Singing: Hymns and their Content

That we will sing in heaven is beyond question. The incorporation of songs and music in Old Testament worship is obvious. But that the singing of hymns formed a significant part of the assembly life and testimony in the New Testament is also clear to even a casual reader. Singing was present in both social and assembly gatherings.

It was endorsed by the Lord Jesus, when, having introduced to the disciples in the upper room a new spiritual order – the Church age – He sang a hymn with them before leaving.

While not an exhaustive list, the following are references to hymns sung by the early Christians: Acts 4:24, 16:25, 1Cor 14:26 (“every one of you hath a hymn”), the 5 “faithful sayings” in 1& 2 Timothy and Titus, 1 Timothy 3:16 (“great is the mystery of godliness” seems to be part of a hymn) Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16.

This hymnology was described in three terms: 1) “psalms” – this may have some reference to the O. T. compilation called Psalms, but it basically means a sacred song with an accompaniment of a stringed instrument. It may be a recounting of experiences with God and is an expression of praise; 2) “hymns” – a song of praise to God; 3) “spiritual songs” – a song, but the character of which is spiritual, and one which is raised in praise to God. The musical arrangement, the harmony, the tunes, even the accompaniment, or absence thereof, are not specified, and while the content of the most of them are not left on record, the intent of the singing certainly was.

We must be careful to note from these references that our singing should be the reflection of the thoughts and understanding of our hearts. Hymns are a means by which we express the praise and worship that abide there, in a musical form that undoubtedly draws out accompanying emotions. Appreciation of music, like that of art, color, and beauty, are gifts from God to the soul, so that singing hymns to God incorporates our whole being – body (tongue), soul (emotions), and spirit (intelligence).

In each reference, the context shows that the assembly hymns were an expression of doctrine. They contained statements about the Lord Jesus: His incarnation, His life, His sacrifice, His ascension and glory. They contained statements of gospel truth. They contained statements of aspiration, hope, and expectation. They so accurately reflected some aspect of Divine truth that they were in many cases included as part of the inspired Word. And they contained expressions of appreciation for mercies received.

What about the hymns today? Certainly, there is no sense in which they were “inspired,” although, they may have been Spirit-led. Consequently, there are many lovely spiritual hymns by which we can express to God in worship the appreciation of our hearts for His Son. They have come from the pen of writers who had a love for God and His Word and, therefore, incorporate scriptural truths and terminology in expressing their sentiments in song. Such hymns are most suitable for the gatherings of the Lord’s people and appropriate, especially when they contribute to the trend or theme of the meeting. This is most obviously seen when we gather to remember the Lord. There are hymns that can lift the hearts of the saints because, at the right time, they musically express the thoughts we are having about His Person, His sacrifice, His glory. Therefore, there should be exercise and discernment by the brother giving out a hymn. He should sense that the hymn being suggested fits the character of the gathering; he might request the singing of only certain verses when the whole may not be so appropriate. For example, #93 in the BHB is a lovely hymn but it would have been better had it been two hymns – verses 1 thru 5, and verses 6 thru 9 – for only the last 4 verses are appropriate to a meeting where the theme is the worth and work of our blessed Lord Jesus. On the other hand, let us avoid both intolerance of the mistakes some might make and the slavish pursuit of timeliness to the point that our gatherings are marked by cold formality.

The value of a hymn is only as great as the scriptural truth and terminology it employs.

While one must make allowance for rhyme and poetic balance, it is essential that the thoughts and message of each stanza be expressed in language and terms that are consistent with the revelation of the truth they are conveying, lest they diminish such truth. An example of such allowance is #189 BHB. In stanza 1, the word “spilt” is used in reference to Christ’s blood. The blood of God’s Son was “shed,” in the words of scripture, expressing plan and purpose, but the writer needed a word to rhyme with “felt,” so we sing it, but with some reserve.

Generally stated, the hymn books used in the assemblies of the Lord’s people contain hymns of sound scriptural doctrine that help all the gatherings: for prayer, for teaching, and of course, for the preaching of the gospel. However, there are very few hymns published by today’s writers which would meet those criteria. It is my observation that the features emphasized are tune and tempo, and the words sentimental, subjective, and bordering on sacrilege. They seldom give the Savior the title and terms that God has given Him. It seems that they are born from a marketing motive rather than from serious meditation upon God’s Word. That may sound out of hand, but we need to remember that only what comes from God can lead back to God. In other words, the Holy Spirit teaches us truth and terms of which He is Author, to enable us to worship in Spirit and in truth. There is need of reverence and respect in all things heavenly and spiritual, so that terms such as “contemporary,” “rock,”, etc., are hardly compatible with the age-old gospel story. I hope that younger readers will not think these remarks are begotten from a generation gap between writer and reader. Rather, they are written with a desire to see the upcoming generation strengthened to preserve Christian testimony and loyalty to God’s Word. “Anything” will not do for God.

Music is a big influence on the human mind; people seemingly can’t work or study without music; millions are spent on CD’s accordingly. However, a believer should saturate himself with only those hymns that will endear Christ to the heart, exalt Him in the life, and focus his mind on the expectation of Christ’s return.

A happy assembly is a singing assembly. A happy Christian is a singing Christian. May the Lord help us to sing and continue so to praise Him!

“When the burnt offering began, the song of the Lord began also…and the people worshiped” (2 Chron 29:27-30).