Give to our God immortal praise;
Mercy and truth are all His ways;
Wonders of grace to God belong,
Repeat His mercies in your song.
My purpose for this outline years ago was to offer a conservative vote for conservative church music. Just recently I was criticized anonymously by email for being critical of any worship and especially for speaking at all about music. As I noted in the first edition of this article, those who can give the technical ins and outs of music composition seldom approve of anyone else critiquing their subject matter. The same thing happens, of course, in any field where there are experts who have given their lives to that particular field of study. Theologians’ jealousy of theology is probably the most notable.
The fact of the matter is, however, that God’s people who have the Holy Spirit in their heart and the Word of God in their hand have a right (even an obligation) to speak out about worship, especially when they have ministered long enough to see much harm done to individuals and churches over the years. After all, it was the lowly herdsman Amos, when prophesying Woe to them that are at ease in Zion (6:1), and Ye that put far away the evil day (6:3), and that lie upon beds of ivory . . . And eat the lambs out of the flock (6:4), who also included, That chant to the sound of the viol, and invent to themselves instruments of music like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the chief ointments; but they are not grieved for the affliction of Joseph (6:5-6)! So I suppose if a herdsman can critique the great musicians of Israel, so can pastors critique the musical leaders of our own day.
But my evaluation is mostly of a positive sort. I have always wanted to extol the virtues of the church music that has been tried and tested over the centuries and let today’s poor offerings pale in comparison. I have never been against wading pools, I simply choose not to dwell in them very long, especially when deeper water is always available. I have not advocated banning new music or discouraging the writing of new music or light choruses. I have been in services where the weightier and richer songs are nicely highlighted by a few lines from newer songs. But what is better is better. And the better should never be discarded for the lesser even when many protest.
Here are a few of the observations I made almost ten years ago concerning the great hymns of the church. My comments are expanded.
This is music obviously produced by the Church, not by the world.
It is better that our music have the distinct sound of the church and not of the world. It was telling that Joshua, when he heard the sounds of Israel playing around the golden calf, could not distinguish what kind of sound he was hearing. There is a noise of war in the camp (Exod 32:17) he said. But Moses was more perceptive and said, It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery, neither is it the voice of them that cry for being overcome; but the noise of them that sing do I hear. And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses’ anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and brake them beneath the mount (Exod 32:18-19).
It is not better but worse that we cannot distinguish the sounds in our churches from the sounds of the world. It is not better but worse that our leaders are not bothered with the sound of the world in our churches. Let the world hear us sing Immortal, Invisible, Come We That Love The Lord or Come Thou Almighty King.
They should also know the distinct sound of Zion’s songs.
The language and style of these songs brings you to their level, and seldom the reverse.
Why would a child of God desire to return to the customs and styles of his former life? Peter admonished the new believer, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revelings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries (1 Pet 4:3-4).
The great hymns of the faith lift us toward God with a “new song” in our heart. What worldling could sing Wesley’s Carol without being brought under the searchlight of God’s Holy Spirit?:
Christ by highest heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord:
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the God-head see,
Hail th’ incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Well did the Psalmist observe, many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD (Psa 40:3).
These great songs teach us the vocabulary and doctrines of Scripture that will only be comfortable to those who know the Lord.
Someday God’s people will have to get over their embarrassment about their faith before the unbelieving world! It seems today the worse sin is to cause the lost world to think some negative thought about us. It’s like hearing conservative political pundits “apologize for living” to an indignant liberal! The sin in such shame for the church is too obvious to warrant space for verses.
Most of the older hymns assume the worshiper knows his Bible and preemptively brings him along those lofty paths.
‘Worthy the Lamb that died,’ they cried,
‘To be exalted thus!’
‘Worthy the Lamb,’ our lips reply,
‘For He was slain for us!’
(Isaac Watts, Come Let Us Join)
The maintenance of these songs will take diligence by the church, as any other good thing will do. My generation has opted out of this discipline as they have with most other disciplines. Better to define this deficiency down than to pay such a high price for high maintenance. But Paul admonished, Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee (1 Tim 4:16).
These songs are full of respectful observations and lessons about nature, while prodding and pleading with us to shun the culture.
These songs obviously come from a generation that was closer and more observant of God’s creation than we tend to be today. If one took time to simply read the first fifty pages of the average hymn book he would be confronted again and again with God’s wonder in creation.
I sing the mighty power of God
That made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad
and filled the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
The sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at His command,
And all the stars obey.
(Isaac Watts, I Sing The Mighty Power of God)
Unlike worldly thinking, nature is treated as inviolable but culture is what we are commissioned to change!
Jesus calls us from the worship
Of the vain world’s golden store,
From each idol that would keep us,
Saying, ‘Christian, love Me more.’
(C. Alexander, Jesus Calls Us)
These songs place much emphasis on God as the subject of worship and less emphasis on ourselves as the worshipers.
I have a choice to either worship God or talk about worshiping God. Worship, like prayer, easily drifts into self contemplation rather than divine contemplation. Therefore, until we escape this frame, worship will involve a struggle between flesh and spirit and as long as we seek the easiest route to worship, the flesh will win out. Paul warned that in the last days, self-centered worshipers would have a form of godliness (2 Tim 3:5) led by seducing (lit. impersonating) spirits (1 Tim 4:1).
We are far better off to keep our songs in the second and third person:
All praise to Him who reigns above,
than to constantly watch ourselves as we do the worship in the first person:
I bow down, and I worship you Lord.
The key here is to already be worshipers who come together, not those who come together to worship. The first is for His praise, the latter is too often for our own therapy.
And so . . .
Praise ye the Lord, O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath come now with praises before Him!
Let the A-men sound from His people again: Gladly for aye we adore Him!