In this series we have already looked at the goodly heritage left to us by many who led the way in evangelism and missionary endeavour at home and abroad, then more recently at those whom the Lord used to lead the way into an understanding and practice of what the New Testament teaches about the church. We have tried to remember them and recognize the impact of what they did in the nineteenth century and have passed on to us today.
What they have left us in written form is a goodly heritage in itself, but when we notice their devotion and zeal we must be all the more challenged and encouraged to maintain it in what are easier times for many of us socially, albeit more dark and difficult spiritually. However, we remind ourselves that all these aspects of the work of God are continuing worldwide today, not because of a nineteenth century tradition or revival, but because they are based upon the Word of God.
If we survey our goodly heritage, we cannot overlook our hymns. They are another important part of what we often enjoy and benefit from. Most, though not all, come from that same period in history. So in the next few months some hymn-writers and their hymns will be our focus. But we will have to be selective, there are so many. For a more comprehensive account, other sources such as Jack Strahan's excellent two volumes are well worth consulting.¹
There are over 600 references in the Bible to praise and singing. In heaven at creation's dawn "the morning stars sang together" joyfully (Job 38.7), and after God's work of grace is completed the redeemed in heaven will sing their new song gratefully (Rev 5.9). On earth Old Testament believers often sang (e.g. Ex 15, their song of redemption), and sometimes "sang loud" (Neh 12.42). New Testament believers are called upon to sing with the spirit and with the understanding (1 Cor 14.15). James in his epistle says, "Is any merry? Let him sing psalms" (5.13), whereas with sorely bruised and beaten backs and their feet fast in the stocks "at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises unto God: and the prisoners heard them" (Acts 16.25). Would there be perhaps a song for every occasion?
Our Lord Jesus sang with His few disciples on that memorable night before He went out to face the foe and the darkness and the cross (Mk 14.26). And because of all that He now can say, "In the midst of the church ["the great congregation", Ps 22.22] will I sing praise unto thee" (Heb 2.12). He truly is the "Chief Musician" who leads His people's praises presently, and as "high priest over the house of God" (Heb 10.21) takes also their prayers and worship into the heavenly sanctuary. How wonderful it will be when the whole heavenly host is in full voice singing together, "Worthy is the Lamb…"!
Clearly God expects Christians to be singers, on earth and in heaven! But what should we sing, and how? We should sing, says the Scriptures, "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col 3.16) and sing them "with grace in your hearts to the Lord". God has given to us an ability which no other creature has – we can not only speak words intelligently, but also sing them tunefully! And what a variety of tunes there are which aid expression and mood! Tunefulness is necessary, but so is thoughtfulness. And so is emotion! Have you sometimes stopped in the middle of a hymn when the sheer force of it overwhelms you and a tear comes to your eye? That's when worship goes beyond words.
We are singing about the Lord and to the Lord. We worship Him. Whoever offers praise glorifies Him (Ps 50.23). Singing is for joining in wholeheartedly. It's not just for listening to, even appreciatively. Singing is for the glory of the Lord, to magnify Him, not to magnify the glory or fame of the singer(s).
The great book of Psalms is the earliest hymnbook we know of, a collection of 150 pieces. As in other hymnbooks, some are long, others are short, penned by various authors. They are ancient yet up to date expressions of the soul. Some are prayers but most are praises. It must be significant that one of the best loved and most sung hymns is still the metric version of Psalm 23.
If we ever wonder what we should sing about, these Psalms give plenty of examples. Here are just a few:
"sing unto him a new song" (33.3)
"sing of thy power…of thy mercy" (59.16)
"sing of the mercies of the Lord" (89.1)
"sing of mercy and judgment" (101.1)
"sing of thy righteousness" (145.7)
"praise his word" (56.4)
"praise the name of God with a song" (69.30)
"Praise him for his mighty acts" (150.2)
"Praise ye the Lord" – "Hallelujah" (146-150).
And if we ever wonder why we should sing, here are just three classic examples:
"because he hath dealt bountifully with me" (13.6)
"for thou hast been my defence and refuge in the day of my trouble" (59.16)
"Because thy lovingkindness is better than life…" (63.3).
Nowadays we have several hymnbooks to choose from, according to tradition or taste. However, it is interesting to discover just how often the same hymns are found in so many hymnbooks, along with different ones according to the preferences of the compilers. This is true both of evangelistic hymns and those used in worship, remembrance and aspiration, in the English speaking world and in most foreign collections.
As we survey our rich heritage of hymns, the hymnwriters we will focus on will mostly belong to the nineteenth century. This magazine has already reminded readers of some who lived earlier than that: Charles Wesley (who wrote 6,500 hymns), John Newton and William Cowper (with their 350 "Olney hymns"), and just recently J N Darby and the scholarly Samuel Tregelles. These authors of Bible-based hymns have often stirred our thoughts and emotions, and drawn us to Christ. There is also Isaac Watts, often called "the father of English hymnology", who wrote over 600 hymns, and the unforgettable Fanny Crosby who wrote lyrics for more than 8,000! And it was not quantity at the expense of quality. One wrote, "If I am going to write any good, a great deal of living must go to a very little writing".² Like the "sweet Psalmist of Israel", their deep experiences with God became the basis of their writings.
The "song of songs, which is Solomon's" is a remarkable one in the Scriptures. It points us to the eternal lover of our souls. It is the only one divinely preserved out of Solomon's compendium of 1,005 (1 Kings 4.32). Did his later fall and sad failure totally eclipse his earlier devotion so that the others have been lost, buried in the dust of antiquity?
However, all this is not to say or to think that it is only "old" hymns which are worth singing! Many beautiful, expressive and Scriptural hymns have been written recently and are sung widely. Each of us will have our own examples. Two personal favourites are: "How deep the Father's love for us", and "In Christ alone my hope is found".
But you may have come across some recent compositions which have disappointed you. They lack depth and even want content, some just an overdone repetition of the same words/phrases with little or nothing in between. Many also seem to require increasingly amplified loud music to go with them! When the music and the tune help the singing and move the soul they fulfil their purpose, but when the words are eclipsed or drowned out - something has gone wrong!
It's the words of the hymns that matter most - the tune is important but secondary. It's our words which communicate and express our thoughts. But without a doubt a thoughtful blend of words and tunes does lift the mind and heart in a special way to enable us to praise the Lord better, in gratitude to the One to whom we owe everything for time and for eternity. "By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name" (Heb 13.15). Let us keep on singing these great "songs of Zion" and appreciate those who gave them to us.
To be continued.
¹Hymns and their Writers, 1989; More Hymns and their Writers. 2002, Gospel Tract Publications, Glasgow.
²Quote from Frances Havergal.