Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs
Lee April 8, 2016

The song leader clearly felt awkward about it. One Sunday morning as he introduced the next song – an old hymn – he apologised for the fact that we were about to sing something that was so old-school. It wasn’t exactly helpful, but it seems that he just blurted out what he was really thinking – that old hymns are old hat, out-dated, irrelevant perhaps.

He could have chosen his words more carefully, but it’s not hard to understand the song leader’s discomfort. When anything in our daily lives is superseded by a newer, shinier model, it can be tempting to equate ‘newer’ with ‘better’ – because it often is. New cars might not match the distinctive character, fine craftsmanship or aesthetic pizzazz of some older vehicles, but when it comes to speed, handling, safety, eco-friendliness and fuel economy (and a lot more), newer cars are most definitely better!

However, it’s also true that some things are so good, they stay good. Like a glass of cold water on a hot day, some things simply can’t be bettered even when the new improved version comes along. That’s why Shakespeare’s plays are still studied and performed all over the world; the actors, sets and costumes change, and some have been translated or made into movies, but the fundamentals remain the same. That’s also why so many people still attend performances of Handel’s Messiah, or travel great distances to stand awe-struck before Michelangelo’s statue David. Nothing matches these works – most things don’t even come close. Somehow, they never get old.

And yet when it comes to hymns, it’s easy for people to feel impatient. For many, singing hymns requires more effort, first to process the unfamiliar words in their brains and form them with their mouths, and then to adjust to the different style of music. Like humans everywhere, many of us prefer the option that requires less energy, relaxing into the familiarity of up-to-date vocabulary and contemporary rhythms. We might even struggle to see the relevance of hymns.

Christians have been singing since the early believers began meeting together. The apostle Paul urged the Ephesians to teach one another by singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs and by making music to the Lord from their hearts (Eph 5:19). And we know they sang new songs to God because, ironically, this was a practice firmly rooted in Jewish tradition – in the ancient book of Psalms:

Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth (Ps 96:1).

Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvellous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him (Ps 98:1).

But does this mean Christians should only sing new songs? Well, it seems even the first believers had a varied repertoire – psalms (already old in those days), hymns and spiritual songs. Although we don’t know how hymns differed from spiritual songs back then, it’s clear they weren’t the same thing.

Today’s western Christians tend to favour new songs over old. I’ve already mentioned a few possible reasons for this, but I suspect there’s more to it – that it has more to do with a general desire to be seen as relevant and up-to-date, especially in the eyes of non-believers. But has a desire to keep the gospel message accessible, clouded our understanding of what it means to be truly relevant?

There’s no doubt that old hymns are old-fashioned. And yet the truth is, they still do what they were originally meant to do and they do it very well. Just like the artistic works from past eras that still speak to us today, the lines, verses and refrains of many old hymns have endured. Even though they conform to the linguistic and musical standards of their day, hymns continue to express what is true about God, in words and phrases that are as economical as they are beautiful, as practical as they are eloquent.

Hymn writers like Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and John Newton understood the power of the right word to convey much more than the obvious or immediate meaning. And they got really good at it, because between them they wrote thousands of hymns. Sometimes, by selecting a particular combination of words, they could evoke an entire passage from Scripture.

Here’s an example from some other hymn writers. At our church we occasionally sing the 19th century hymn, Crown Him With Many Crowns with lyrics by Matthew Bridges and Godfrey Thring, and music by George J Elvey. This is an excerpt from the final verse:

Crown Him the Lord of years,

the potentate of time,

Creator of the rolling spheres,

ineffably sublime.

In just half a verse – a mere seventeen words – this hymn of praise communicates profound theological truths about who the Lord Jesus is. I’ll try to summarise each line:

Jesus is worthy to be crowned the King of kings who reigns over the passing of each year,

because he rules over time itself with absolute power and authority;

because, through Jesus, the sun, planets, stars and galaxies of the universe were created,

and his splendour, grandeur and supremacy is so great it is inexpressible.

I have used 55 words, partly because the hymn includes three words we don’t commonly use today (potentate, ineffably, sublime), and partly because the words and phrases chosen by Bridges and Thring evoke big doctrinal ideas, as well as significant Scripture passages (e.g. Gen 1:14-19; John 1:1-5; Col 1:15-20; Rev 19:11-16). And it took just seventeen economical, beautiful, practical, eloquent words.

Just like the best Christian song writers of today, the best hymn writers were steeped in the language of the Bible and they knew how carefully and faithfully God’s Spirit-breathed word had been recorded and translated down the ages. They knew how important, how vital it was to choose the truest word and to mould a melody that would work with the lyrics to communicate God’s truth to his people.

Photo by Jordan | Lightstock.com
Photo by Jordan | Lightstock.com

While not all hymns were models of biblical truth and musical craftsmanship, many of them were, and they are the ones that survive and endure. The fact that they now seem outdated is not because they were superseded by something new that did the same job, but much better. They seem outdated simply because language is an organic thing and changes over time, just as musical styles and tastes do. Old hymns were once new songs too; new-fashioned, not old.

Shakespeare’s plays, Handel’s Messiah and Michelangelo’s David are all outdated for exactly the same reasons – aesthetically, they belong to their time. Yet, in terms of their message and meaning, they belong to all time. That’s how good they are. And that’s how good many hymns are – that’s why they are still relevant. In the words of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, “To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal”.*

I hope we don’t lose the ability or the desire to appreciate old hymns, and that we don’t treat the faithfulness and godly endeavour of our spiritual predecessors with contempt. I’m really encouraged to see that some hymns have been given another chance to shine, thanks to today’s composers who have set them to new melodies or given them fresh arrangements. This encourages us to stay connected to the biblical wisdom, piety and skill of the past.

Like the best Christian songs of today, hymns continue to point us to God and remind us of the truth. And we need reminding. That’s why we meet together as church communities, to hear God’s word and to sing it to one another. The apostle Peter knew this well [italics added]:

So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory… And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things (2 Pet 1:12-15).

Whenever we remember, we look back to the past. Os Guinness says we need to look back, to study and appreciate history, because “every age has its strengths and weaknesses, its own outlook and blind spots”. Appreciating history also keeps us from what he calls “chronological snobbery” and “generational conceit”.*

As each generation of believers follows the generations that have gone before, the wise ones pay attention to the legacy they inherit from the saints of the past. Then they can learn from the mistakes, benefit from the good things and, most of all, humbly give thanks to God for his faithfulness to us all, throughout all ages. May his name be praised!

quoted from “Prophetic Untimeliness” by Os Guinness, Baker Books, 2003, p.105

Featured image: Photo by Prixel Creative | Lightstock.com

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