The Music Exchange
Skating while we sing?
‘Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5.19, NIV).
I often ask friends for issues to tackle in this column, and every now and then a few people give me the same idea independently. This month I’d like to thank three good friends — John Pearce, Jon Ward and Andrew Joyce for prompting my brain to splutter into at least a bit of life on a grey Monday morning in November. A concern of theirs and of mine is about the nature of the words we sing to God and each other as Christians.
The concern isn’t as much about the theological content — in general, lovers of the Word are very discerning about the theology of the songs we sing. We are committed to seeing and hearing the Word of God sung so that the Word of God sinks itself into our hearts, but often it’s our commitment to this end that prevents us from achieving it.
I’ll try and explain before I’m sacked from this column. There are, I think, two areas of concern. The first is regarding the weight of content, the second response.
First, the content of our songs. It’s absolutely right that we sing truths about God. If we didn’t do that there’d be no truth to dwell in us. However, the way our songs and hymns are written can often cram our heads with so much truth that there is no space to feed on that truth and subsequently no space to respond.
Part of the problem is cultural — in the West we have always sung hymns in a certain style. For hundreds of years our hymns have been set out metrically with four, six, eight or sometimes over 20 verses, and we have great masters of the hymn-writing tradition — Wesley, Watts, Newton, etc. However, our great tradition doesn’t necessarily mean that we get to define what Paul’s hymns of Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 should look like. None of the Bible songs are laid out in the shape of Western hymns.
I’m not saying that we should throw our hymn books in the bin — these writers were masters of using their hymn style to help us meditate deeply and richly on Jesus and the gospel. However, in other cultures there are very different ways of expressing Christian truth in song — often using one simple theological idea and repeating it over and over again, so that God’s Word really gets under the skin of the singer. A great example of this type of song is Psalm 136.
Whenever this Psalm is read in a Western church, there are invariably nervous giggles as the reader says, ‘His love endures for ever’ for the ninth time. The beauty of this psalm, however, is that the writer uses that one phrase 26 times to help the singer meditate on the depth of what it means that God’s love endures for ever. (This is the psalm I always point people to if they moan when we repeat a chorus just twice.)
However, even some of our best-loved hymns move so quickly through so much weighty content that either we fail to understand what the song is saying or we become glib with our praises.
Instead, our songs should give us a great opportunity for the full richness of what we believe to affect every part of our being so that we ‘make music in our heart to the Lord’.
We shouldn’t be embarrassed to sing a congregational song that teaches just one particular aspect of God’s character if that song uses language that helps us to meditate deeply on that characteristic. At the same time we must beware of singing theologically rich songs which make us skate over deep truths, but which don’t help us to drink them in. If we are glib about singing gospel truths, then we are as guilty as those who we accuse of looking for a more supernatural experience through music — of singing with our spirits, but not with our minds (1 Corinthians 14.15).
Trust and obey
This takes us on to response. One of the key attributes of a hymn or song of praise is that it is sung not just about God, but also directed towards God in response. It is true that our songs are sung primarily so that God can teach us his Word, but we can be a little more reticent of responding by making music in our hearts to the Lord.
Yet again, the psalms provide the perfect examples of songs which speak gloriously about our Lord, yet in the same breath respond in humility, hope and praise. Here’s an encouragement to pastors, musicians and songwriters alike: keep working hard in finding and writing songs that encourage us to respond in reverent trust and obedience to God, ‘always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Ephesians 5.20, NIV).