The chief function of a hymn is to be the expression of the church’s praise. In Christian Worship, K. L. Perry writes:
Both the impressive and expressive functions of worship reach their culmination in praise. For in praise we express with heart and mind and soul the excellence and glory of God. “Let all that is within me bless his holy name.” In praise, too, we set forth the majesty and love of God. “I will give thee thanks in the great congregation.” Praise is also the way of communion with God. “Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving.” Moreover, the very act of praise . . . is the most characteristic act of worship.1 Prayer and praise, the two elements in the worshipper’s response to God’s Word, are frequently mingled; each may find expression in the other’s form, as in Charles Wesley’s “Love Divine.” A hymn may be the vehicle of prayer: praise is expressed in adoration and thanksgiving as well as in song, as in Joachim Neander’s appeal (“Now to His temple draw near / Join ye in glad adoration”) or Anne Steele’s “My Maker and My King,” where the phrase “Thy love demands a thankful heart” is repeated. But song is the more natural expression of collective praise, as with Fanny Crosby’s exhortation in “The Lord in Zion Reigneth” to “come before His throne of grace with tuneful heart and voice,” or Christian Bateman’s “Come, Christians, Join to Sing.” So, the primary purpose of the hymn as a liturgical form is to praise the Almighty God.
Besides the hymn, how else do we express our praise to God?
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew verbs most often used to describe the worshipper’s approach to God are “to bow down” and “to serve.” In addition, the following Hebrew “praise” verbs are expressive in three key ways.
First, praise involves the use of words audibly expressed. The verb halal, “to make a noise” (Ps 135:3), illustrates how God’s mighty deeds are sung and acknowledged. Second, praise is also celebrated through body movements and gestures. For instance, the verbs yadah, “to praise,” and todah, “to give thanks,” are used when Miriam sings (Exod 15:20) and David dances (2 Sam 6:14) and where hands and voices are raised (Ps 28:2; 134:2), demonstrating how this type of activity exalts God. The third expressive aspect of praise is musical activity, including the playing of instruments and singing to honor God. For instance, the verb zamar, “to make melody,” is referenced in Psalm 150:3–5 in connection with a variety of musical instruments, from the trumpet blast and clashing cymbal to the sweet melody of the flute and harp. All unite to “praise the Lord” (v. 6).
In the New Testament, there emerge two main themes of praise. The first is God’s excellencies, due to the fact that the church is God’s mouthpiece of the “great deeds of God” (Rom 11:33–36 cf. Rom 8:28– 39; 1 Pet 2:10). The second theme is God’s universal gifts and providence. These gifts range from physical sustenance (food and drink) to marriage (1 Tim 4:3–5; Heb 13:4). It is eminently fitting that God should be praised and thanked as the giver of “every good endowment and every perfect gift” (Jas 1:17).
The characteristic note of New Testament praise is centered in Christ and “his inexpressible gift” (2 Cor 9:15). This saving deed is epitomized in the doxology of Ephesians 1:3–14, arranged in the following trinitarian form:
1) Tracing the unfolding of God’s eternal plan (vv. 3–5).
2) Historicized in Jesus Christ, the Son whom He loves (vv. 6–11).
3) Made real in human experience by the Holy Spirit, who applies that “plan of salvation” to those who are its beneficiaries (vv. 12–14).
Note how each section of this hymn ends with the refrain “to the praise of his glory” (vv. 6, 12, 14).
Therefore, the natural response of the Christian’s life is to show forth the praises of the God who has called the redeemed to Himself (1 Pet 2:10). Such expressions of praise will be thoughtful, dignified, and worthy of the all-gracious God.
1 K. L. Perry, Christian Worship, 239, 240.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.