Last week I suggested a practical self-help step a person can take to deal with sadness, depression, grief, or the routine frustrations of life: Sing! I said that I’m convinced everyone’s life would be better if we all sang more. But I also pointed out that it does make a difference what you sing.
Music unquestionably has an effect on our mood. That effect can be positive or negative. Words can do the same (remember, “sticks and stones”?). Combine words and music and the result is powerful. Martin Luther understood this, so he composed (music) and wrote (texts) hymns designed to teach the Christian faith.
It’s been said of Luther’s hymns that they “were meant not to create a certain mood, but to convey a message. They were a confession of faith, not personal feelings” (Luther’s Works: American Edition, Vol. 53, Liturgy and Hymns, p. 197). As such, the Word of God is the source of Luther’s hymns.
Since God has commanded that His Word be preached and taught, Lutheran hymns have always sought to convey the doctrine (teaching) of the Bible for it is the Word of God which both creates and sustains faith. Hymns therefore teach, as well as comfort, encourage, and nourish our faith.
Luther’s hymns on the “Six Chief Parts of the Catechism” are an enduring example of how music in service of a text from God’s Word can convey the teachings of Scripture in a manner that is easier to “learn by heart” as the music “fixes” the Word in a person’s memory. But this idea of using songs to convey and help memorize the Word of God was not original with Martin Luther.
“I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
12 Blessed are you, O Lord;
teach me your statutes!”
—Psalm 119:11-12 (ESV)
These words from the Psalter, the divinely-inspired “hymn book of the Bible,” express the very idea that moved Luther to write catechetical hymns. Using the arts of poetry and music in service to the Word of God, the psalms also are wonderful examples of setting the divine Word in a form that human minds can comprehend and remember. And since it is the Word of God, it is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and does not stick in the mind without touching the heart.
When considering what hymns or songs are best for accomplishing the purpose of conveying the truth of God’s Word to create and sustain faith, it only makes sense to look at the Biblical songs (psalms) and canticles to learn from their content.
[The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters. The chart below shows each character, its "name," and the corresponding letters we are familiar with in English.]
Psalm 119 is a good place to start. This is longest of the 150 psalms included in the Bible (176 verses). This psalm is an acrostic poem of twenty-two stanzas, following the letters of the Hebrew alphabet; within a stanza, each verse begins with the same Hebrew letter.
The entire psalm is a meditation on the Word of the Lord, the Torah. Various synonyms are used throughout the psalm, each expressing a different aspect of God’s revealed word and will; for example, law, testimonies, precepts, statutes, commandments, rules—and those are only the ones used in the first stanza (vv. 1-8)!
So one principle to use in judging hymns and songs is how accurately and completely the text (or lyric) communicates the word and will of the Lord.
Other psalms very clearly relate the mighty acts of God on behalf of His people, recounting, for example, the Exodus, the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites, and the conquest of the “Promised Land” of Canaan.
Psalm 78 (the second-longest psalm) is a great example of this. And the point of this psalm is explicitly to teach God’s people what the Lord has done for them:
Give ear, O my people, to my
incline your ears to the words
of my mouth!
2 I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of
3 things that we have heard and
that our fathers have told us.
4 We will not hide them from
but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord,
and his might,
and the wonders that he has
(Ps 78:1-4 ESV)
So a second principle for evaluating a hymn or song is to ask if it tells what God has done or is doing. It’s clear that the human writers of the psalms, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wanted to make sure that God’s people learned and remembered what the Lord has done for them. What makes the eternal difference for us sinners, after all, is what God has done for us, especially in the life and ministry, the suffering and death, the resurrection and ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the single most important thing for us to learn and to teach our children, to “tell to the coming generation”(Ps 78:4).
The psalms continued to be sung by God’s faithful people into New Testament times, both in their public worship and in their private lives. There is little doubt that Jesus and His disciples sang the appointed psalms as they celebrated His last Passover supper, although the Greek word hymneō is used:
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”(Matthew 26:30 ESV; also Mark 14:26).
It’s also likely that St. Paul, himself a well-educated Pharisee prior to his conversion to the Christian faith (see Philippians 3:3-6 and Acts 22:3), also sang from the Psalter, for example during his imprisonment in Philippi:
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns [hymneō] to God, and the prisoners were listening to them…” (Acts 16:25 ESV).
The churches founded by St. Paul during his missionary journeys followed his example of using the hymns of the Scriptures in their worship, clearly with the intention that what they sang together was a mode of Biblical instruction:
“When you come together, each one has a hymn [Greek: psalmos], a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up” (1 Corinthians 14:26 ESV).
This is not to say that only psalms are to be sung, although some have thought so (John Calvin, for example). Already in the time of the Apostles faithful followers of Jesus were adding to the Church’s song, as the following passages demonstrate:
“…be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [psalmos and hymnos and ōdē pneumatikos], singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Ephesians 5:18-21 ESV).
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs [psalmos, hymnos, and pneumatikos ōdē], with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16 ESV).
The precise distinction between these three terms is not clear, but the New Testament record does indicate that believers were singing more than just what was found in the Scriptures. On the other hand, since the principles mentioned above are drawn from those Scriptures (what we now called the Old Testament), it seems God’s people followed His advice and example in the composing of the Church’s song.
Most importantly, God’s people today “sing the new song” whose opening chord was joyously sounded when Christ Jesus rose victorious from the grave!
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
10 and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:9-14 ESV).
The great Christian hymns continue in this pattern of the Scriptures and the early Church. They quote or paraphrase the Word of God, recounting God’s mighty deeds for His people’s benefit, helping us to learn and remember what God has done for us and promised to us. In all of this, God’s people praise Him by “proclaim[ing] the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9 ESV).
That’s a key principle in judging what hymns or songs are appropriate, especially for use in public worship: Do they praise God by proclaiming His work? Or do they focus more on us and our actions? Another way of saying this is, “Who does the action of the verbs?” When it is God whose work is recounted and proclaimed, then it is true praise.
Declaring our actions (“I just want to praise You, Lord…”; “Lord, we lift Your name on high…”; “Here’s my heart, Lord…”) falls short of the Biblical example of emphasizing what God does. Yes, faith does respond to God’s words and actions with heartfelt praise, but it is always a response born of what the Lord has done/is doing and has promised for the sake of Christ.
I imagine some of you are wondering how this lesson about the Church’s song helps combat depression or relieve anxiety. Here’s the answer: A hymn that proclaims to your troubled spirit the gracious promises of God in Christ Jesus does much more than “lighten your mood.” A person who is suffering is not like to find relief by simply “whistling a happy tune” or singing “Don’t worry, be happy!” But a person who sings hymns like the ones quoted below—because these convey the Word of God—is ministered to by the Holy Spirit, who always works through God’s Word.
Since Christ has full atonement made
And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad
And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead,
Your death is now my life indeed,
For You have paid my ransom.
—Martin Luther, “Salvation unto Us Has Come,” stanza 6
If Your beloved Son, O God,
Had not to earth descended
And in our mortal flesh and blood
Had not sin’s power ended,
Then this poor, wretched soul of mine
In hell eternally would pine
Because of my transgression.
But now I find sweet peace and rest;
Despair no more reigns o’er me.
No more am I by sin oppressed,
For Christ has borne sin for me.
Upon the cross for me He died
That, reconciled, I might abide
With You, my God, forever.
—Johann Heermann, “If Your Beloved Son, O God,” stanzas 1 & 2
Increase my faith, dear Savior,
For Satan seeks by night and day
To rob me of this treasure
And taken my hope of bliss away.
But, Lord, with You beside me,
I shall be undismayed;
And led by Your good Spirit,
I shall be unafraid.
Abide with me, O Savior,
A firmer faith bestow;
Then I shall bid defiance
To ev’ry evil foe.
—Erdmann Neumeister, “I Know My Faith Is Founded,” stanza 2
Rejoice, my heart, be glad and sing,
A cheerful trust maintain;
For God, the source of ev’rything,
Your portion shall remain.
He is your treasure, He your joy,
Your life and light and Lord,
Your counselor when doubts annoy,
Your shield and great reward.
Why spend the day in blank despair,
In restless thought the night?
On your Creator cast your acre;
He makes your burdens light.
Did not His love and truth and pow’r
Guard ev’ry childhood day?
And did He not in threat’ning hour
Turn dreaded ills away?
—Paul Gerhadt, “Rejoice, My Heart, Be Glad and Sing,” stanzas 1-4
Through Jesus’ blood and merit
I am at peace with God.
What, then, can daunt my spirit,
However dark my road?
My courage shall not fail me,
For God is on my side;
Though hell itself assail me,
Its rage I may deride.
—Simon Dach, “Through Jesus’ Blood and Merit,” stanza 1
Be still, my soul; the Lord is on your side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to your God to order and provide;
In ev’ry change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; your best, your heav’nly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul; your God will undertake
To guide your future as He has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
—Catharina Amalia Dorthea von Schlegel,
“Be Still, My Soul,” stanzas 1 & 2
Blessed, oh, blessed are they forever
Whose help is from the Lord Most High,
Whom from salvation can nothing sever,
And who in hope to Christ draw nigh.
To all who trust in Him, our Lord
Will aid and counsel now afford.
Penitent sinners, for mercy crying,
Pardon and peace from Him obtain;
Ever the wants of the poor supplying,
Their faithful God He will remain.
He helps His children in distress,
The widows and the fatherless.
—Johann Daniel Herrnschmidt, “Praise the Almighty,” stanzas 3 & 4
Let me end with a couple of lines from a contemporary hymn writer, the Rt. Rev. Timothy Dudley-Smith, OBE, a retired bishop of the Church of England, which give voice to a fitting prayer for those who sing the Church’s song:
So in Scripture, song, and story,
Savior, may Your voice be heard.
Till our eyes behold Your glory
Give us ears to hear Your Word.
—from “Faith and Truth and Life Bestowing,” stanza 2.