In our previous post, I looked at four reasons why we may not want to lead every verse of a hymn in the assembly. As I said there, that does not mean we should never do that, but simply that we should be mindful of whether it is most effective to do so. Similarly, I know many who routinely omit verses, and the practice of omitting the third verse from a four-verse song is so common that hymn writers debate whether to write four-verse songs, and then whether to write the third verse as a throwaway verse or to make it the most important verse so that leaders will be more likely to sing it.
So what might you be missing if you omit one or more verses from a hymn?
The “Payoff” of the Song
A number of songs have a single verse that is the whole point or central focus of the song. It is the message, climax or payoff of the song that brings everything together. While there should be spiritual truth expressed in every verse to some degree, this verse provides a synergy that takes all the others to a new level.
One of my favorite songs—both to sing and to lead—is “Nearer, Still Nearer.” While I don’t often experience this in the assembly, I know of recordings of the song where the third verse is left out. Notice what is said in that verse:
Nearer, still nearer, Lord, to be Thine!
Sin, with its follies, I gladly resign,
All of its pleasures, pomp and its pride,
Give me but Jesus, my Lord, crucified.
This is the climax of the whole text. It is our absolute determination to repent and to depend only on Jesus. While this hymn is certainly singable without the third verse, it is one of the hymns that I will likely never lead except to lead all four verses. In general, we must take care that in our efforts to streamline the singing of a song, we don’t rob the song of its big idea.
The Progression of Thought
Many songs are progressive: each verse builds upon the preceding ones. While there may be times (as in yesterday’s discussion of crucifixion hymns) we can leave out verses at the beginning or end of a song, there are times when leaving out middle verses breaks the logic. Unfortunately, even hymnals have been guilty of this.
I discussed this in my analysis of “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed,” but most of our hymnals do a disservice to Watts’ text by omitting a verse that contains the connective tissue to get us from the preceding verse to the succeeding verse. Verse 3 in most hymnals talks about the sun shutting its glories in when Christ died. Then, verse 4 talks about drops of grief not being able to repay our debt of love. How did we get from the darkened sun to our drops of grief? Behold, the verse that goes in between these two:
Thus might I hide my blushing face
while his dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes to tears.
Now, we have the sun’s hiding of its face prompting us to hide our face. We react to Jesus’ sacrifice with tears. But, drops of grief are insufficient response: we must give a total sacrifice.
When looking at a song, make sure that a text still makes sense with the omitted verse. Perhaps the most egregious example of this that I have heard (though, fortunately, never have witnessed) is singing only the first verse of “None of Self, and All of Thee” for a closing song. Recall:
Oh, the bitter pain and sorrow
That a time could ever be,
When I proudly said to Jesus,
“All of self, and none of Thee.”
Is that really where we want to end the service? If you are going to sing only one verse, sing the last one:
Higher than the highest heaven,
Deeper than the deepest sea,
Lord, Thy love at last has conquered:
“None of self, and all of Thee.”
Then there are times when omitting a verse leaves a big conceptual hole. Even in “hub and spoke” hymns, where each verse is connected to a central thought, omitting a verse can leave the hymn content unbalanced. The most obvious example is in trinitarian hymns, where each member of the Godhead is recognized in some way.
If you want to omit verses from a hymn, fine. I do it, too. But two recommendations I would make in doing so:
- Don’t omit verses from hymns where such omission disrupts the thought process of the hymn. Some hymns may not seem like they are worth singing because we so routinely omit one or more of their verses and deprive them of complete meaning. If a hymn needs all its verses to make sense, sing it all or not at all.
- Don’t omit arbitrarily. Give thought to which verse(s) can be omitted and still maintain the thought. This may seem like a radical idea, but sometimes the best verse to omit is the first verse, because it is an introductory verse and the real meat doesn’t start until verse two.