Spilled Blood?

In our efforts to sing scriptural songs, it is not uncommon for hymnal editors, preachers and other concerned singers to contemplate the specific meaning of words as they appear in the songs that are being sung. Since we have a fluid English language, words change meaning over time, and sometimes even overnight. There are also regional and national variations in the meaning of words (such as the contradictory meanings of “table” as a verb in parliamentary procedure).Thus it is that we have words that appear in hymns which are questioned as conveying something “unscriptural” when there may be a perfectly valid reason for the word’s use in that situation.

An example of such is the word “spill.” Some hymns speak of Jesus’ blood being “spilled” or “spilt.” For instance, from “Grace Greater Than Our Sin”:

Marvelous grace of our loving Lord,
Grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt,
Yonder on Calvary’s mount out-poured,
There where the blood of the Lamb was spilt.

The objection has been raised from time to time that the verb, spill, refers to an accidental or unintentional pouring out of something. Since the pouring out of Jesus’ blood was very much part of God’s plan and thus an intentional act, we should not say that His blood was “spilled.” In fact, more than one hymnal has edited the last line to “shed” in order to address this point.

I don’t know that this is as big of a deal as people make it out to be. We have taken one definition of a word and made it the only definition. Note what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary says about the word:

  1. (a) archaic : kill, destroy
    (b) to cause (blood) to be lost by wounding
  2. to cause or allow especially accidentally or unintentionally to fall, flow, or run out so as to be lost or wasted
  3. (a) to relieve (a sail) from the pressure of the wind so as to reef or furl it
    (b) to relieve the pressure of (wind) on a sail by coming about or by adjusting the sail with lines
  4. to throw off or out <a horse spilled him>
  5. to let out : divulge <spill a secret>

One of the first definitions is to cause blood to be lost by wounding. Nothing is said in that particular use of accidental blood loss. Not all dictionaries contain all definitions (Google’s dictionary in their web search only mentions blood in the etymology of the word), but it is a valid use of the word to talk about bloodshed generally. In fact, it seems that historically, intentional action was the primary sense, with the definition migrating over time to refer to accidental action.

Now, I realize that words mean things. And in light of such a discussion, I don’t recommend using “spill” in new material. But even in the context of the song, an accidental outpouring doesn’t seem to be in view. Since we’re singing about grace, that would be the equivalent of God saying, “Well, I didn’t intend for Jesus to die, but since He did, I’m going to extend grace through His blood.”

Ultimately, this is the same issue that we have in translating the Bible (and in using different translations of the Bible). We like translations that say what we want to say about a passage. We gripe over the 2011 NIV because it describes Phoebe as a “deacon” of the church in Romans 16.1, instead of a “servant” (and to be clear, I’m not a fan of it, either). However, we want to keep the word in 1 Timothy 3 transliterated as deacon, instead of translating it to servant, because we want to make the distinction between these specially-designated servants and people who are servants in a more general sense, even though the exact same word is being used in both cases.

Perhaps, instead of evaluating hymns on the basis of what we want words to mean, we need to evaluate them on what the words can mean (opting for the most charitable light) and how the average person would commonly understand them. It’s an imperfect process, and to be certain, we are likely to be contradictory in our application, but maybe a little bit of common sense about the hymns we sing would go a long way toward effectively singing praises to the Lord.

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