Songs of mourning have their place — Hugh Wetmore

God’s own inspired songbook is The Psalms. 150 of them. Walter Riggans has written a provocative article* asking: “If the Psalms have many sad songs of lament, why is it that our church services are ‘overwhelmingly dominated by praise songs?”

This is a valid question. It needs an answer, and it requires corrective action as we prepare our song lists.   This got me thinking ….

The answer must include the following:

a. Most churches have moved away from the historic liturgies which always included the singing of psalms. The liturgical psalms were usually sung to plainsong chants. Understandably, this style of singing is not appealing to 21st century worshipers. It has died a natural death.

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b. Psalms have also been adapted to be sung as metrical hymns. Psalm 23 is the familiar hymn “The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want”. Psalm 90 is sung as the hymn “O God, our help in ages past”. Psalm 103 is “Praise, my soul, the king of heaven”. But, in many of our churches today, hymn-singing is also on its way out.

c. Contemporary worship songs have become the popular genre in many churches. From the 1970s, these swept through Western Christendom like a tsunami, pushing aside other genres. They were introduced as “praise and worship” songs, because they were vertically sung to God — rather than horizontally sung to one another. They were predominantly upbeat in nature, emphasising the glory of God and the blessings of worshiping Him. There was no space for the sadness, mourning and lament to be found in the lyrics of many psalms.

d. Preachers often attracted people to Christ by promising that He would give them joy and peace in a world of gloom and trouble. They found plenty of legitimate promises in Scripture, yes, even in the psalms. But they were selective in choosing only the happy promises. Perhaps they were subtly influenced by the marketing’ mindset of the world around us. They overlooked the solemn promises in the Bible, promises of suffering, persecution and trouble. They unconsciously omitted the fact that following Jesus requires “sacrificial self-denial, and taking up the cross” (Mark 8:34,35). This bias towards the pleasant blessings of God influences the kind of songs we choose for Sunday worship.  

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e. In some quarters of the Church the prosperity Gospel took root, teaching “that godliness is a means of financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5b).  The Bushiris and Otomotos have considerable influence among churches. The laments of some of the psalms do not find any place in the prosperity culture.

f. Unlike in Bible days, our singing is usually associated with joy. The very idea of a sad song seems contradictory! Rather, we should associate singing with feeling, emotion — whether glad or sad. Then our songs will be more real. God will be in touch with the realities of life which our congregants actually experience.

So what is the corrective actions we should take? 

1. Do not take any action without first being sure that you are doing the will of God. We must be motivated by a desire to sing the songs Gof wants us to sing … not the songs our people want us to sing.  God’s core instruction remains Colossians 3:16 — “Let the word of God dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual song, with gratitude in your hearts to God.” 

2. Make sure you include in your song list all three genres of song: “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”.  The lyrics are most important — whereas the music can flow in the changing culture of the day. 

3. Have integrity in your overall choice of songs: cover all the bases found in the Word of God — the pleasant themes, the unpleasant themes.  Lyrics that express joy and peace; lyrics that express sorrow and penitence. Put your preferential bias aside. If the Bible says it, we should sing it. “Let the word of God dwell in you richly with all wisdom as you sing.”

4. Because the contemporary songs tend to prefer happy themes addressed vertically to God, we should compile repertoires that also include solemn themes addressed horizontally “to one another”.  Themes such as (sample psalms are given in brackets):  God’s anger towards sin (78); penitence for our (named) sins (130); persecution (83); facing death (69); sorrow (79); fear (70); injustices we experience (73); disgrace (69); hatred by enemies (64); betrayal (55); loneliness (42); despair (88); vengeance (94).

5. Because songs expressing real-life troubles are so rare, we encourage songwriters to provide more of them. Walter Riggans says: “God wants us to be real in our worship. Write hymns and songs that express the contribution of Psalms of Lament to these themes. This will help Christians to internalise biblical truths and perspectives.”  Then our worship services will be better equipped to mourn with those who mourn.

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  1. F/A Hugh Whetmore: I totally agree with what you have been sharing, concerning praise & worship music. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer and I realised that his time might be running out, I experienced the need to write my own songs, with words directly from Scripture. I’ve used the melodies of wellknown beloved songs (nog longer popular to sing in a meeting), even secular melodies, and melodies from the FAK, the Afrikaans song book with which I’ve grown up with – and of course my own melodies. We sing these songs in our Church-in-the-Home Fellowship and are so blessed. I would love to share these songs with any fellowship or church who would want it, but because I’m not a professional musician, there is no way I know of how to do this. If there is any way that I can share it with you, to introduce some of my songs to you, I would love to hear from you. In the Name of Him who is my only Life, Jesus Christ. He gets all the glory for each and every song, because He is the Author of them all.

  2. Hugh G Wetmore

    Thank you, Annale, for your encouragement and your active contribution of relevant songs, born out of how God’s Word spoke into your own grieving. You do well to write lyrics to existing song-music, secular and sacred. I do this too – and call it MIX AND MATCH. If you (or any other readers) send me an email to … … I will explain some techniques to you. Refer to Gateway News, and I will recognise the context. Yours, Hugh G Wetmore

  3. Annalé Rossouw

    Hallo Hugh, my emails to you did not go through on —– ‘invalid recipient’ ??
    what have I done wrong?
    Please help me here, I really want to make contact with you.
    kind regards,