Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A very brief History of Hymns

Last Saturday I taught a workshop on Hymns in the Home at our Grace Church Women's Conference. Since I didn't say all that I wanted to say and since I still don't feel like I've finished I thought I'd give a condensed version in several posts.

Music is everywhere. We teach our kids the ABCs with it, we hum it when we are happy. We listen to it when we are depressed. We sing it in church. We sing it in the shower. Music has been around for forever, so has worship. God created us to be worshipers and if you want to know what you are worshiping, do an audit of your time, energy and money. Whatever tops the list is the god that you worship.

Long before there was a church or synagogue there were songs and psalms and music. (The first reference to music in the bible is in Genesis 4). The Israelites sang on the beaches of the Red Sea when they saw the Lord's deliverance, one of the several feasts and celebrations ordained by God was the feast of Trumpets and how did that wall of Jericho fall down? David is credited with tons of Psalms but there are many other psalms and songs that can be found throughout the O.T.

The first mention in the Bible of a "hymn" is in the story of the Last Supper and the "hymn" that was mentioned was almost certainly Psalm 136. In the New Testament there are several passages that speak of hymns and songs of praise (for the sake of brevity I won't tell you why the word for hymn is nearly synonymous with the word for "song of praise", it just is)

I Cor 14: 26
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, Or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Ephesians 5:18
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with Spirit.  Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.  Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.

Colossians 3:16
Let the word of Christ dwell in 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.

James 5:13
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.  Is anyone happy.  Let him sing songs of praise.


The early Christians sang Psalms, canticles (fragments of scripture like the song of the Exodus) and there is even a little evidence to suggest that Paul quoted from some sort of early songbook. After the close of the cannon the first specific efforts to write hymns for the Congregations of believers were as a direct response to heresy.

Several Gnostics had written some beautiful hymns that "clothed the pest of deprivation in the garments of musical beauty" (St. Ephraem) and  as these hymns became popular an antidote was needed and the birth of hymns as we know them today was born.  St Ephraem's hymns were "teaching hymns" and I think that is an important element in incorporating hymns in our homes.  We want to guard, teach, protect and encourage our children.  One of the ways we do this is to teach them to memorize scripture, another way is to teach them through music although Hymns are not a substitute for God's word, they are a compliment to it.

Later "Arius [Arian heresy) wrote up his heretical view in the form of hymns set to catchy drinking songs which people could be heard humming or whistling in the streets.  Not to be outdone John Chrysostom responded by taking to the streets himself singing hymns in a processions, what one might call "taking back the streets"."

Between the 4th century and now I'll condense years of history into a broad generalization :  For the most part, up until around the 18th century the metrical Psalms were used in corporate worship and devotional poetry (i.e. hymns) were part of an individuals praise to the Lord.  These devotional poems were mostly written by members of the Clergy, inspired by their study of the word of God or as a reflection of his work among his people.  This is very interesting to me as it wasn't until later that more and more "lay people " began to write hymns that slowly strayed from rewording Scripture and it's doctrine into a variety of things and to avoid controversy I will leave it at that and not turn this into a discussion of Hymns v Chorus'. (NOTE: I personally feel that both have their place in worship and I just love the way our church weaves the two together.)

So should we only sing to God the words he wrote himself?  I think it is much safer that way but when the Psalm say: Sing to the Lord and new song"  I have to believe that a God of creativity who made us in his own image can and is glorified by the songs of his saints if they are true and excellent reflections of his nature and his works.

Psalm 30:4
Sing to the Lord, you saints of his; praise his holy name.

Psalm 33:1
Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Psalm 96:1
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.


Since Phillip lost his job our family has been learning "Great is Thy Faithfulness" but I want to know is what do you have to sing about? What songs are you singing? How are you teaching your children to worship God?

5 comments:

Erica said...

Jacquelyn, I am so sorry that Phil lost his job! I am praying for you all :-)

Jeannett Gibson said...

As I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised, we don't sing. The neighbors prefer it that way. But I really try to be thankful for our blessings and not take anything for granted...in particular that while I wish upon anything that Henry's heart was healthy and perfect, that I am forever thankful that we can fix it, that we found it quickly, and that if you got to pick your heart surgery, this is the one you would go with...hands down. So, no singing with melodies, but certainly lots of praise! :)

Joy said...

we sing before bed. the kids know "amazing grace" now and we are currently working on "come thou fount.'' they of course know other songs from sunday school which is great, too.

dvopilgrim said...

Very insightful post. I wrote a longer post on the subject of "new songs":

I’ve watched a few episodes of American Idol the last few weeks, especially the Final 36 competition. The three songs that I remember most were “oldies”: one from the 80s and two from the 60s. Two of the songs, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966) and “Bette Davis Eyes” (1981), were deemed “too old-fashioned.”

These comments remind me of worship services in churches today. A song from one or two years ago would be judged too old, if people even remember it. This is fallen human nature, ever craving for new things, as when Paul was asked by the Athenians if he had any new teaching to introduce to them (Acts 17:19).

The appetite for new songs in churches is never satisfied. Why not? The Bible even commands us to “sing a new song to the Lord” in many places. Taken at face value, this would seem to justify the weekly new song introduced by the worship team.

But what does the Bible really say about “new songs”? Read more here:

"'New Song' and American Idol(atry)"

W said...

Jacquelyn, I'd just like to share an opportunity that the Lord brought me. I had the lyrics to Here Is Love, Christ Alone, Before the Throne of God Above, and others posted on my kitchen cabinets. When I would prepare a meal or do the dishes, I'd be able to sing to my son who seems always close when I'm in the kitchen. Last Sunday (I was not in church), they sang Here Is Love, Vast As the Ocean and several of the ladies were touched by it. Because it isn't in our hymnal, they thought we had reached a dead-end until I was able to squeak out most of a verse from memory. What a thrill to be able to refresh an insight God had given through song! I think you're just right in saying that when we are saturated in the character of God, and His Word, it's okay to sing something written less than 100-years ago, and even (gasp!) short of 4-part harmony. Thanks for your thoughts!

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