Songs that please God: what’s so special about ‘hymns’?

[notice]Hugh Wetmore is a songwriter and student of worship trends. He invites you to join the worship conversation by commenting on his monthly column.[/notice]

So we’ve made that major shift in our musical mindset: We no longer choose the songs WE like to sing. Now we focus on GOD, and we ask “What Songs will please HIM this Sunday?”

He answers clearly: “Sing ‘psalms, hymns and spiritual songs’ to one another” (Colossians 3:16, echoed in Ephesians 5:19).  “Psalms” are easily identified as being from the Hebrew Song-book in the middle of our Bibles. “Hymns” must be something else, and distinguishable from “Spiritual Songs”.  We realise that God wants VARIETY in our song styles.

The HYMN!  (Greek: hymnos) The historical and technical description is “a song of Praise to a Deity”.  In South Africa we are familiar with such songs of praise to human Dignitaries, sung-recited by izimbongi , such as we witnessed when President Zuma entered Parliament for his State of the Nation Address on February 11. Eloquent, poetic descriptions of praise.

Songs of Praise to God
Many of the hymns we know are just that: Songs of Praise to God. “O for a thousand tongues to sing / my great Redeemer’s praise! / The glories of my God and King, / the triumphs of His grace” … “Join all the glorious names / of wisdom, love and power, / that mortals ever knew, / that angels ever bore: / All are too weak to speak His worth, / too weak to set my Saviour forth.”

But is God’s Praise the exclusive property of “Hymns”? No! There are many Psalms and Spiritual Songs that also Praise God with poetic eloquence.

Combing through the many Hymn-books on my shelves, I find Hymns that cover a wide range of themes. Not only Praise, but also Thanksgiving, Teaching, Warnings, Inspiration, Descriptions, Prayers, Exhortations, Testimony, History, Prophecy and Loving Devotion.

Hallmarks of a Hymn
Yet last month’s (February) column discovered a similar breadth of themes in the Psalms. There seems to be so much overlap! So what makes a Hymn different to a Psalm?  I suggest the following hallmarks that distinguish a good HYMN:

  1. A Hymn has many verses.
  1. The verses tend to have a regular rhythm, which is known as the Metre. Hymnbooks in the British/European tradition usually print the Metre (matching the number of syllables in each line) with each hymn. e.g. Amazing Grace; and Great is Thy Faithfulness + refrain. Americans are more careless here, and often omit the Metre. [In a later Column we’ll learn how practically useful this understanding of the Metre is, when we “Mix and Match” lyrics and tunes.  This is one of the best-kept secrets!]
  1. The verses are all sung to the same tune – learn the melody of one verse, you’ve learned the lot.
  1. A Hymn explores a Theme more thoroughly, and unpacks its meaning more fully.
  1. A Hymn is the best kind of Song for “teaching and admonishing one another”; it’s a great tool for building mature Christians, strong churches.  This pleases God no end! (Colossians 3:16).  He is disappointed with popular cliched religious songs that leave us the same as they found us. He desires that we “struggle with divine energy to present everyone mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28,29).  Good Hymns build us up into maturity.

Getting God’s Word out in song
God’s high desire is to get His Word out into all the World. Preaching and singing Word-based Hymns are the most effective ways of achieving His desire.

Of the three Genres of Song God wants to hear on our lips, HYMNS that are based on His Word are the closest to Preaching His Word.  London evangelist Donald Burling is effective on the city-streets and in the pubs without ‘preaching’ at all. With his guitar he sings the Word of God into people’s hearts. He writes his own Songs, just as a preacher writes his own sermons. He has published the best in a book titled “Sermons in Song”. And these Sermons are Hymns. They take a theme from real life, and expound the Scriptures on it, to catchy tunes, in rhythmic, rhyming verse. And Joe Public listens to the busker-preacher. The message sticks.

Glimpses of Congregational HYMNS are found in Scripture. Philippians 2:5-11 is the most famous of these. Other snippets could be 1 Corinthians 13:4-6; Ephesians 3:20-21; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 1:15; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13; Jude v24,25.

During the long dry season of Mediaeval Christianity, singing was mostly confined to ritualistic chanting by the priests and monks, without congregational participation. Then came the fresh breath of the Spirit in the Reformation.  HYMNS were composed, and sung to stirring tunes by congregations in the churches. The Hymns were rich in biblical theology. These Word-based hymns, full of ‘teaching with all wisdom’, teamed up with the sermons to build a strong, virile Christianity in northern and western Europe. Listen to this Sermon in Song, by John Bunyan (author of the Pilgrim’s Progress) (died 1688). Recognise its Word-sourced lyrics from 1 Peter 2:11,12; 2:18-21; John 16:1-4.  Feel the affirmation of your faith that supplies courage to follow Jesus against all hostile forces:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
let him in constancy follow the Master:
there’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
do but themselves confound – his strength the more is.
no foes shall stay his might though he with giants fight;
he will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, thou dost defend us with they Spirit,
we know we at the end shall life inherit:
then, fancies, flee away! I’ll not fear what men say,
I’ll labour night and day to be a pilgrim.

So HYMNS developed into a tidal force for the Gospel, that spread all over the world, in many languages.  Follow this force in next month’s installment.

One Comment

  1. Wellington Jansen

    Dear Hugh

    I am so delighted to read your article on hymns… it is so well written full of history and insight. I have always been a lover of the hymns and working very hard to promote hymns in the church. Blessings and lots of love.