What makes a good hymn? Hymns must express biblical truth, be suitable for congregational singing, and be simple rather than complex.

Source: Faith in Focus, 2011. 6 pages.

So Which Hymns Should We Sing?

Introduction🔗

This article reaches back to an article that I wrote entitled “Poetry – the Lan­guage of the Soul”, which was pub­lished in the September 2010 edition of Faith in Focus. That article explored the nature and characteristics of poetry (as opposed to prose and other types of literature) and also examined some of the techniques that poets use in order to express their ideas. The article concluded with the following:

In good poetry, words are never wasted. The poet thinks long and hard about which word to choose, and even where to place it in the line or sen­tence in order to express his ideas and the beauty of his art. This is true of poetry in every language, including the Hebrew poems that are found in Scrip­ture. Poetry is also the language of the soul, often expressing in a few words, and in a very telling way, feelings and experiences that others can readily un­derstand and identify with.

Given that hymns are also poetic in nature and form, a number of ques­tions arise: What makes for a good hymn? What sort of hymns should we sing in the worship of God, and, espe­cially as our churches are going through the process of producing a new psalter hymnal, what sort of hymns should we look for to include in that hymnbook? This article will explore some answers to those questions. It is not exhaustive. It does not deal with every issue that arises in relation to this subject, but hopefully, it will stimulate fruitful thought and dis­cussion on this important issue.

Important Elements of a “Good Hymn”🔗

“A Mighty Fortress is our God”🔗

Let’s launch into our subject with a dis­cussion of two hymns that I think are good hymns. The first is “A Mighty For­tress is Our God”. Here are two verses of this hymn:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our Helper, He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
(vs. 1)

And though this world, with devils filled,
Should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed
His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! his doom is sure,
One little Word shall fell him
. (vs. 3)

First, notice how these verses express biblical truth. Think of Psalm 46, which speaks of “God Almighty”, the “God of Jacob”, as “our fortress” (vss. 7). Even though the waters roar and foam, and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea (vs. 1), we will not fear because God is our “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (vs. 1). Think of such passages as Ephesians 5:10-18, which speak of the believer’s battle against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, and of 1 Peter 5:8, which speaks of the devil as a “roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”. Think of Genesis 3:15, the very first gospel message of the Bible, which holds out hope in a Person who will crush the serpent’s head. Think of Revelation 19:11-16, which depicts Jesus as the “Word of God”, riding on a white horse, and striking down the nations with a “sharp sword”.

Second, notice the striking imagery of the hymn and the fact that the words are carefully chosen to express the ideas of the song in beautiful and compelling language:

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing;
Our Helper, He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing
.

“Bulwark” is a word that we don’t often use today. A bulwark is a “defen­sive wall”. The term “bulwark” can also be used figuratively to describe a person or an institution that stands firm against destructive forces in life or in society.1To speak of God as a “bulwark never failing” describes, in very few words, some wonderful and very comforting theology. Likewise, the phrase “flood of mortal ills prevailing”, in a mere 5 words, expresses volumes about the struggles we all have to endure this side of heaven. As Leland Ryken points out, poetry “advertises its distinctiveness. It speaks a language of images.” 2

Third, notice how the cadence and tone of the music matches the content of the song. The tune “flows” up and down, like the flood of mortal ills pre­vailing in this life, but the overall rhythm of the song is rock steady and powerful, expressing the confidence and trust that the believer has in God in spite of all the ups and downs in life.

“Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah”🔗

Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more,
Feed me till I want no more
.

Much of what was said above can also be said about this great hymn.3But this song has an added dimension: It is very well known! Christians know it and love it. Even non-Christians know and love it. Call me crass, but I do enjoy a good rugby game, and I’ll be following the ex­ploits of the All Blacks in the World Cup later this year with eager interest. There is nothing quite like a Welsh test match against the All Blacks when, before the game begins, thousands of voices erupt in unison in the stadium with the words of Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah! There is no doubt about it, the Welsh know how to sing, and when they sing this song en masse (at a rugby venue!) it gives me goose bumps.

This characteristic of a “good hymn” is important to keep in mind. I’m not opposed to new songs being written for God’s people to sing in worship, but it seems to me that the vast majority of “new songs” that are churning off the production lines (under copyright, of course) are eminently forgettable. Will your children and your grandchildren be singing them? Would the non-Chris­tian world ever sing them? Contrast this with some of the world’s great hymns, such as “How Great Thou Art”, or Psalm 23, “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want...”

I’ve noticed this important feature of hymn singing and just how powerful music can be, when ministering in rest homes. Go into any retirement home and open the Word of God, in a little sermon, and most of the heads will be nodding. But sing “The Lord’s my shep­herd” and eyes will open up and shine with joy. And everyone will join in. Music, and the words of these hymns, can reach the soul of a person with the wonderful truths expressed in them, in a way that nothing else can.4

Other Considerations🔗

  1. Avoid Scripture in Song🔗

I can just imagine the eyes of many readers popping out on reading this heading. How can this be wrong? After all, this is Scripture! What can possibly be wrong with setting it to music and singing it in public worship? Just this: Luke 14:26 5, for example, is not a song, or even part of a song. And when it is stripped of its literary context, set to music, and sung over and over again in worship, God’s people can get a very distorted and unbiblical perspective on the Christian life!6We should look for songs that are based on Scripture, and express biblical themes and truths, not songs that simply take a verse or two of Scripture and set music to it.

  1. Songs for Congregational Worship🔗

We need songs that a congregation can sing, preferably in harmony. This gives a rich, full sound as the congregation unites in praising God corporately. In public worship, we should not sing as a bunch of individuals, all “doing our own thing” (and trying to outdo each other) so to speak. We should sing to­gether as one. This raises a problem that I have with much of the modern Chris­tian worship music. It seems to me that many of the modern songs are somewhat one dimensional, both in terms of the words and also musically. I’m generaliz­ing here, which is always risky, but I’m prepared to stick my neck out on this one. In my view, many modern Christian worship songs focus on the feelings that I have (or don’t have but should have) as a worshipper – my love for Christ, my feelings about how awesome God is, etc, rather than giving opportunity for a congregation to express the full-orbed beauty and richness of Biblical truth and Christian experience in a setting of cor­porate worship. Also, it seems to me that many of the modern songs have been written with a music team in mind – a small group up the front with tuneful voices and microphones, who “lead” the congregation by singing to it and over it. People in the congregation listen to the pleasant and melodious soprano, and join in as best they can. The tunes are therefore lyrical, but very simple, and the harmonies are non-existent.

  1. Musical considerations🔗

What about the music to which our hymns are set? We know from Scrip­ture that music was an integral part of the temple worship, that instruments were used, and that God’s people were encouraged to sing or shout for joy (1 Chron. 6:32, Psalm 81:1-3). However, Scripture does not provide us with spe­cific guidance regarding the style and content of the music that accompanies our hymns. Rather, we are guided more generally by the regulative princi­ple of worship 7and by the law of love. We are also given the ability to reflect God’s glory, order, creativity and good­ness and can thus appreciate beauty, albeit with our lens distorted by sin. So how do we use our creative ability to select and produce the most beautiful, good and God-honouring musical set­tings for our hymns?

  1. Quality

In all things that we bring before the Lord, we should strive for excellence. When we sing hymns we should aim to sound like choirs of angels! Does the music we produce in church compare favourably with secular music? This has been the case throughout European history, but is sadly less so now. A motet or cantata sung in church was the pin­nacle of musical creativity during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, but I would suggest some worship music today is a poor copy of what may be found in the world. Happily, if one takes the effort to look, there is still beautiful, original and excellent music for congregational singing being produced, which perhaps time will help sift from the rest! So is the music of our hymns excellent? Does it abide by the rules of music theory, the “language” of tonal music that has been discovered and developed over hundreds of years? 8Are the melodies sufficiently accessible for singers of various abili­ties, yet do they encourage the singers to extend their voices and sing out? Are the rhythms appropriate and do they fit the metre and flow of the poetry? Are the harmonies rich and correct?

A hymn in our Psalter that displays many of these good musical qualities is 355 – “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”. The melody is within the range of most singers. The harmonies are beautifully crafted with a number of resolved dis­sonances and modulations between C major and A minor. It is a pleasure to sing the tenor or base as the counter­point flows beneath the melody, adding complexity and richness. The rhythm is steady but not dull. And the music eminently suits the bitter and yet glo­rious theme of our Saviour’s death on our behalf.9

  1. 1 Complexity🔗

One shortcoming of a number of the songs in the Psalter Hymnal is the sim­plicity of the music. Simple beauty is sometimes desirable, depending on the nature of the psalm or hymn. However, a number of older and many new worship songs are based on 3 or 4 harmonies with little rhythmic or melodic interest. Some songs also repeat the same musical phrase three times with one intervening bridge passage. Simple music is often easy to learn but quickly becomes old, whereas more challenging music often grows on one over time. Examples of more musically complex and challeng­ing settings that have grown to be fa­vourites with me include “Jerusalem” by Hubert Parry (set to Psalm 145 in our provisional Psalter) and “Love Unknown” by John Ireland (set to Psalm 143). I will also mention the Genevan Psalm settings. These tunes were written with wonderfully syncopated rhythms. Many of the arrangements in the blue Psalter have been simplified, which renders them rather dry and stodgy. I believe the syncopated arrangements in the CRCA Book of Worship are closer to the in­tentions of the writers and much more enjoyable to sing.

  1. 2 Emotion🔗

Is the emotional content of the music appropriate for the theme of the hymn being expressed? Our understanding of appropriate emotion is that it is informed by our knowledge and will. Therefore the emotion when we sing to God should be largely informed by the truths we are expressing. If you take away the words and listen to many worship choruses, the melodies and harmonies are indistin­guishable from many secular love songs heard on popular radio stations. These arrangements are designed to pull at the heartstrings and can do so regardless of, or sometimes in spite of, the words being expressed. I was recently introduced to a number of worship songs that were all based on harmonic progressions similar to those used in the familiar pop-inspi­rational song, “You Raise Me Up”. Yet one was a song of praise, one of sup­plication and one of exhortation to seek the lost for Christ. The emotional content of the music was inappropriate for the ideas being expressed in the words of the songs. This is not to say that the music should be without emotion – this is impossible anyway, as even the most dissonant, chaotic collection of notes will provoke some sort of emotion (perhaps anxiety!) – rather, it should fit the ideas expressed in the words and should not be the dominant feature of the music that accompanies our hymns.

  1. 3 Instruments🔗

The musical arrangement should be amenable to accompanying singers rather than dominating them. In fact, well written hymn music in four-part harmony sounds good whether accom­panied by an organ, piano, group of in­struments, or sung accapella. The goal of the church musicians should be to assist the congregation to sing with all their hearts, not to distract them with the dexterity and grandeur of the accompa­niment. For the musician, this is a fine line to tread. I find a good indicator to pull back the enthusiasm of my accom­paniment is when increasing numbers of congregational members start complimenting my playing after the service! We can perform for each other any day of the week, but in the worship service we are corporately bringing our offering of praise before the Lord.

Finally, we need to remember that good hymn music comes in many vari­eties and that musical taste varies from person to person. I know that not many would share my level of enthusiasm for the Genevan Psalms, or perhaps for hymns written by the composers of Jubi­late Hymns; some would treasure music that I might listen askance to. But we should be able to put aside matters of personal taste and sing all these songs together with love for God and love for our neighbour.10

Conclusion🔗

Well, that’s probably enough “food for thought” on this important subject of which hymns we should sing in corpo­rate worship. By way of conclusion, we can think of no better words than these from Psalm 148:13, 14

Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendour is above the earth and the heavens. He has raised up for his people a horn, the praise of all his saints, of Israel, for the people close to his heart.

Praise the Lord.

Endnotes🔗

  1. ^ E.g. in the following sentence: “The nation’s se­curity forces are a bulwark against the break­down of society.” 
  2. ^ Leland Ryken, The Word of God in English, 2002, p. 246. Ryken goes on to say: “In sum, poetry is not our everyday way of speaking. It possesses, to use a formula of J.R.R. Tolkien, “arresting strangeness”. It aims to overcome the cliché effect of language. The poet is a wordsmith, always on the lookout for freshness of expression, ready to unlock what the Old English poets quaintly called ‘the word hoard’ in ever new ways” (p. 247).
  3. ^ For example, in terms of biblical content, this verse alludes to the experience of the Lord’s people in Old Testament times, when they wandered as pilgrims in the wilderness and were guided by the Lord and fed with manna from heaven (Exodus 16). It also alludes to our Lord’s description of himself as the “bread of life” that comes down “from heaven” (John 6:35-38), the One who provides in such a way that those who come to him in faith and trust will no longer have any hunger or thirst (John 6:35) but will live forever (John 6:50-51). In describing this life as a “pilgrimage” through “this barren land”, the song also reminds us of Hebrews 11:13-16.
  4. ^  Music can evoke powerful emotions and asso­ciations, and this must be kept in mind when selecting hymn tunes. “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” (Psalter Hymnal 402) is a great hymn in terms of the words, but when sung to the tune that was the Deutsche Nationalhymne (German National Anthem) Deutschelandleid, it can evoke powerful and distressing emo­tions for the generation of people who lived during WWII in Europe. This illustrates, by way of negative example, the ability of music and hymns to touch the heart in a way that nothing else can.
  5. ^  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes and even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.”
  6. ^ This same point can be made when fragments of a psalm are taken out of context and set to music as well. A classic example is “This is the Day that the Lord hath made...” This “Scripture in Song” is taken from Psalm 118:24. “This is the day...” is often sung by Christians as an expression of thankfulness to God for “today”, “this day”. Let us praise God for the here and now of the last 24 hours. However, in the psalm itself, the “day that the Lord hath made”, and in which we are called to “rejoice” is the Day of Resurrection, the Day on which the Stone that the builders rejected became the “capstone” (vss. 22-24).
  7. ^ As expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism, LD 35, Q. 96 “What is God’s will for us in the second commandment? That we in no way make an image of God nor worship Him in any other way than He has commanded in his Word.”
  8. ^ J.S. Bach was instrumental (forgive the pun) in progressing and developing musical theory and language, and provides scholars and mu­sicians endless study and new insights even today. The four part harmony that underpins many hymn tunes was brought to its apex by Bach, with some biographers conceiving of it as “absolute music”. A devout Christian, the chorale hymn tune was the basis of much of Bach’s creative output. 
  9. ^ I can think of many other examples of ancient and modern hymns with excellent musical set­tings; but on the other hand, there are a few musical arrangements in our faithful blue Psalter that are not quite excellent. This is why it has been exciting to look through the selections the hymnody committee has made for our new denominational hymnbook, and note many with excellent and beautiful musical accom­paniment, both old and modern.
  10. ^ C.S. Lewis illustrates this concept when remi­niscing on his early experiences of church music: “I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different educa­tion, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.” God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, William B. Eerdmans Pub­lishing, 1994, p. 62.

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