Psalms, Hymns, and Songs from the Spirit

May 2nd, 2017 | | No Comments
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As I mentioned in my last post, I’d like to offer a series of short reflections on worship, spurred in part by two interesting posts by Tim Challies (1 2). I don’t intend this to be a polemical series, but do want to offer some thoughts on the ongoing “worship wars.” Thankfully these have stilled for the most part, but I’m not always sure why the ceasefire. In many cases, I don’t think it has come from a sustained theological reflection, but rather simple exhaustion and a (wholly appropriate) desire for unity. But theological reflection is a good thing, so that’s some of what I’m aiming for today, as I zero in on one of the benefits Challies sees in switching from a hymnal to projected lyrics: variety.

 

Now, I love hymns, and believe strongly that we should be singing them regularly. I even argued in my last post that these are the songs I am absolutely sure I want my children to learn by heart, whereas my current favorite Crowder tune will only make it into the car CD player for a few weeks or so. However, there is a danger with our beloved hymns, that we will mistake style for value. What makes the great hymns great is their robust theology, deep pathos, and (in most cases, but not all) enchanting melody. Those are essential qualities. But if we’re not careful, we might begin to assume that some incidental qualities—instrumentation, presence of rhyme, song structure—belong in the essential category as well. We can see this tendency in our phrase “modern hymnody,” which seems to be applied to songs that employ rhyming and follow a set structure (no bridge being the key piece here, as far as I can tell). I’m not sure why this sets apart a song as a hymn, when other songs (that don’t rhyme, have bridges, etc.) have equally robust theology, deep pathos, and enchanting melody.

 

And here’s where variety comes in. When we make the incidental essential, we limit the acceptable variety among our songs. Only those that bear the incidental marks pass through the gates. Paul encourages us to speak to one another in “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). Much scholarly ink has been spilled over the precise meaning of each term (though “psalms” seems pretty obvious). Whatever the difference between “hymns” (which in Greek simply means “song of praise”) and “songs” (assuming, as many scholars do, that “from the Spirit” modifies all three terms), what is clear is the presence of variety. There is something different about the three, whatever it may be. When we begin to limit variety, especially for incidental reasons, we neglect Paul’s instruction here. Our God is a God of endless creativity—as his wondrous creation proves—and we honor him when we put that same creative spirit on display in our worship.

 

Of course, it is just possible that “variety” should encompass songs of varied theological depth. (Gasp! Heresy!) Give me just one moment before you hurl the stones. I’m taking my cue here from the presence of that tiny word “psalms” in Ephesians 5:19. I know of no one who would seriously argue that we shouldn’t use Psalms in our worship, and many would argue (rightly, I think) that we should use Psalms as our blueprint for worship. If you’ve read Psalms, you know how wondrously diverse they are. Some are richly theological, and others are, well, a bit sentimental. Some trace redemptive history carefully (foreshadowing the cross time and again), and others focus on a single moment or issue. Is it possible that our worship today should do likewise? Isn’t there time for repetition (as in Psalm 136)—so that we can really meditate on a single profound idea, like God’s steadfast love—just as surely as there is time for rapid theological reflection (as in Psalm 107)? Isn’t there time for raw emotion (as in Psalm 126), just as surely as there is time for heady instruction (as in Psalm 78)? And, of course, the Psalms invite us not just to praise and thank, but also to confess and lament, which in itself will add much-needed variety to our Sunday mornings.

 

As we “sing and make music from [our] heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:20), let’s do so with a body of songs as richly diverse as the human experience and as wondrously creative as the Being they exalt, to the glory of our triune God, who is worthy of all praise. Soli Deo gloria.



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