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What Shall We Sing?


By Stephen Rees


We are asking the question today "How do we assess hymns, and how do we assess hymn-books?" I hope to do three things. Firstly I want to make a general observation about singing in the New Testament. Then I want us to look at Paul's instructions in Ephesians and Colossians. Then I want us think a little about the book of psalms.

First then, a very general point. It is simply this. Singing does not seem to have played a very important part in the New Testament Church. There is very little about singing in the New Testament. What instructions do we have about singing? Well, we have the command in Ephesians that we should address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in our hearts unto the Lord; and we have the parallel verses in Colossians. We have a single verse in 1 Corinthians, describing a worship service, and saying that someone may contribute a hymn. And as far as I am aware, in terms of congregational worship, that is it. Paul writes three letters to young pastors, all about the priorities for the churches - right government, sound teaching, congregational prayer, the reading of Scripture, the care of widows and the needy - these are the things he considers vital in the life of the churches - and in those three pastoral epistles, not a word about singing.

Now you compare that, with for example, the emphasis on prayer in the New Testament letters. In every one of his letters, Paul urges the saints to pray - to pray for missionaries, to pray for leaders, to pray for authorities, to pray for the progress of the gospel, to pray for particular needs and problems. Compared with praying, or teaching, or caring for needy saints, singing just doesn't have a high profile at all. Remember: Paul in 1 Corinthians, in Romans, in Ephesians gives four lists of spiritual gifts - or gifted people. They cover all sorts of things - miraculous gifts, gifts of teaching, gifts of leadership, the gift of "helps", the gift of being able to contribute financially. And not once does he refer to musical gifts. He doesn't refer to a gift of hymn-writing, or composing, or singing, or playing an instrument, or conducting. When he's listed out all the gifts he considers vital for the life of the body of the church, not one of them is connected with music.

Again, when you read Acts, it's striking that Luke never mentions the church singing. You have Paul and Silas in jail singing a hymn - but Luke never refers to congregational singing. He tells us what were the key features of the Jerusalem church - the things they saw as vitally important - they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and to fellowship, and to the breaking of bread, and to prayers. Not a word about singing. As you read through Acts, you read about open-air meetings, prayer-meetings, breaking of bread services, a great inter-church conference, late night seminars, a commissioning service for missionaries - and singing is never mentioned.

Now don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that singing is unimportant. We do have those commands in Ephesians and Colossians. We do have the example of Christ who sang a psalm with his disciples at the Last Supper. And we do have, I think, hymns quoted in the New Testament. It's clear that the New Testament church did sing. And the book of Revelation teaches us that we'll sing in heaven! But my point is simply this - that singing clearly did not have a high profile in the New Testament churches. It was clearly not a priority for the apostles. It was relatively unimportant.

Now the reason I stress that is simply that it cuts across so much of the thinking in evangelical churches today. People want any amount of singing. And they devote a huge amount of time and energy and money to making sure that they get it. In many churches you have far more time given to singing than you ever do to teaching. When people use the word "worship" today, they usually mean the singing. "Well, we'll have a time of worship and then you can preach." And what they mean is that they'll have an hour of singing. Preaching isn't worship, praying isn't worship, only singing is worship. I hear it all the time. "Well we did think about going to such and such a church - the bible-teaching was very good, but we found the worship was a bit boring" - and what they mean is that the singing wasn't to their taste. For many Christians, of course, that is the single most important factor that decides their choice of which church to go to - is the worship - the singing - lively, contemporary? Does it make them feel good? Whether we're talking about worship or about evangelism, singing is seen as hugely important. For more than a hundred years now, it's been taken for granted that singing is vital for effective evangelism - especially among children. If you hold a holiday bible-club, then of course, you've got to have lots of singing. Singing has been given a place of importance that is completely disproportionate relative to the New Testament situation. And you may want to ask yourselves why that is.

Now secondly, let's move on to look briefly at the verses in Ephesians and Colossians. They are very close to one another in wording. Firstly, Colossians ch 3 vs 16: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you - or among you - richly, as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God". And then Ephesians ch 5 vs 18: " filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Four points arising from these two passages.

1. It is clear that Christian churches are to sing. God has commanded it.

2. It is clear that there should be a variety in what we sing. In both passages Paul speaks of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs". Now I'm aware that there are some friends who advocate exclusive psalmody and argue that Paul is just talking here about three different types of OT psalms. Well I'm not going to discuss that now - all I'm going to say is that I disagree with them! But I do have to admit that nobody is quite certain how Paul is using those three terms - where you draw the lines between them. But clearly he is suggesting that there is going to be a wide variety within the singing. I think it's likely that when he talks about psalms, he's talking about pieces modelled on the Old Testament psalms, maybe some of the actual OT psalms - in other words, pieces that were Jewish in style. When he talks about hymns, he's talking about pieces modelled on the hymns that were used in non-Christian worship in the Gentile world - in other words, pieces that were Greek in style. When he talks about songs, I'd guess he means pieces modelled on the secular songs of the day - but now, written and sung with the help of the Holy Spirit - spiritual songs.

So Paul expects there to be a wide variety of styles of music and song in the churches.

Now, why is that important for us today? What is the particular relevance of that principle in our situation? Well, surely it's this. These churches must not restrict themselves to what is familiar or fashionable in their own culture. Most of the folk in these churches would be Gentiles brought up in the prevailing culture of Asia Minor. Well, there would be certain styles of music and poetry that would be familiar, normal, contemporary in that society. And Paul says, "Yes you can adapt those for Christian worship. But you must also be singing psalms. For most of those people, the style of the psalms would sound remote, old-fashioned. But it's vital that they should learn to sing in that way nevertheless. They must maintain the historical continuity between themselves and the people of God back in Old Testament times.

If you look through a traditional hymnbook you will find styles of music and poetry that span at least several hundred years. There is genuine variety there - Lutheran chorales, Genevan psalm-tunes, adaptations from 18th century popular songs, right through to the Sankey-style ballads of Victorian times. By contrast, if you flick through a modern book of "worship-songs" or walk into many churches, you will find yourself restricted to the musical and poetic style of a single generation. It has all been shaped by the fashions of the popular culture of the last thirty years. That seems to me to run flatly against Paul's exhortation here.

3. It is clear that our singing should be full of content. Paul says we are to speak to one another in our singing. He says we are to teach and admonish one another. That means content. He begins his exhortation to sing by saying, "Let the word of Christ - the message of Christ - dwell among you richly". Our singing is supposed to be a setting out of the message of Christ. Again, in 1 Corinthians 14, when Paul describes Christian worship, he says "Yes, one man brings a hymn, another a revelation, another a word of instruction. But all of these must be done for the edification of the church." And the church is only edified when truth is brought to bear upon the mind, the heart and the will.

Notice the strong theological content that's implied in Paul's words here in Ephesians: "Be filled with the Spirit.. sing.. giving thanks to God the Father.. in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ". Our singing is Trinitarian. In our hymns we acknowledge the Father as the source of every blessing and give thanks to him; we acknowledge the Lord Jesus as the mediator and offer our worship through him; we acknowledge the Holy Spirit as the one who leads us into worship and we seek his fulness. Our singing should always reflect this rich trinitarian understanding.

When we listen to a preacher, we expect to be taught. If a preacher came to us and stood in the pulpit saying over and over "Praise the Lord, Hallelujah, I love you Lord" for thirty minutes, we might admire his devotion. But I don't think we would consider that we had been taught and admonished. When we are singing, it's as much our duty to teach one another as when we're preaching.

I don't mean by that, that we always directly address one another in our singing. There are times when we do that - "Come ye that love the Lord..". But here it's clear that our singing is addressed to God himself, sometimes to the Father, sometimes to the Lord Jesus. But my point is that as we sing and make music to the Lord Jesus, as we give thanks to the Father, we are also conscious that we are teaching and admonishing one another.

Let me make the point just by quoting one song:

'We are here to praise you,
lift our hearts and sing.
We are here to give you
the best that we can bring.
And it is our love
rising from our hearts,
everything within us cries,
"Abba Father".
Help us now to give you
pleasure and delight,
heart and mind and will that say.
"I love you Lord".'

Now let me ask you, "What does that song teach? What does it actually say? Answer: nothing. Basically, the song-writer just says in half a dozen different ways "I want to praise you ". But he never actually does it! He tells us nothing about God, about his character, his purposes, his works, his ways. To praise someone does not mean saying over and over "I praise you". It means commending the actual things they say and do and are. You could sing that song through a dozen times, and you could feel gooey inside, but it's not truth that's moving you - because there's no truth actually being taught in the song. And that is not NT worship. Singing is not to be used just to create nice feelings within us - it is to be used to teach the church.

I should add that that song is by no means the worst example we could have chosen of a modern worship song. In fact it's relatively speaking rather good! It's one of Graham Kendrick's. And the only reason I've chosen it as an example is that it's included in the new "Praise" hymnal to be published next year - supposedly from a reformed stable (reviewed by John Palmer on the Banner website earlier this year). And I'm asking, "Why has such a song been chosen?" For the value of its teaching content? Hardly.

4. It is clear that our singing must reflect authentic Christian experience. Earlier in Ephesians Paul has given us a glimpse of normative Christian experience. "I kneel before the Father.. I pray that he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge - that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.." Again you see the Trinitarian emphasis. Paul prays to the Father that the Ephesians may be men empowered by the Spirit, experiencing the indwelling of Christ in the heart through the constant exercise of faith; laying hold of the greatness of Christ's love - knowing its breadth and height and length and depth, filled with all the fulness of God. That is what Paul believes normal Christian experience should be. Believers should be men who know what it is to experience the Triune God, to have the most intimate communion with an indwelling Christ, to be overwhelmed with his love, to be filled with God's fulness. And now, when Paul comes to Ephesians 5, he tells us that where believers know such experiences of God, they will truly sing! Be filled with the Spirit, he says, and then you will "sing and make music in your heart to the Lord".

What does it take to write a great Christian hymn? Well, it takes poetic ability, clearly. And it takes a clear grasp of Scripture and of theology - otherwise there can't be the teaching content we talked of earlier. But more than that, great hymns will only be written when we have great experiences of God.

'Thou hidden source of calm repose,
Thou all-sufficient love divine;
My help and refuge from my foes,
Secure I am, if thou art mine;
From sin and fear, from guilt and shame,
I hide me Jesus in thy name.

Thy mighty name salvation is
And keeps my happy soul above;
Comfort it brings, and power and peace
And joy and everlasting love;
To me, with thy dear name, are given
Pardon, and holiness and heaven.

Jesus, my all in all Thou art,
My rest in toil, mine ease in pain;
The medicine of my broken heart;
In war my peace, in loss my gain;
My smile beneath the tyrant's frown;
In shame, my glory and my crown.."

In every line, you've got the heart-throb of a man who's been brought so low - he's tasted sin and fear and guilt and shame - but now he's discovered comfort and power and peace and joy and everlasting love - and Jesus has become his all in all.

There are many fine, competent hymnwriters around today - writing skilful hymns with clear biblical doctrine. But I don't know anybody around today who is writing hymns like that - hymns that are so vibrant with spiritual experience. And the reason for that is surely that such depths of spiritual experience are rare today.

And that's why I need to sing hymns like this - hymns written by men who knew the depths and the heights of spiritual experience - because at least I know then what I have to aspire it; at least I can glimpse the glories of Christ through the experience of men who knew him so much better than I do. At least, I can feel my soul resonating with their devotion. The hymns we sing must spring from, and lead to deep spiritual experience.

Four points. We must sing. We must sing a variety of material. We must sing hymns with real teaching content. We must sing hymns that spring from and lead to authentic spiritual experience.

Now the third thing I wanted to deal with. The book of psalms. We should remember that the book of psalms was the hymnbook of ancient Israel. God has given to us within the Scriptures, a prototype hymnbook, an example of what a hymnbook should be. Now I've already made it plain that I don't believe in exclusive psalmody. But I still want to take very seriously the fact that the book of psalms is given to us as an inspired model hymnbook.

It was compiled just like any other hymnbook. Some of the hymns in it would have been written as hymns to be used in public worship. Others were originally written by individuals out of their own situations to express their own concerns. But then they were adapted to be sung by the whole congregation worshipping God in the temple. The psalms were gathered together in small collections - a group of psalms on the kingship of God - a group of psalms of ascent for pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. And then these smaller collections were gathered into five small books of psalms, and finally the five books were brought together to make up the one canonical book of psalms. I'd guess that probably happened somewhere 450 BC. And then that hymnbook was used by God's people for centuries to come. It was the hymnbook the Lord Jesus used.

Now I have three points to make about the book of psalms. The first I don't have time to develop at all - but it's simply this. The psalms are great. They are great poetry. Many of them would be listed in any collection of the world's great poems. As literature they are brilliant. In terms of the language, the construction, the imagery, they are works of genius. There is nothing second-rate; nothing shoddy or clumsy, or twee, or banal. Apart from any theological insight, or spiritual discernment, a great hymnwriter has to be a great poet. Isaac Watts was. Charles Wesley was. William Cowper was. James Montgomery was. I don't know of anyone writing hymns today whom we would speak of in those terms. I'm not saying that everything in Grace or Christian Hymns is great poetry - there's some fair doggerel. But at least the editors knew what they were aiming at. And it wasn't this:


I want to be a tree that's bearing fruit,
that God has pruned and caused to shoot,
oh, up in the sky so very, very high
I want to be, I want to be a blooming tree.


God has promised his Holy Spirit will water our roots and help
us grow;
listen and obey, and before you know it, your fruit will start to grow,
grow, grow, grow, grow!

You'll be a tree that's bearing fruit,
with a very, very, very strong root;
bright colours like daisies, more fruit than Sainsbury's
you'll be a blooming tree.

Chorus: God has promised...

Repeat vs 1 & chorus
Repeat vs 2 & chorus

You'll be a blooming tree,
you'll be a blooming tree!

My second point I also want to make briefly. The psalms are difficult. Or at least many of them are. There are some which on the surface are fairly easy to understand - most folk can make something of eg Psalm 23. But the majority are difficult, because of their language, because of their poetry, and because of the level of historical and theological understanding they require. Take this - I've chosen it almost at random - from Psalm 68:

"The mountains of Bashan are majestic mountains; rugged are the mountains of Bashan. Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the Lord himself will dwell forever? The chariots of God are tens of thousands and thousands of thousands; the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious - that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.."

Now, do you think that the average Israelite youngster immediately understood what that was all about? There is a whole web of biblical theology that underlies those verses - Eden, the holy mountain which bridges heaven and earth; Sinai, the mountain where the law is given and where God expresses himself in fire and thunder and forbids his people to come near; Zion the mountain of grace where God comes and dwells among his people in his sanctuary. I don't believe that those verses would be immediately clear and plain to every worshipper. They would need to be instructed in the meaning; each time they sing that psalm, they'll understand it a bit better; it may take a lifetime to pick up all the references in the psalm and to unpack all the poetic imagery.

Now there are people who try to tell us that we should only sing hymns that "the man in the street" or the child in the pew can immediately understand. And they shake their heads when they come to hymns which don't meet their standard of comprehensibility: "Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by Thine help I'm come.." "How can people be expected to understand that?" But the same objection exactly would be made against the psalms.

The great hymns take a lifetime to understand. They grow with you. You can sing a hymn by Toplady or Newton and you think you understand it - but everytime you go back to it, you find something more in it. "Oh I never realised before that he was referring to that Bible passage.. Oh I never quite understood what he was getting at there". Take a hymn as familiar as Rock of Ages and see how many allusions to Bible passages you recognise. Every time I study that hymn, I realise I've missed something. Great hymns may be difficult but they are infinitely rewarding.

And then my third point under this heading. The psalms are enormously varied. They obviously vary enormously in terms of style. Some are simple, some as we've said are complex, some are as short as Psalm 117; others as long as Psalm 119.

They vary in terms of the person addressed in the psalm. Some psalms are addressed to the Lord (eg 15). Others to fellow-believers (eg 37). Others to unbelievers (eg 4). Others to the wider creation (eg 148). Others to the singer himself (eg 146, 42:5).

Some psalms emphasise individual experience: they're put in the first person singular: "I"; others are more corporate in emphasis: they're put in the plural, "we".

There is a tremendous variety in the range of doctrines and themes covered. I just jotted down a few of the themes that immediately came to mind:

The wonders of nature and God's care for all his creatures
Human depravity
A coronation

A royal wedding
God's omniscience
The Messianic king and his worldwide kingdom
An earthquake
A conspiracy by foreign enemies against God's people
The destruction of an invading army
The final judgement
God's care for his people throughout their history
The disobedience of God's people throughout history
The shortness of human life
Who may worship God?
The ScripturesThe promise of redemption
Man's dignity and destiny

You have psalms that deal with all these themes. By contrast, what a thin range of concerns you'll find in most modern song-books!

But then, there's something more. We talked a few minutes ago about the fact that our singing must reflect authentic spiritual experience. But the spiritual experience of the believer is so varied. The psalms cover the whole breadth of spiritual experiences and emotions. Just consider some of the spiritual experiences reflected in the psalms. I've just chosen some examples - in the order we find them in the book of psalms.

Psalm 3: peace of mind in the midst of danger6: physical and mental anguish while waiting for God's intervention.8: wonder and amazement at the Creator's care for man22: bewilderment because abandoned by God23: quiet confidence in God's care throughout life32: relief and joy because of forgiveness34: relief and joy because of deliverance from trials42: desperate thirst for God47: triumphant joy because of God's kingship51: conviction of sin69: misery because of dreadful trials73: doubt because of the injustices of life88: hopeless depression98: overwhelming excitement because salvation has come131: quiet submission to God's mysterious ways133: delight in the fellowship of God's people137: heartbreak at the state of God's people& anger against God's enemies

Now I have to say that that has been my single biggest disappointment with the "modern" songbooks. They deal with such a limited range of spiritual experience. They include songs of assurance, but I need songs for the days when I feel no assurance. They include songs telling the Lord we love him - but I want songs for the days when I'm wrestling with God, bewildered by his ways, angry at the injustices that he permits in this world. I want songs for the days when my sins seem bigger than the mountains and blacker than midnight of Egypt.

And then finally, on this matter of variety, The psalms are enormously varied in terms of their age. Remember, the psalms that made up the book of psalms were written over a great period of time. The oldest is probably Ps 90 written by Moses (perhaps 1500 BC). Many were written in the time of David (around 1000 BC). Some, (eg Ps 126) were written after the return from exile ie around 500 BC.

Now it is important to realise that. When the book of Psalms was finally put together as God's hymnbook for Israel, the majority of the psalms included were already hundreds of years old. The "editors" didn't feel that they had to select all the latest, most contemporary things. They looked back to the past - to the golden age, when David - the man after God's own heart - was reigning. They chose psalms had been tested in the experience of God's people for hundreds of years and had endured. And they didn't feel they had to modernise them to suit modern tastes! You can look for example at the psalm David wrote to celebrate the ark being brought to Jerusalem. It's in 1 Chronicles ch 16. Well, that psalm is later divided into three parts which are then included in the book of the psalms - Psalm 105, Psalm 96, Psalm 106. There had to be a little revision - in David's day there was no temple, so he wrote, "Bring an offering and come before him". When it was included in the book of psalms, it became "Bring an offering and come into his courts" - because then the temple was standing. But the language isn't updated - the theology isn't revised. The people who sang Psalm 96 could say "we stand with David; we share his joy;" even if he lived five hundred years ago.

I love the oldness of many of our hymns. You see, when we sing a hymn that's hundreds of years old, it gives us the sense that we stand in fellowship with believers all down through history. We are not only in communion with the church throughout the world; we're in communion with the church throughout history. In a Lord's Day service, we can sing words written by Bernard of Clairvaux, Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Spurgeon, and sung by their congregations. And as we sing them, we realise that these believers hundreds of years ago, stood just where we stand. They loved the same truths; they struggled with the same temptations; they found the same Saviour; they walked the same narrow way.

Our folk love to sing the ancient hymns. It gives them a great sense of rootedness, of continuity with the past, of being part of the one great olive tree.

I'm not suggesting that we should never sing anything modern or new - or that archaism should be sought for its own sake. Let's pray that God will raise up great hymnwriters for the 21st century - men and women who will know the great truths and who will have known great experiences of God and who will be able to express those things in great contemporary poetry. But brothers, let's treasure what we have. You have a great heritage. Don't let anyone take it from you.

Stephen Rees is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Stockport

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