Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

“Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Psalm 96:1).

“…singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16).

The Old Testament and the New Testament both tell God’s people to sing. God created us, and he knows all about us. He knows that music shapes our thinking in a way that words alone cannot do. Children learn the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, twinkle little star.” Dementia victims whose memory is so badly damaged that they cannot carry on a conversation can still remember the songs they learned in their youth. Because music aids in memory and even in comprehension, God has told us to sing when we worship.

From the very beginning of the Church, Christians sang. Often they sang words from the Bible. Over time other Christian hymns were composed, such as the classic Te Deum laudumus (We praise you, O God). Historians cannot reproduce the tunes that early Christians used. We know something about how the music sounded because Greek mathematicians wrote about musical intervals and modes. Our major and minor keys would sound strange and foreign to people of the Roman Empire, and their music would sound strange and foreign to us.

During Roman times, a series of songs—mostly from the Bible—coalesced into what is known as the Divine Service or the Mass. Great composers of later times often wrote new tunes to accompany the Mass. The Mass consists of five songs, the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy—Mark 10:47), the Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God on high—Luke 2:14), the Credo (I believe), the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy—Isaiah 6:3, combined with Matthew 21:9) and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God—John 1:29). Further comments about each of these will be made in the appropriate places.

Some of the earliest Christian music that can be reproduced today consists of chants arranged by Gregory the Great. These Gregorian chants are sung in the modes of the earlier Greek mathematicians and may approach the sound of the earliest Christians.

Over time Christian singing shifted from the congregation to choirs of professional singers, and most people in the church simply listened to the music. As part of the Reformation, Martin Luther restored congregational singing. He used the style of music that has become known as the German chorale. This music was called bar music, not because it came from the tavern, but because vertical lines (bars) separated the phrases of the singing. The flow of long notes and short notes is almost conversational in the chorales. They avoid an even rhythm, leading some historians to speculate that hymn writers in the sixteenth century did not want people to be able to sway to the music or do anything else that suggested dancing.

Johann Sebastian Bach was a Lutheran organist and choir director (as well as a professional composer and musician often hired by government officials). Along with his contemporaries, he refined church music, preferring only four beats to the bar over the longer phrases of the chorale (hence, “four-four time”). Bach and others of his generation also popularized the major keys which are familiar to Christians today. Bach’s tunes have a mathematical precision, even if they differed from the music theories of the ancient Greeks. The Methodist movement introduced another variation, making church music more emotional and more personal. Of course the twentieth century introduced many new things to Christian singing, such as guitars, drums, microphones and amplifiers, and projection screens to display the words of the hymns.

No doubt every innovation in worship has disappointed some Christians. Gregory’s chants and Luther’s chorales may have been as controversial and upsetting as rock music in the church can be controversial and upsetting for some people. God accepts and encourages diversity among his people. He is worshiped in many languages and many cultures, none of them being wrong and none of them being better than another. This does not mean, however, that in Christian worship, anything goes. Songs, hymns, and spiritual songs belong to the worship service; therefore, they should enhance worship and not inhibit worship.

A congregation’s collection of hymns should resemble the book of Psalms. Not all the Psalms are praise Psalms. Some Psalms cry out to God for help. Other Psalms confess sins and seek forgiveness. Some Psalms teach the history of God’s people. Like every other book of the Bible, the Psalms are about Jesus. They recognize him not only as the One by whom and for whom all things were made; they recognize him also as the righteous man who never sinned, as the atoning sacrifice for sinners, and as the victor over sin, evil, and death. So also the hymns and songs of the Church today should encompass all these themes. Not every hymn should have every theme, of course, but the collection of hymns—and even the choice of hymns for a single service—should in some way contain all these themes.

A service consisting of nothing but praise songs is like a meal consisting of nothing but ice cream and cake. The thought may seem attractive at first, but the problems with that diet become obvious over time. To eat no meat, no vegetables, and no grain would be to deprive oneself of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. To sing only praise would not enable the members of the congregation to deal with the problems in their lives, the enemies they face, the danger of their own sins, and the work Jesus has accomplished to rescue them from sin and evil.

Every service has a theme, set by the Bible readings chosen for the service and the sermon which explains one or more of those readings. The hymns chosen for the service should match the theme of the readings and sermon. Moreover, the traditional Church has several seasons, and different hymns are fit for different seasons. Hymns for Christmas and Easter are more joyful; hymns for Advent and Lent are more somber. Clearly, the hymns for each service cannot be chosen by asking all the members which songs they like the best. Hymns should be chosen by someone sensitive to the moods of the Church year and aware of what the preacher intends to emphasize. If the preacher is not in charge of selecting hymns, the preacher and music director need to communicate and cooperate for the best possible service each week.

Choirs, praise teams, and other music leaders should help the congregation to sing. When they become performers and the congregation becomes an audience, the worship is crippled. Talented and trained musicians can help the congregation to sing. They can introduce new hymns and teach them to the congregation. They can add more difficult music to the service to support the hymn-singing of the congregation and to honor God. Like preachers, church musicians face the temptation of placing themselves at the center of the worship. They need frequently to remind themselves that Christ is being worshiped, that they are honoring him with their talents and abilities, and that the congregation gathered in his name, not in their names.

This chapter has taken longer than expected to write. I appreciate any thoughtful and helpful responses. J.

5 thoughts on “Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

  1. Awesome post! I enjoyed reading about the history of music in the church and also relating some things from the past to modern issues. Question on your comment about the Psalms–given that they appear in the Old Testament, are you saying the Psalms foreshadow Jesus?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m on board with what you say. I think music leaders to should be adaptable. If they try something and it doesn’t work, have pity – make it short. Instead I have seen some who decided “you’re going to worship and praise or else.” A paid music leader who has a week to learn new songs, a music degree, hours to practice with DVD to model, should not expect to lead a congregation to learn a song because the words on thrown on the wall and the skilled and talented on stage have learned and practiced it for three weeks behind the scenes. I’ve seen some of these people who get caught with someone else leading. They do not do much better first or second run through than I do with them. It’s hard to do. I prefer to pull up a child’s song on you tube such as My Gift to You and Just Give Me Jesus, sit in my corner and soak in the love of Jesus.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome. I appreciated this post, Salvageable. I am not musically inclined at all, so it is somewhat comical that I suddenly found myself trying to lead our worship team through their practice. I do remember some key points from long ago, like we are making a joyful noise unto to Lord and leading the congregation, not performing ourselves.

    I am laughing here, I may be in big trouble and my help was not asked for, but the tiny voices and constant insecurity over which notes you are supposed to be singing needs to just go! Shut up,look up, project your voices joyfully, and try to remember that half the congregation has hearing aides and the other half is tone deaf anyway!

    I don’t know what possessed me, the Holy Spirit I hope, but I just felt such a pressing need to whip these guys into shape. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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