Most of us have been in churches that use hymns in worship for the majority of our lives. Like anything familiar, routine use can dull the appreciation of a thing’s true benefit, so let’s examine a little why they are so valuable.
Certainly, the first and most obvious function of hymnody is a musical expression of praising God. Music and its making is an essentially human endeavor, with its possible first mention in Genesis when Adam met his wife (2:23-24). The second is the creation of musical instruments attributed to the sons of Cain (4:21)
The church’s use of music utilizes this human expression to the praise of God, and in doing so, redeems if from a sinful humanity making it an offering. Hymns provide an easy structure for learning about God and His works. All Christian hymnody follows the pattern of the Psalms, which we will briefly touch on later. We will look at six functions of a hymn. I have alliterated the points should you choose to remember them.
Praise: the extolling of God’s excellencies and perfections (hymn #11) in whole, and in particular as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (see #1 and #100)
Encouragement: corporate singing unites individuals into a community; communities share life together with all of its’ blessings and vagaries. Hymns like the Psalms, contain the general experiences of life in a God-ward focus and help to orient the mind and heart to His purposes and priorities.
Affirmation: we as Christ’s sheep are a forgetful and doubting people. The world, the flesh, and the devil would direct our attention to earthly cares and have us trust in ungodly ways of considering that which is our daily experiences. How helpful is a melodious and memorable stating of God’s promises! We can take courage together to face the times looking to the Lord’s fulfillment of His promises.
Remembrance: this is the mirroring of the previous point. It is hard to trust in a future that we don’t have the power to directly affect. The active recalling and retelling of God’s previous works are frequent in the Psalms and not only stirs the heart to trust the Lord but helps to clear away shadows of depression or despair. Remembering God’s faithful track record of provision for his people is the basis for trust in his future actions.
Lament: this is perhaps the most misunderstood and under-utilized form within hymnody. As the singing of laments allows for personal expression of sorrows, it allows a corporate joining in those sorrows, even by those who may not be able personally to identify with the bereaved. How many of us carry hurts that we never express? At least in the United States this type of expression makes us uncomfortable. We don’t wish to express our hurts publicly. The thoughtful and wise use of this form can help by giving an outlet for both the sorrowful and those who are with them.
Supplication: All Christians understand what it is to make requests of God. In the hymnal, these are generally the “big picture” types of requests, such as his return or the growth of His kingdom. There are though, in such hymns as #559 or #725 The Lord’s Prayer, very personal ideas which are always appropriate for expression or meditation.
A quick word about the psalms.
To learn and sing the psalms is a blessing; I hope to see them added to our service someday. The hymnal is a logical extension of the Psalter and speaks much more explicitly of Christ and his work. Look at the index of scripture texts in the hymnal and you will see that the largest number are from the psalms. We still have their influence in a large way.
As for spiritual songs, I think that they are best represented in the music that is being currently written and sung today. While there can be good in an expression of where the wider church’s areas of current concern are in worship, only time will be the judge of what lasts. I hear some of you saying, “Not many will last.” That is true. All of the songs we sing were new once, and most of history is lost to us. I have heard it said that the old hymns represent what God was doing in the past. The new songs represent what God is doing now.
I reject this argument on the grounds
- That humanity and its’ needs are the same now as in times past, and
- God’s work has always been the same, the salvation of His people, the retribution for sin, and the restoration of fellowship with a righteous humanity.
The previous points are clearly not exhaustive of all of the functions of this one aspect of worship. Hymns provide an easily memorable structure for the aforementioned expressions, which have been collected and handed down through the ages of the church’s history. They are much more than nice melodies, they are the gathered wisdom and poetry of our heritage and deserve preservation, consideration, repetition, and remembrance.