In the comments on my post yesterday (which discussed, among other things, the importance of humility), a sister noted that her grandson had been wandering around the house yesterday singing “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord.” In response, somebody else observed that it showed how hymns are an important vehicle for teaching Scriptural truth.
I will never decline an invitation to board that particular bandwagon! However, I believe that it’s true not only of sung-Scripture hymns like “Humble Yourselves” (if I were a composer, I would probably do nothing but set verses to music), but also of many of the greatest hymns of all time. If we have memorized the lyrics to those hymns, we also have memorized a sizable number of Scriptures, often without realizing it.
Take, for instance, a hymn we sang Sunday at Jackson Heights: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (thanks, Mike!). It’s undeniably a beautiful, moving hymn, but it’s also chock-full of Scriptural references and even Scriptural quotations. To illustrate this, let’s look at its first verse and chorus only (I think the content is equally rich in the second two verses, but the analysis is more complex). Here’s how those lyrics compare to quotations from the King James Version, which T. O. Chisholm would have used in writing them:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father;
“Great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:23)
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
“. . . with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:18)
Thou changest not; Thy compassions, they fail not;
“For I am the Lord; I change not;” (Malachi 3:6)
“His compassions fail not.” (Lamentations 3:22)
(Interestingly, note that the other half of both Malachi 3:6 and Lamentations 3:22 say the same thing: because of God’s unchanging nature, His people are not consumed.)
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
“Thou, O Lord, remainest for ever.” (Lamentations 5:19)
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
“[His compassions] are new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
“My God shall supply all your need.” (Philippians 4:19)
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
In addition to telling us a lot about the unchanging nature of God, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” tells us a lot about its author. Chisholm. Knew. His. Bible. He knew it forward, backward, and side to side.
What’s more, he hadn’t merely studied it. He had internalized it. As many hymnists will acknowledge to their chagrin (myself included), there is a distinctive sound to a hymn written by concordance search. It may be technically correct; it may make sense. However, it will inevitably lack emotion, passion, and spirit. Nobody will want to sing it because they don’t identify with it.
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” gives the opposite impression. Chisholm’s expression in it is so warm and natural that many people who sing the hymn don’t realize that he’s quoting Scripture like a Bible encyclopedia. To the extent that they think of it at all, they probably think he made all of those sentiments up himself (sort of like Abraham Lincoln and “A house divided against itself cannot stand).
As far as I know, the only way to quote Scripture naturally in a hymn is to make it part of your nature. Chisholm wrote that way because he had spent so much time studying and meditating on the word that when he set pen to paper, he couldn’t help but inject the word into what he was writing. He was a master hymnist because he first had mastered the Bible.
From time to time, I’ll make the argument that we should evaluate hymns in the same way we evaluate a sermon or a Bible class. No matter how pretty the packaging, the most important thing about any of the above is the Scriptural content they offer. A beautiful hymn that is not also profoundly true has failed in its primary mission.
This standard, though, demands even more from hymnists than it does preachers and teachers. The latter two don’t have to have completed the process of hiding the word in their hearts to be effective. We like it when a preacher pauses and opens his Bible. He doesn’t have to quote his text from memory. The hymnist, though, must be able to speak effortlessly in the words of God.
Sadly, though, this intimate familiarity with the Scriptures is often least evident where it is most important. While some contemporary writers clearly know their Bible (Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty, and Jamie Owens-Collins among them), many show a much greater familiarity with the canons of pop culture than with the oracles of God.
The results are emotionally resonant but spiritually immature. They may serve as an apt vehicle for the (worldly? Scripturally uninformed?) expression of the congregation, but they cannot instruct or elevate. Only the word of God as expressed by a hymnist devoted to the word can do that.
As always, my cry is, “More Bible!” We need to demand more of it in our hymns, which means that we need to demand more of it in our hymnists. We are going to remember what we sing. What are we remembering? Are we committing to memory the trite reflections of a praise-band frontman, or are we filling our storehouses with the timeless truths of the Holy Spirit?
Those two effects are not equivalent in value. Neither are the songs that produce them.