by Serena Sickler
The singing and writing of hymns is a precious part of the legacy that has been left by centuries of Christ-followers. While the church of today often enjoys singing more current styles of music, it is vital that we not neglect the rich heritage of hymns we possess.
Psalms 145:4 tells us, “One generation shall praise thy works to another, and shall declare thy mighty acts.” We can be a part of this generational praise by listening to the praise of past generations, learning from it, and joining in the praise with hearts overflowing with thankfulness.
While hymns are part of church tradition, they find their roots in the Bible. Several passages instruct Christians to sing praise to God, such as Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19, while others give Christ’s example of singing hymns in the time before his greatest trial on earth, such as Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26. Hymnody began in Biblical times and continued into early church history.
The Test of Time
The hymn has probably been the most used genre of worship music throughout Christian history. This is not to say that the hymn has not developed over time; in technical matters, it has. What some believe to be the oldest recorded Christian hymn (containing both words and music notation) was written in Greek; the English translation still clearly shows the intent of the hymn:
“Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars not shine,
Let the winds and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn [praise] the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add “Amen Amen”
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of good things, Amen Amen.”
A hymn written a more recently shows how the form of the hymn changed over time. It clearly illustrates Merriam-Webster’s definition of a hymn: “a song of praise to God…a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service.”
“O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!” (Charles Wesley, 1739)
Throughout church history, good hymns have taught biblical doctrine, united the church, and encouraged, strengthened, and comforted saints. As we are in the 500th year of the anniversary of the Reformation, it is worth considering the emphasis that the reformers placed on hymn-singing. Luther was himself a hymn-writer, passing on to us the much-loved hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Church leaders of every century have used hymns to obey the Bible’s command to sing praise. Many compilations of hymn stories have been written; for example, 101 Hymn Stories
by Kenneth Osbeck and Then Sings My Soul
by Robert Morgan.
We should not be surprised by the impact of hymns. Psalm 22:3 gives some insight into the relationship of God and praise: “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” The singing of hymns is a method of praise which brings the presence of God into our midst. It should be no surprise that hymn-singing has enriched so many lives; it is not the hymns of themselves, but God’s presence and power in our singing that brings help.
Hymns have multigenerational impact. The singing of the Moravians greatly influenced John Wesley. He first heard their songs while onboard a ship sailing to America. Although Wesley was planning to work as a missionary in America, he knew that he himself was not right with God. It was partly through witnessing the Moravians’ example and hearing their hymns that Wesley realized the void in his own heart. Today, we are still feeling the reverberations of the impact of hymnody.
Many of the hymns of the church were written to combat heresy. One reason hymns may teach doctrine better than the average worship song is that they are generally more ‘wordy.’ Hymns usually include more content and therefore are more effective in teaching complete Biblical truths. Also, good hymns are effective because their tunes are easily sung and remembered by the singer. The words and the music combined remind the singer again and again of the truth of God’s word. “Holy, Holy, Holy” is an excellent example of a hymn that teaches doctrine (the doctrine of the trinity):
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee.
Holy, Holy, Holy! Merciful and mighty!
God in three persons, blessed Trinity! (Reginald Heber)
As well as teaching Christian beliefs, hymn-singing can promote unity and harmony (both musical and relational). Much of the music written for Christian worship today tends toward a solo, pop style, leaving little room for musical harmony. Though solo singing has its place, congregational singing should be just that—everyone joining together to praise God. Hymn tunes are arranged in parts so congregations can sing together in harmony. Symbolically, hymns show us the importance of unity in the body of Christ. We sing not as soloists trying to out-do one another, but as different parts, working together to achieve the same goal.
Praising God to the Next Generation
If we have listened to and learned from the praise of past generations, what should our response be? The Bible tells us to sing praise to the next generation. We can do that in two ways: by literally singing and also by writing our own songs or hymns of praise.
We should not only sing praise to but also with the next generation. Don’t hesitate to sing hymns with your family in church, at home, or wherever you are. Your children will imitate what you do. If you live your life singing praise to God, they will have your example to follow.
As well as singing hymns, we should also be writing them. It is easy to complain about the lack of good Christian music today, but not as easy to write it! Those with poetic or musical ability have the opportunity to write hymns that glorify God. Paul writes in I Corinthians 14:26, “What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” Writing hymns can build others up and encourage them in their walk with God.
Your songs may never become known world-wide, but they may be able to impact your family and perhaps even your local church. Charles Wesley wrote as many as 6,500 hymns. Do we sing every hymn he wrote? Of course not! But out of those thousands of beautifully written hymns, several songs have resonated with generation after generation of Christians.
Whether we are singing or writing, we can never give God too much praise. We should join the Psalmist in saying, “I will sing of the mercies of the Lord forever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 89:1)