “I.”
An example of such movement (“we” to “I”) is Psalm 66. The inspired author begins by calling the earth to shout for joy to God. Next he reminds the church (“we”) of how God has preserved them. He ends by vowing personally (“I”) to praise God and to bring sacrifices to Him. The individual believer praises God because the LORD has been faithful to His people.
It is instructive to note that the Heidelberg Catechism often follows this line as well. For example, Lord's Day 16 begins with speaking about Christ humbling Himself to death and being buried. Then it speaks about how the death of Christ benefits us and what we gain from his crucifixion and burial. It ends with the believer personally confessing the assurance and comfort he receives from the inexpressible anguish, pain, terror and agony of Christ. A cursory read through the Heidelberg Catechism will show that many of the Lord's Days follow this flow of Christ, church, believer.
While considering which hymns to include in the common songbook, we do well to keep this biblical and confessional form and content in mind. In concrete terms, that means that a hymn such as “My Jesus, I love Thee” cannot stand in the light of this guideline. Although it repeats several biblical truths, the emphasis clearly is on “my” feelings and “my” love rather than upon Christ and the church. It is individualistic.
It is also falls into the error of sentimentality. For example, the line “When the death-dew lies cold on my brow” and the refrain “If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, 'tis now” seems to be more a product of 19th century Wesleyan hymnody than an accurate reflection of Biblical teaching. This hymn is artificial in that it does not proclaim the whole truth of biblical revelation. It ends with the soul of the dead believer enjoying the beatific vision gazing upon the face of Jesus “in mansions of glory and endless delight, I'll ever adore thee in heaven so bright.” In other words, it ends with the intermediate state. This is wrong since the Bible teaches that at the end resurrected believers in their new bodies will stand together with all the church upon the new earth.
May God give the committee wisdom to recommend a hymnal that will help the individual believer sing within the context of the church, and to sing songs that are biblically accurate.