Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise

The hymn, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise,” lays before us an unabashed and Scripture-filled statement of God’s glory. Admittedly, it does carry an air of stuffiness today. Much of this comes from the elevated language being used, but some from trying to express intelligent thoughts with so many rhymes in such a compressed space. Though it dates from the 19th century, it is a more recent entry into the repertoire of the churches of Christ. It stands as an interesting contrast to some of the “fluffier” songs of praise we frequently see today. Continue reading

Thou Art the Way

George W. Doane’s “Thou Art the Way” (PHASS #70) is a hymn based on the statement made by Jesus in John 14.6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.” Each of the verses focuses on one part of that statement, and is expressed as a response addressed to Jesus. While not in PHASS, other hymnals include a fourth verse that summarizes the three. Continue reading

I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord

In Matthew 10.32–33, Jesus said, “Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.” Isaac Watts’ hymn, “I’m Not Ashamed to Own My Lord” (PHASS #530), is a declaration that we are not ashamed to make such a confession before men. Continue reading

Verse Selection: Things to Ponder

To this point, we’ve considered the potential problems created by always singing every verse of hymns and by omitting verses arbitrarily. In this third installment, I want to consider some things for song/worship leaders to consider in effective verse selection. As I think I’ve mentioned, my default is to sing every verse of a song, with the chorus following the verses, but here are some reasons why I do occasionally omit the chorus, lead the chorus only at the end, or lead only certain verses. Some of these may have been touched on already, some may not have. Continue reading

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? Continue reading

Four Concerns in Leading Every Verse of a Hymn

I have been told that American churches are strange in that we do not lead every verse of every song we sing in the assembly. Indeed, we lament the third verse of a four-verse song, and I have been to congregations where the closing song is routinely only sung with the first verse. In fact, our hymnals are sometimes the subject of criticism because their editors choose to include only three verses of songs that may have six verses or more.

But is leading every verse of every song, every time always the best practice? I admit, my default practice is to lead every verse (and every chorus, if present) of the songs that I select, but there are exceptions to this, which we’ll get into later. But why might leading every verse not be optimal in the assembly? Continue reading

Hymns and “Proof Texting”

One of the great perceived evils of modern preaching is proof texting. As commonly defined, proof texting is using a passage (usually a single verse) to make a point without any regard for its context. To be certain, some measure of risk exists in such preaching and many a false doctrine has been propagated by means discarded context. But what we commonly refer to as proof texting is not inherently wrong. In fact, Jesus did so when He referenced Exodus 3 to prove that there is a resurrection. That wasn’t the main point of that passage, and Jesus didn’t even address the main point. Of course, I’ve just proof-texted Jesus, because I’ve chosen not to deal with that context of that passage.

So why talk about this on a blog about hymns? If a purpose of our singing is to teach and admonish one another (Eph 5.19; Col 3.16), then hymns constitute the most ubiquitous case of proof texting ever known to Christians. If you’ve not already read it, take a look at the analysis of “Sweet Hour of Prayer” as an example of throwing all manner of references together into a single text. Some of my fellow hymn writers and I joke about playing “Scripture bingo,” to see if we can fit one more reference into a hymn without overloading the hymn with too much content to process.

There simply is not sufficient space in a hymn to expound upon more than a handful of biblical expressions, much less explain the use of every reference or the points that the hymnist might be making from them. As much as it might be interesting to have an annotated edition of our hymnals, (1) the footnote numbers would be distracting, (2) it would be nearly impossible to run down every reference, and (3) the resulting work could be as much as twice as thick, depending upon the verbosity of the annotator.

As has already been discussed, this is why we need to use scriptural expressions according to their use in Scripture. That is perhaps my chief objection to saying that the Father turned His face away in “How Deep the Father’s Love”—if I go to the places where that expression (or something like it) is used and really wrestle with the context, personally I have a hard time making the use in the hymn fit with the use in Scripture.

We should strive for scripturally-consistent use of scriptural language so that even without a human interpreter, we have a divinely-given interpreter in the Bible. If our hymns consist of biblically-used biblical expressions, then the Bible can tell us what those expressions mean. If we can’t explain it, we probably need to be thinking about whether we can sing it. And yes, this is an allusion to 1 Corinthians 14.

So what do we do?

  1. For everyone, we need to demand biblical content in the hymns. Can the hymns we sing be understood in a biblical context, or do we have to perform “mental gymnastics” to make it fit a biblical understanding? The more contortions we have to do to make a lyric scriptural, the more concerned we should be.
  2. For song/worship leaders, we need to be the congregation’s guides in understanding the songs we sing. We are the last line of defense in making sure that scriptural songs are being sung. Some allusions are not as obvious as others. “For God so loved this sinful world, He gave His Son to die” is a fairly well-understood reference. “Here I raise my Ebenezer” not so much. Make sure all can sing with understanding.
  3. For hymn writers, we need to strive for clarity in our writing, and ensure that when we make reference to Scripture, that our references are not the product of mental gymnastics and the twisting of those references. Obscure references are fine (any excuse to motivate Christians to read their Bibles, right?), but when people find the reference, will it make sense?

Hymns that do not use biblical content biblically have a hard time teaching and admonishing. Hymns that do not teach and admonish have a hard time being expedient (beneficial) to the musical worship of God’s people. Hymns that are not expedient probably shouldn’t be sung.

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. Continue reading

Looked on Him and Pardoned Me

Perhaps you’ve seen the video titled “Good-o-Meter.” It was created to combat the idea that our good works “earn” us a place in heaven. I’ve linked to it to save you my written description, but notice particularly what happens starting around 2:15. Jesus takes the place of the man in line, and His being “good enough” gets the other person into heaven. Continue reading