What You May Miss with Verse Omission

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.

Conclusion

If you want to omit verses from a hymn, fine. I do it, too. But two recommendations I would make in doing so:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
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4 thoughts on “What You May Miss with Verse Omission

  1. “A Mighty Fortress” is a song that requires multiple stanzas to fill out the progression of thoughts. I was once asked to lead one stanza of this song. If you sing only one stanza, it is almost an anthem of tribute to Satan, and his power.

    While discussing this hymn, we also have the issue of translations. The hymn “A Mighty Fortress” that we sing is quite different than the one written by Martin Luther. See the hymnal “Lutheran Worship” (Concordia Publishing,1982). The four stanzas accomplish a more complete progression of thoughts.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. Regarding “A Mighty Fortress,” I think that the first verse is the only one that gives me extreme pause to lead on its own. The main reason is that unlike the other verses, its “positive” content is front-loaded. The first half is our affirmation that God is our “mighty fortress”; the second half is why we cannot withstand Satan without Him. It is a complete thought of itself, but I’m not crazy about ending on that note.

      That being said, I do think that AMF functions better when considered as a complete unit, whether as four verses or three.

  2. Better, IMHO, to sing fewer songs and never omit a verse of a song. Some of the 19th Century hymns have six or even eight verses! Often, the more obscure verses are also the most meaningful.

    • Indeed. One interesting historical point is that I don’t think the urge to omit verses is a modern phenomenon—at least, not completely. Watts and other writers/editors of that era frequently indicated verses that were optional or where a text could be broken into two or more discrete units for economy of singing. I wonder if we might ought to revive the practice so as to help song leaders. In my copy of PHASS, I have notated some songs with which verses to sing, particularly when the PHASS editors included verses in addition to those found in HFWR (such as “Jesus Loves Me”).

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