Before we address the function of hymns in worship, we must answer the question, “What is a hymn?” Augustine defined a hymn as “a song of praise to God.” According to this definition, a hymn has three features: it is an expression of praise, it is intended to be sung, and it is directed to God. Let’s look briefly at these features.
1. A hymn is an expression of praise. The word “praise” has a wide range of meanings, including the introspective glance that leads naturally to confession of sin and a seeking of forgiveness, coupled with the worshiper’s aspirations to amend his or her life and to exhibit a fresh dedication.
2. A hymn is intended to be sung. The variety of literary and musical forms will encourage us to expect a wide diversity in the way music and words have been wedded. A good hymn will blend verbal and melodic elements in proportion.
3. A hymn is directed to God. Hymns worthy of the name should be addressed formally to God. The syntax may vary as between the traditional second person (“We praise, we worship Thee, O God”) and the third person (“A safe stronghold / Our God is still”). In those instances, God is central. Perhaps the greatest single sentence in any hymn was written by Isaac Watts: “God is a name my soul adores.”
HYMNS HAVE A TWOFOLD FUNCTION
1. Hymns play an impressive role as an aid to worship. Hymns put us in the right frame of mind and heart to approach the divine mystery of God. Music plays that role as we hear it, and our singing can lift our spirits to new heights of contemplation and expectancy that make genuine worship possible.
However, there is the constant danger that music may be enjoyed as an end in itself instead of leading the worshiper into the divine presence. The Puritans voiced that objection by banning all musical instruments. Some, like John Milton, appreciated “made-made” music and how it could bring enrichment of worship. In his poem Il Penseroso, he versified: “There let the pealing organ blow / To the full-voiced quire below / In service high, and anthems clear, / As may, with sweetness, through mine ear, / Dissolve me into ecstasies, / And bring all Heaven before mine eyes.”
2. Hymns have an experience role in worship. In a way not possible in ordinary speech, hymns convey and articulate all that believers would want to express in their response to God, who, in goodness and grace, has first come to them. For instance, more than 1,600 years ago, Augustine of Hippo confessed that the part of the worship service that left an abiding impression on him was the intense emotion engendered by the hymn-singing of the assembled congregation. He wrote: “How I wept at thy hymns and canticles, pierced to the quick by the voices of thy melodious church! Those voices flowed into my ears, and the truth distilled into my heart, and thence there streamed forth a devout emotion, and my tears ran down, and happy was I therein.” 1
Hymns provide a way of attesting our faith and deepening and confirming it. However, the place of hymns in worship can be demoted when hymn-singing is used to fill up space while the offering is being received or when hymn-singing is an accompaniment to something else going on in the service.
If worship gains full meaning only as it represents our wholehearted response to God’s action in Christ, then our hymns cannot be less than our devoted focusing of all our powers on the themes they poetically and musically bring before us.
HYMNS ON GOD’S LOVE
O LOVE THAT WILL NOT LET ME GO by George Matheson (1842–1902)
For any Scotsman, “doon the wa’er” means a trip down the Firth of Clyde from Glasgow to where it widens into the sea loch of Innellan. This is where George Matheson ministered between 1868–1882. On June 6 of his final year in this parish, he confessed to “suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.” Many conjectures have been made regarding the cause of his anguish. Was it a personal bereavement? Was it at his sister’s wedding, when he was reminded of the pain of his broken engagement that had occurred 20 years before? Some have suggested that it was his concern “over the inroads of Darwinism.” Whatever the cause, and with all the limitations of being blind since birth, he wrote this magnificent expression of an eternal love that will never be broken.
After writing “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” Matheson said, “It was the quickest bit of work I ever did. . . . The whole work was completed in five minutes. . . . I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. . . . This came like a dayspring from on high.” As to its structure, Matheson uses metaphors “for a God who will not leave His child forsaken: first Love, then Light, then Joy, then the Cross.” The poignantly beautiful hymn still ministers to the triumphant sorrow of thousands.
O LOVE OF GOD, HOW STRONG AND TRUE by Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)
The author of this hymn was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh. He ministered in the slums of Edinburgh and began to write original hymns because the children in his care were bored with singing psalms (psalm-singing was the only musical form allowed by the Presbyterian Church). He was an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland and later joined the Free Church of Scotland. He emphasized the importance of pastoral visitation and was diligent in his prayer life. He was a devout student of prophecy and believed in the imminent return of Jesus, which is evident in hymns he wrote, such as “The Church Has Waited Long.”
In 1873–1874, Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey came from Chicago to conduct revivals in Scotland. Bonar wrote many hymns for Sankey, Moody’s song leader; altogether, he wrote about 600 hymns, 60 translations of the psalms, and hundreds of tracts. He published several hymn collections and regularly contributed new hymns to their pages. All his hymns are filled with the light and love of Christ, of which “I Lay My Sins on Jesus” and “I Heard the Voice of Jesus” are examples.
JESUS, LOVER OF MY SOUL by Charles Wesley (1707–1788)
Charles wrote this hymn shortly after his “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate Hall in London in 1738. There is no authenticated information as to what situation caused Wesley to write this text. A frightening storm at sea that he experienced while returning home from America may account for the nautical references. Another story is told of a bird flying into Charles’ cabin for safety, while another describes his hiding under a hedge after being attacked by an angry mob that opposed his ministry. Still others see this text as a picture of Wesley’s own life as a young man as he struggled to find peace with God before his dramatic conversion, hence, the original title “In Temptation.”
The simple, monosyllabic language (159 of 189 words in the hymn) have been called the “finest heart-hymn in the English language.” Note the exaltation of Christ revealed in such picturesque terms as “lover,” “healer,” “fountain,” “wing,” and “pilot.” But the greatest appeal is the assurance they give of Christ’s consolation and protection through all of life.
It is of passing interest that in London’s Westminster Abbey, there is a medallion relief of John and Charles Wesley. Seen in profile, the brothers are appropriately linked—John the theologian and Charles the poet and singer.
THE LOVE OF GOD by Frederick M. Lehman (1868–1953)
Never has God’s eternal love been described more vividly than in the words of this beloved hymn: “measureless,” “strong,” “evermore endure . . .”
The hymn’s unusual third stanza was a small part of an ancient lengthy poem composed in 1906 by a Jewish songwriter, Rabbi Mayer, in Worms, Germany. The poem, entitled “Hadamut,” was written in the Arabic language. The lines were found in revised form on the walls of a patient’s room in an insane asylum after the patient’s death. It is believed that the unknown patient, during times of sanity, adapted from the Jewish poem what is now the third verse of “The Love of God.”
The words of this third stanza were quoted one day at a Nazarene camp meeting attended by Pastor Frederick Lehman. Later, while engaged in some kind of manual labor in California, Lehman “picked up a scrap of paper and added the first two stanzas and chorus to the existing third-verse lines.”
1 Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, 9.6.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.