Let us Love and Sing and Wonder
Of all genres of music, the Christian hymn is the one to which I find myself most consistently returning, the one that speaks most deeply to my heart and mind. Exploring hymns from across the two millennia of Christian history is one of my favorite hobbies: in them is profound poetry, creativity and sincerity. They teach us much about the Christians who came before us, about ourselves and about God.
A hymn is a song of praise or prayer to God, usually intended to be sung in congregation. What distinguishes a hymn from other Christian songs? It is hard to say exactly: it is like trying to decide at what size a country is too big to be properly described as an island. But songs that are generally considered hymns have a few typical features. One feature is that they tend to have first been written as poetry by one person and later set to music by someone else; one individual writing the lyrics and composing the music at the same time is a much more recent practice. That hymns are fundamentally poems can be seen in their structures and use of various poetic devices: hymns written in English tend to have regular metrical patterns (that is, the number of syllables per line) and tend to rhyme. They often have multiple tunes associated with them, though one typically stands out as the most common. And, though some hymns have choruses, in general they do not.
How did hymns come about and how have they changed through history? Why were they significant and how are they relevant today? These are questions I will seek to answer in this article.
Have mercy on me, O God
The great significance Christians have always placed on singing in their worship of God is one of the most striking features of Christianity. We find the origins of this practice in ancient Israel over a thousand years before Christ: the Old Testament is full of references to the Israelites singing in their regular worship and on various special occasions. Moreover, many Old Testament passages were set to music and sung in worship; written by key Israelite figures in response to important moments in history or in their own personal lives, these were sometimes songs, sometimes prayers and sometimes prophecies.
Though the Israelites used various parts of the scriptures, their singing was very much centered on the Book of Psalms, sometimes called the Psalter. A psalm is a type of Hebrew hymn, of which there are 150 in the Psalter. Like later hymns, the psalms were poems that were intended to be sung, though unlike later hymns (especially those in English), the psalms do not rhyme and tend not to have regular meters. Instead, they contain other poetic structures, such as acrostics: Psalm 119, the longest psalm, comprises 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet; all eight lines of each stanza begin in Hebrew with the same letter, corresponding to the position of the given stanza. Such Hebrew poetic structures are often lost in translation.
A distinguishing feature of the poetry of the psalms is its use of parallelism: either synonymous parallelism, which emphasizes a point by repeating it in different words:
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous
or antithetical parallelism, which emphasizes a point by contrasting opposing thoughts:
For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
The psalms together cover a great many themes and human emotions: soaring praise and deep despair; swelling joy and crushing sorrow; prayers of confession, of thanksgiving, of supplication. Some of the reasons for the enduring popularity of the psalms — which are still regularly read and sung today — are their variety, beauty and remarkable effectiveness in enabling a great diversity of people to express their deepest thoughts and longings, as well as to enrich their communications with God.
Psalm 51 is particularly moving. It is traditionally called the Miserere (meaning “have mercy”) after the first word of its translation into Latin. Like many of the psalms, it is prefaced with a note: “For the director of music. A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.” We read here first that the psalm was to be given to the director of music, who would compose the tunes (likely for a harp or other stringed instrument) to which it was sung, and we learn that it was written by David, the second King of Israel. The psalm reads:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Surely you desire truth in the inner parts;
you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
Let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
David, as God himself testified, was “a man after My own heart”. He was a good leader, humble and obedient to God. But he, like all of us, had many faults. In the particular scenario about which Psalm 51 was written, David was walking around on the roof of his palace one evening. From the roof he saw a beautiful woman named Bathsheba bathing; he sent messengers to bring her to him and he slept with her. David then deliberately had her husband Uriah sent to fight in the front line of a battle. There Uriah was killed by the enemy; David married Bathsheba and had the child who was the result of the adultery with her.
How, given all that he did, could David possibly have been a man after God’s own heart? A large part of the answer is in how David responded when God sent a prophet to rebuke him for his actions. David accepted the admonition and immediately repented of his sin. This was a demonstration of perhaps his greatest strength, that he was quick to humbly acknowledge where he had done wrong and to earnestly ask God for forgiveness — a good example to us all. Psalm 51 is David’s prayer to God doing exactly this, and the words are as fitting for us as they were for David when he first prayed them.
Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation
The practice of singing primarily psalms in worship continued into the New Testament period. Jesus and his disciples concluded the Last Supper by singing a hymn; it is likely that this was the concluding portion of the “Hallel”, comprising Psalms 113—118, which was traditionally sung during Passover. While Christians continued to use the Psalter and other Old Testament scriptures after Christ, they very early began to compose new hymns that more explicitly referred to Christ and the gospel, and to use hymns taken from the New Testament. Indeed, many passages in the New Testament were probably early hymns already commonly sung before they were incorporated in the scriptures. We see some indication of this increasing diversity of song twice in Paul’s letters, when he exhorts Christians to sing “psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” with one another. Interestingly, though the New Testament neither requires nor forbids the use of musical instruments in worship, it seems that most early Christian singing was unaccompanied.
Some of the passages from the New Testament that were most commonly used as hymns are found in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Like the rest of the New Testament, these passages were originally written in Greek, but they are frequently referred to by names derived from their translations into Latin: Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus, the angels’ Gloria in excelsis Deo and Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis. The passages are joyous responses to the birth of Jesus and surrounding events.
My favorite of the four is the Nunc Dimittis (meaning “now you dismiss”). In Luke we read that Joseph and Mary took the forty-day-old Jesus to the temple to present Him to God and to offer a sacrifice in accordance with the requirements of the Law of Moses. There they met a man named Simeon. We are told that he was “righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” When Simeon saw the baby Jesus, he took Him in his arms and praised God. The words he uttered are the Nunc Dimittis, here as translated by the King James Version, whose phrasing I have always found enchanting:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
We can imagine how Simeon felt as he said these words. In his arms was the Son of God — God in the flesh come to earth. Here was the Messiah, the Savior of the Israelites who the prophets had foretold — the salvation and consolation of Israel that Simeon had waited all his life to see. But even more than this, here was the Savior of all people, the Light of the world, through whom anyone who believed would be saved from their sins. In the wonder and joy of that moment, Simeon could die in peace. May we similarly be filled with such wonder and joy when we think and sing of who Christ is.
Love so amazing, so divine
Christian worship over the next several centuries was similar to that of the earliest Christians. Hymns were sung mainly as chants, a type of singing unaccompanied by instruments. These chants were characterized by the use of a small number of tunes to sing a variety of texts, and consisted of a call and response that alternated between a soloist or choir singing the verses and the congregation singing a refrain. For the first three centuries, hymns were mainly in Greek, then also in Latin from the fourth century after Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire.
Among the various gradual changes in the way hymns were made and used, three major shifts stand out. The first major shift was the reemergence of the use of musical instruments, when organs started to be used to accompany the singing of hymns in the 10th century. The second major shift was the emergence and increasing popularity from the beginning of the 16th century of vernacular hymns, that is, hymns written primarily in the conversational language of the people rather than official liturgical languages like Greek or Latin. This allowed the congregation to play a greater role in worship than they had done for centuries. The first vernacular collection of hymns in a hymnal was published in Prague in 1501, consisting of 89 hymns written in Czech. The third major shift was the Protestant Reformation. In addition to their use in praise and prayer to God, hymns also took on a more significant role as tools for evangelism and as ways of teaching theological lessons.
The 18th century saw a proliferation of hymns, and many of the most popular hymns today were written during this period. Some of the heavyweight hymn writers include Charles Wesley (who wrote over 6,000 hymns, including “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” and “And Can It Be”), John Newton (who wrote, among many others, “Amazing Grace”) and Isaac Watts (who wrote over 700 hymns, including “Joy to the World” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”).
Isaac Watts also wrote one of my favorite hymns, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. He wrote the hymn in 1707 and it is most commonly sung to the tune “Rockingham”, composed by Edward Miller in 1790. It stands out to me as one of the most poignant and poetic meditations on Christ’s death and the essence of the gospel:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Notice first two features of the hymn’s structure: each line has eight syllables and each stanza contains alternate rhyming lines in an ABAB pattern. As we sing the hymn we are reminded that knowing Christ is of such great value that whatever else we could gain is as nothing compared with it. In light of this, there is no room for pride or boasting — we rather rejoice in what Christ has done for us. And what has He done? He died a wretched death, the death that we deserved for our sins so that we could live and know Him forever. We picture His pierced, mangled body covered with His blood like a robe and we marvel at what great sorrow He endured for us and what great love He has for us. We realize that because He gave up everything for us, we should give up everything for Him. We die to the world and live for Him — we commit all that we have, all that we do and all that we are to Him. And as He rose again, we look forward to when we shall rise and be like Him and be with Him forever.
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” excellently reflects what I find so helpful and delightful about singing hymns in general. They do not really teach us anything new, but rather remind us of truths already familiar to us, putting them in new ways. They are no substitute for the scriptures, but point us back to them, prompting us to more earnestly study them and dwell on them. They do not replace prayer, but can help us pray by saying in just the right words things we could not quite fully express ourselves.
Much more could be said about hymns — much more than can be said in a single article. But the substance of what we have said is this: behind us is a rich history of Christian hymns, from those in the pages of the Bible to the vast multitude that have been written over the course of two millennia. Let us be thankful that we have such resources and find joy in exploring them. Let us not sing them for their own sakes: rather, may they inspire us to more sincerely and creatively praise and pray to God, not only when we sing, but in everything we do. As we sing them with others, let us seek to love and serve others more deeply. As their words and tunes permeate our hearts and minds, let us more fully appreciate the beauty and truth of the gospel and the Lord who saved us. In the words of a fine hymn by John Newton, “let us love and sing and wonder.”
1 Some English translations of the psalms preserve acrostic structures. For example, in his English translation of the Bible, Ronald Knox chose the words in such a way that Psalm 119 (numbered 118 in that translation, in line with Greek and Latin tradition) has all the lines of a given stanza beginning with the same English letter (for the first 22 letters, skipping Q).
2 Psalm 1:5
3 Psalm 1:6
4 I give here the NIV translation, omitting the last third or so of the psalm. As you read, notice the use of parallelism in almost every pair of lines.
5 Acts 13:22
6 2 Samuel 11
7 Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26
8 See the commentary on Mark 14:16 and Mark 14:26 in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.
9 Some examples are the poetic description of Christ’s humility in Philippians 2:6–11, the passage on Christ’s supremacy over heaven and earth in Colossians 1:15–20 and the description of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3–8.
10 Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16
11 James William McKinnon, The Church Fathers and Musical Instruments (1965). Columbia University Dissertations.
12 Luke 1:46–55
13 Luke 1:67–79
14 Luke 2:13–1
15 Luke 2:28–32
16 Luke 2:22–27
17 Philippians 3:8
18 Galatians 6:14
Richard is a senior studying Mechanical Engineering and Nuclear Science & Engineering. He is from the UK and enjoys discussing philosophy and the intricacies of British politics.Tags: beauty, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton, joy, literature, love, mercy, music, poetry, sin