Why Hymns Matter: A Biblical Examination

Dr. Brian Payne

Brian is the Associate Professor of Christian Theology and Expository Preaching. Brian is also the Senior pastor of First Baptist Fisherville.

 

Shepherd of tender youth, guiding in love and truth through devious ways; Christ our triumphant King, we come Thy name to sing and here our children bring to join Thy praise.

Thou art our holy Lord, O all subduing Word, Healer of strife. Thou didst Thyself abase that from sin’s deep disgrace Thou mightest save our race and give us life.

Thou are the great High Priest; Thou hast prepared the feast of heavenly love; while in our mortal pain, none calls on Thee in vain; help Thou dost not disdain, Help from above.

Ever be Thou our Guide, our Shepherd and our Pride, our Staff and Song; Jesus, Thou Christ of God, by Thine eternal Word lead us where Thou hast trod, make our faith strong.[1]

           

In 1904-1905, revival came to Wales. One of the Welsh preachers of that time was Evan Roberts who believed that singing was one of the vital means of grace for that or any spiritual awakening for that matter. Once a Londoner asked him if he believed revival could ever come to London, Roberts smiled and asked, “Can you sing?” [2] Of course, this needs to be qualified. What we sing is as important as that we sing. And it is the contention of this article that a vital genre for Christian singing is that of the hymns.

 The Apostle Paul knew the importance of singing and singing hymns at that. In fact, in two different texts, Paul admonishes the church to sing hymns, among other songs. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Col 3:16; ESV)… Be filled with the Spirit 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph 5:18-20; ESV).

Indubitably, the Gospel-driven, Spirit-filled life is a life that incites and fuels singing. But not just any kind of singing: singing that communicates truth, knowledge and instruction. As Michael Horton asserts that worshiping by the means of singing is intended not merely to facilitate personal expression of one’s feelings but to sing the truth deeply into our hearts[3]

Contending for Hymns

Indeed, these two Pauline texts make at least four points that are worth considering. First, the word of Christ dwelling in a person is the fuel for these songs. Second, the Holy Spirit who fills the believer is the power behind the singing of these songs and we know that the Holy Spirit has come to glorify Christ (John 16:14). Third, teaching and admonishing is one of the purposes of these songs. Fourth, various forms of songs were employed.[4]

 It is this last point that leads us to the obvious question from these aforementioned texts. Is the Apostle Paul making a distinction with these 3 terms? If so, what is the distinction?

Some Christian traditions argue that there is no difference. In other words, all three terms refer to the Psalter. That is, singing is to be limited to the language of inspiration. Although this view is commendable in that its proponents seek to be consistent with the Reformation principle of “Scripture Alone,” there are a few problems with this position.

First, if Paul meant only one genre of song, what is the point of employing three different words in two different texts? It would seem that he assumes that the reader will distinguish between the terms. I would argue that the “Psalms” refers to the Old Testament Psalms. Luke employed this word in this way several times in his writings (Luke 20:42; 24:44; Acts 1:20; 13:33). Hymns would seem to refer to any human composition that focuses on God or Christ. The Song of Moses in Exodus 15 (the first hymn in the Bible), and Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel would qualify as would the so called Christ Hymns (Col 1:15-20; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tim 3:16). Spiritual songs may be “spontaneous compositions” prompted by the Holy Spirit. If these distinctions are legitimate, Murray Harris would be right in calling them, respectively, “songs from Scripture, songs about Christ, and songs from the Spirit.”[5]

Second, Colossians 3:16 makes clear that these songs are to have a didactic purpose. That parallels preaching. Who would restrict preaching solely to the language of Scripture. If that were the case, the preacher would just stand up in the pulpit and read Scripture. But as we see in Nehemiah, the Levites took the Scriptures and not only read them, but “gave the sense” of the Scriptures (Neh 8:8). So they took the inspired text and elaborated on them in their own words. And because singing has a similar teaching function, it stands to reason that there is a parallel between preaching and singing.

Third, consider the use of the great confessions in the life of the church. These confessions use all kind of language that do not show up in Scripture (e.g. providence, Trinity, perichoresis, expiation, etc). Yet, without these terms, it would be difficult to maintain orthodox doctrine.

Fourth, there is in the New Testament the presence of “non-psalmic” psalms. For example, there are the three psalms we see in Luke 1-2: The psalm of Mary (The Magnificat), the psalm of Zechariah (the Benedictus), and the psalm of Simeon (Nunc Dimittus).

Finally, the church in every epoch of church history has emphasized the writing and use of Hymns.  For instance, the writer of the “Shepherd of Tender Youth,” (the oldest extant post-apostolic hymn) Clement of Alexandria gives us great insights of the importance of hymns in the post-Apostolic church, not only in the formal worship but in the daily lives of believers, when he asserts, “We cultivate our fields, praising; we sail the sea, hymning… [The believer’s] whole life is a holy festival. His sacrifices are prayers and praises, and Scripture readings before meals, psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayer again during night. By these he unites himself to the heavenly choir.”

Indeed, as early as 112 A.D., it is recorded that Pliny the Younger in his report of Bithynian Christians’ worship, wrote Christians hold early morning services and recite a hymn antiphonally as to a God.  In fact, there is no time in Church History where there was an absence of hymn writing. Of course, singing and hymn writing was in many respects at the heart of the Reformation.[6]

 

Undeniably, hymn writing has served the church for two thousand years. Unlike the psalms, that aren’t explicitly Trinitarian, the hymns of Scripture and the better hymns of church history are. They are also Christ and Gospel centered, rather than man-centered.  They have a gravity of concept, and dignity and reverence of language that are not based on human feeling but on eternal verities.

Conclusion

The LORD is a singing God. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).

And we are his image bearers, which means we were created and redeemed to sing. That is why it is not surprising that the Bible contains over 400 references to singing and 50 direct commands to sing. In fact, the longest book of the Bible, the Psalms, is a book of songs.

But it is the contention of this article that the Psalms are not the only songs the church is to sing. We also are expected to sing hymns (and for another article, “spiritual songs”).  Hymns function as a kind of “portable creed” by which the church not only worships the Triune God, but also learns the faith as well.

It could be rightly said that outside the time tested hymns of the church, a large majority of Christian songs center on one attribute of God, his love. One of the problems as I see it in the contemporary church is the abandonment or disregard of God’s simplicity, which means God is not made up of his attributes. That is, he doesn’t consist of love, goodness, mercy, etc. God is love, goodness, and mercy. Every attribute of God is identical with his essence, which also means that even though the divine attributes are revealed to us as varied, they are actually identical with one another. God is not made up of parts.

To emphasize love at the expense of other attributes is to bear false witness against the Living God. However, the better hymns in church history remind us that our God is more than love. He is just, holy, righteous, and wrathful against sin. But this God has provided a substitute in his Son Jesus Christ who is for sin “the double cure” and who saves from “wrath and make me pure.”

It is the time tested hymns that communicate these truths through melody. And you have a people when you have their songs. As Warren Wiersbe writes, “I am convinced that congregations learn more theology (good and bad) from the songs they sing than from the sermons they hear. Many sermons are doctrinally sound and contain a fair amount of biblical information, but they lack that necessary emotional content that gets hold of the listener’s heart. Music, however, reaches the mind and the heart at the same time. It has power to touch and move the emotions, and for that reason can become a wonderful tool in the hands of the Spirit or a terrible weapon in the hands of the Adversary.[7]

Gary Haugen, CEO of the International Justice Mission, shares a story that helps drive this point home. He knew a civil rights leader who, early in the movement, was deeply disheartened by the slowness of progress. When he was asked if there was anything to be encouraged about, he said, “yes,” because he had become convinced they would ultimately win. He was asked why. His response, “Because they had the songs the people were singing…the melodies that would carry the movement.” He recognized that whoever has the songs has the people.[8]

The church of Jesus Christ has a long and rich heritage of songs called hymns that have evangelized and edified people in the gospel of Jesus Christ for two thousand years. And perhaps these hymns have never been more important for the church than they are today.

As Sam Storms points out, in many pulpits today there are two dominant themes: conquering and coping. How may we conquer our world? How may we enter into our destinies? How may we cope with our daily struggles? If Jesus is mentioned at all, he’s usually depicted as a life coach who exists to aid us in our search for significance.[9]

But the hymns critique and chasten this man centeredness. They reorient to the biblical reality that every situation, location, relationship must be seen in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ and be ruled by it as a controlling principle. Indeed, to let the word of Christ indwell us and to be filled with the Holy Spirit means, among other things, to sing hymns.

[1] “Shepherd of Tender Youth,” written by Clement of Alexandria around 200 A.D. This is the earliest extant hymn written in the post-Apostolic era. It was written for new converts. It centers on the person and all sufficient work of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest. It also serves to demonstrate that the early post-Apostolic church was not “Psalms” only Christians.

[2] Keith and Kristyn Getty, Sing: How Worship Transforms Your Life, Family, and Church (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 97.

[3] Michael Horton, Rediscovering the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 24.

[4] See also Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2008), 290.

[5] Murray J. Harris, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians and Philemon (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 169.

[6] It has been said that many of Martin Luther’s foes feared his hymns more than than feared Luther himself.

[7] Warren Wiersbe, Real Worship (Nashville, Oliver Nelson, 1986), 137.

[8] Haugen told this story to Keith and Kristyn Getty, Ibid., 142.

[9] Sam Storms, The Hope of Glory (Crossway, Wheaton, 2007), 279.

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