So Which Hymns Should We Sing?
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.