Sadly, the responsibility for singing without understanding belongs to those who determine what will be sung, and who, too often, are just not prepared for the ministry of singing.
DANGERS TO AVOID
• One’s understanding of a song is often hindered by a “cafeteria” approach to hymn-singing: picking just one or two stanzas each from randomly-selected songs.
• Another strategy is to delete stanzas for no reason other than to “save time,” thus removing the pivotal element in the message of a hymn.
• The worst offense is to use hymns primarily for non-religious purposes, such as exiting children or changing seats. We should not wonder that people fail to see the meaning in what we sing.
• Some song-leaders become ringmasters presiding over a worship circus, thus cheapening the gospel. “Sing as if you really mean it” usually means “sing louder,” as if there is some correlation between volume and spiritual vitality.
STRATEGIES TO IMPROVE
• Take time for preparation.
• Select hymns in advance so that they correlate with the theme of the sermon.
• Study the hymns and relate them to life.
• If there is something you don’t understand, find out its meaning, such as “Ebenezer.”
• Know the primary significance of the hymn and its background.
• If a stanza is doctrinally awry, either alter the text or eliminate it. Know your theology.
• Sing all stanzas to preserve the wholeness of the hymn’s message.
• Pray for sensitivity and insight.
Christians have a responsibility not only to sing what they believe but to understand it as well. It does matter what we sing. Let us make sounds unto the Lord that are not only joyful but true.
Enjoy the story of the following hymns of praise.
FOUR HYMNS OF PRAISE
PRAISE TO THE LORD, THE ALMIGHTY by Joachim Neander (1630–1680)
The author of this hymn has been called the greatest of all German-Calvinist Reformed hymn-writers. “Praise to the Lord, The Almighty” is a free paraphrase of Psalm 103:1- 6 and was written when Neander was a schoolmaster at Dusseldorf in the German Rhineland. He had a contentious relationship with the minister and elders of the Reformed Church who controlled the school. He was criticized for starting separate prayer meetings and for not coming to the parish Holy Communion; as a result, he was suspended for 14 days, after which he was reinstated.
In these difficult situations, he would walk up the lovely Neanderthal down which flows by the little river Dussel. There he would retreat into a cave and write his poems. He died at the early age of 30 after having written 60 poems, most of which were widely circulated as hymns in German hymnals.
The hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” first appeared in a German hymnbook in 1665. The translator of the text, Catherine Winkworth, helped to make German hymns popular in England and America during the nineteenth century. This hymn is a memorial to the Almighty God who strengthed a man who used praise in the face of adversity.
PRAISE MY SOUL THE KING OF HEAVEN by Henry F. Lyte (1792–1847)
Based on Psalm 103, this stately hymn of praise has probably begun more solemn ceremonies than any hymn in the English language. It was the requested processional for the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 1947, exactly 100 years after author Henry Lyte’s death. This hymn first appeared in Lyte’s collection of new paraphrases of the psalms, published in 1833, and captures the measure of the psalm in unforgettable verses. It has time, eternity, God, and man all locked in its embrace, and its last verse has the soaring quality of high religion. In one grand sweep, the writer brings the whole created universe into the act of praise.
The story of Lyte’s hymn-writing began in Cornwall, where he came from Dublin in 1823. For the next 24 years, he served as the curate in Brixham, a Devon fishing port. At the age of 25, he had a deep religious experience after the death of a fellow clergyman. He confessed that the death of his friend, “who died happy in the thought that there was One who would atone for his delinquencies,” led him to drastically change his Bible study habits and preaching style. In this village, most of his 81 hymns, including “Abide With Me,” were written. While pastoring the rough men whose fishing grounds were the stormy waters of the Atlantic, he also supervised a Sunday School of 70 teachers with nearly 800 children. Under all the stress, his health failed, and he died of tuberculosis at the age of 54.
O WORSHIP THE LORD by John Samuel Bewley Monsell (1811–1875)
“O Worship the Lord” was written by John Monsell in the summer of 1861 in commemoration of the visit of the wise men to the baby Jesus. In the hymn, the gifts of the wise men—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—are shown to have their counterparts in the Christian’s offering of the “gold of obedience,” “incense of lowliness,” and “burden of carefulness.” That last phrase is also expressed as sorrows and represented by the bitter myrrh. Such gifts will be accepted as precious as the gifts of the Magi in our worship of the Lord.
Monsell was born in Londonderry, Ireland; educated at Trinity College in Dublin; and served as a minister in several Irish parishes before going to Surrey in England and becoming a rector at St. Nicholas, Guilford, in 1870. Five years later, he died when he fell from a roof during the reconstruction of his church.
He wrote more than 300 hymns, which were published in 11 volumes of his poetry. His hymns revived congregational singing, which, he urged, should be sung with joy and fervor. He said: “We are too distant and reserved in our praises; we sing, not as we should sing to Him who is Chief among ten thousand, the Altogether Lovely.” “On Our Way Rejoicing” is another example of the joyful spirit which characterized his hymns.
JOYFUL, JOYFUL, WE ADORE THEE by Henry van Dyke (1852–1933)
While gazing at the magnificent Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts, Henry van Dyke described in “Joyful, Joyful” the many aspects of life that should bring joy to the Christian. He insisted that his text, written in 1911, be sung to the music of “Hymn to Joy” from Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.” This combination of words and great music makes “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” one of the most joyous expressions of any hymn in the English language.
One of the forceful ideas expressed by van Dyke is that God’s gracious love for us should create a greater “brotherly love” for our fellowman. With God’s help, we can become victorious over strife and be “lifted to the joy divine” as we daily show more love to others.
Henry van Dyke was a distinguished Presbyterian minister who served as a moderator of his denomination for a time and as a Navy chaplain in World War I. Later, he was the ambassador to Holland and Luxembourg under President Woodrow Wilson. He also served as a professor of literature at Princeton University. High honors came to him for his many devotional writings, the most famous of which was The Other Wise Man.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.