Results tagged “hymns” from Reformation21 Blog

When Our Voices Fail


Three weeks ago this past Thursday (March 21), I decided it was probably best, because of my mother's serious health situation, for me to head home to South Carolina after worship on the coming Sunday to be with her. The next day, Friday, I received a text from my brother telling me that things had suddenly declined with my father's health. Although his health had not been great, he was not on our radar as far as being our imminent family health concern.

Early the next day, a Saturday morning, I sat on a plane contemplating the sudden turn of events, determined to get as many texts out as possible before having to put my phone on airplane mode. My heart and mind were a jumble of worry, fear, and potential anticipated tasks. One minute all things had been carrying on as always--and the next minute I faced the real possibility that both of my parents might be gone, just like that. I was struck at how hard it was for me to think, much less write, anything that seemed like a sensible sentence.

As I stared out the window, without warning, the melody and words of hymns--so many, rich, precious hymns--began running through my mind. Overwhelmed with emotion, I texted a friend:

The comfort, especially in light of the Latin origin of the word, that solid hymnody brings in times like this is a beautiful, poignant irony. When I cannot find words in my heart to bring to my lips, these truth-laden, Scripturally-rich hymns rise in my spirit! It is as if they are an incarnation of the Spirit's intercession to embrace my groaning, wordless heart. Now I can voice within what cannot form in my mouth--and not only am I sure that the Father has searched and known my heart, I am strengthened by his glorious Gospel with music that carries me back to his never-failing Word.

It was suddenly so clear to me how important the great hymns I had learned had been in building up my faith and driving home the essential biblical truths I so needed to rest upon at that very moment. Hearing and feeling through song what I knew to be true from God's Word both settled my heart sent my spirit soaring, even as the tears flowed.

Within 24 hours my father was with the Lord. By his goodness I was able to be with him as he crossed that threshold, entering into the glory he had so longed to see. In the days that followed, as we began to plan his funeral, I again found that it was the comfort of the great hymns of our faith that buoyed me. Though I had planned so many funerals before, it was in pulling together my father's service that I realized that "my" funerals are hymn heavy--incorporating alongside the comfort of God's Word, three, sometimes even four hymns. I have never really articulated a pastoral philosophy of funerals, but my practice revealed to me that I believe that singing solid truth at times of mourning--or hearing that solid truth being sung when we are able only to weep--is an act of faith, hope and love.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of faith because we are proclaiming that death is not the victor--Christ Jesus is! He who is life itself by choice experienced what is inevitable for us, and by that death he dealt death itself a deathblow.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of hope because we are affirming that though we have grief we have assurance that we will again see those who have crossed into the presence of God's glory.

Singing God's truth at times of mourning is an act of love because, as we sing, our hearts rise with gratitude to the God who loved us first, making it possible for our dead, dry hearts to beat with life and love in return.

Of course, it is not merely at times of grief that the great hymns propel us in the progress and joy of our faith. In every step of our faith's journey, sound, beautiful hymns become a highway in our hearts for exhortation, encouragement, assurance and even accountability--and this is only a meager list of how tightly rich hymnody is intertwined with our sanctification. They give us a theological touchstone that speaks deeply to us, not in place of Scripture, but in support of the precious truths it reveals to us.

One week after he died, family and friends gathered and we glorified God as we honored my father's memory. His grandchildren shared their favorite memory of Papa or Granddaddy. I preached from Philippians 1 about the "gain-gain" situation my father had faced--and through Jesus, had entered into. And then some of us attempted to sing with our mouths what we shouted in our hearts:

No guilt in life, no fear in death--This is the pow'r of Christ in me; From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man, Can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home-- Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.

Rev. Rob Looper is the Senior Pastor of McIlwain Presbyterian Church in Pensacola, FL.


Congratulations to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and United Reformed Churches (URCNA) and Great Commission Publications on the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018). I have only had my copy for a couple of weeks or so, but I want to offer a few quick notes and observations on what I've seen so far.

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal (2018) contains versions of all 150 Psalms in metrical form, but fewer hymns than either the old "Blue" Trinity Hymnal (1961) or the new "Red" Trinity Hymnal (1990). Having used two editions (1927 and 1973) of the Scottish Psalter and Church Hymnary during my time in Edinburgh (1987-1991), I was thrilled to see a Psalter Hymnal produced for North American churches, especially considering that both hymns and metrical psalms have generally fallen upon hard times in our circles.

As a Presbyterian pastor who wanted my people to know as many solid hymns and metrical Psalms as possible, I utilized the Trinity Psalter (1994), which was a joint project of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA), as well as the Book of Psalms for Singing (1998) and more recently the Book of Psalms for Worship (2009), both by the RPCNA, as well as the more than fifty Psalm selections in the new Trinity Hymnal (1990) and many other resources. So, the very idea of a Psalter Hymnal being produced with our theological constituency in mind was very encouraging.

I have not had time yet to work through the Psalm choices (texts and tunes), but I have had a chance to glance briefly at the hymns. Here's what I've seen. Whereas the new Trinity Hymnal (1990) has 742 numbered hymns and songs, and the Trinity Psalter Hymnal has 424. I don't view this as a negative. The key is keeping the best of the best. Along those lines, I note that it retains most of the 100 hymns that I recommend that every congregation know.

Among those hymns on the list I created in the above article (chosen as durable, singable, substantial, texts and tunes) that the new Trinity Psalter Hymnal omits are: "Marvelous Grace of Our Loving Lord," "A Few More Years Shall Roll," "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms," "Trust and Obey," "We Have Heard the Joyful Sound (Jesus Saves! Jesus Saves!)," "Who Is On the Lord's Side?," and, "From All that Dwell below the Skies" (Watts, based on Psalm 117). These are, I think, among the biggest losses hymn-wise. The alphabetical index of hymns in the back omits "A Debtor to Mercy Alone" (Toplady's great hymn), but thankfully that hymn is retained (434).

The Trinity Psalter Hymnal also includes a significant number (north of 65!) of old and new hymns, psalms, paraphrases, and songs that are not found in one or both of the previous editions of the Trinity Hymnal, including quite a few by relatively recent and perhaps unfamiliar writers, among them: "Praise God for Joy of Sabbath Blest" (Scott Finch, 2008), "You Who His Temple Throng," "Master, Speak! Thy Servant Heareth," "Speak, O Lord" (Getty and Townend, 2006), the first of a number of Getty and/or Townend hymns, "Your Law, O God, Is Our Delight" (Derrick and Debbie Vander Muelen, 2015), "Thus Saith the Mercy of the Lord," "O God, Great Father, Lord and King," "Come, Take By Faith the Body of the Lord," "Zion, to Thy Savior Singing," (a hymn by Thomas Aquinas on the Lord's Supper, pretty edgy for confessional Reformed Presbyterians!), "Forth in Your Name I Go," "We All Believe in One True God" (a setting of the Apostles' Creed), "Give Praise to God" (Boice, 1999), the first of several hymns by James Montgomery Boice, "O the Deep, Unbounded Riches" (2015), the first of several hymns by Jonathan Landry Cruse, "O Righteous, in the Lord Rejoice," All Glory Be to God" (Elisabeth Shafer, 2012), the first of several hymns by various Shafers, "Father, Long Before Creation" (1952), a text in translation but of Chinese provenance, "All Mankind Fell in Adam's Fall," "In Christ Alone" (Getty/Townend, 2002), "Before the Throne of God Above" (the tune is from 1997, by Vikki Cook), "All Praise to Christ" (Boice, 1999), "Consider Well" (Russell St. John, 2006), "Song of Zechariah" (OPC/URCNA, 2016), "Song of Simeon" (Dewey Westra, 1931), "Song of Mary" (Lou Ann Shafer, 2015), "A Shoot Will Spring from Jesse's Stump" (OPC/URCNA, 2016), "Songs of Thankfulness and Praise," "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna," "Up to the Mountain, Went Our Lord" (Nancy Tischler and Mary Bahnfleth, 2005), the first of a couple by this team, "How Deep the Father's Love for Us" (Townend, 1995), "Lamb, Precious Lamb" (Cruse, 2013), "Christ, above All Glory Seated," "How Great the Bright Angelic Host" (Bahnfleth and Tischler, 2004), "Eternal Spirit, God of Truth," "O Spirit, Fill Our Hearts" (Elisabeth Shafer, 2010), "Holy Spirit of Messiah" (OPC/URCNA, 2016), "Christian Hearts in Love United," a really nice addition for a confessional Reformed hymnal in the current climate, "In Christ There Is No East or West" (Michael Perry, 1982), "Salvation Unto Us Has Come," "How Marvelous, How Wise, How Great" (Boice, 1999), "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy" (not to be confused with or mistaken for "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Wretched," which is also in the TPH), "Come to the Waters" (Boice, 2000), "How Shall They Hear the Word of God," "Union with Thee" (Jeremiah Montgomery, 2014), "O Fountain of Unceasing Grace," "Cast Down, O God, the Idols" (Herman, Stuempfle, 1997), "Here From All Nations" (Christopher Idle, 1973), "I Have No Other Comfort," a 1937 text based on Heidelberg Catechism No. 1, "In Doubt and Temptation," a 1959 Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 73, "On the Good and Faithful" (UP Psalter of 1912, Psalm 4), "Rejoice, Believer, in the Lord," "Behold, My Servant," a song based on Isaiah 42, 58 & 61 (OCP/URCNA, 2016), "If I Speak a Foreign Tongue" which is, of course, 1 Corinthians 13 (Bert Polman, 1986), "Thy Mercy Lord, Is What I Need" (Cruse, 2014), "More Than Conquerors," Romans 8:31-39 (Cruse, 2015), "Hallelujah!," one of my favorite Boice hymn texts, with the surprising and stirring refrain: "Nothing. Hallelujah!" (Boice, 1999), "I Asked the Lord That I Might Grow," made known in our time especially through Indelible Grace, and one of the best additions to the TPH in our estimation, (Newton), "The Lord's Prayer," based on the Heidelberg Catechism exposition (George van Popta, 2009), "Loving Shepherd of Your Sheep," "The Battle is the Lord's" (Margaret Clarkson, 1960), "God of the Prophets," "O Shine Upon These, Lord," "Oh, Blest the House," "Another Year Is Dawning," "The Lord's Prayer," a simple, beautiful, direct, faithful rendering by a missionary hero (Adoniram Judson), and "Praise Ye the Lord, Ye Hosts Above."

There are some interesting hymn title changes. The Trinity Psalter Hymnal goes with "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" rather than "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past," as it is found in the Trinity Hymnal (1990). The TPHchanges "Have You" back to "Hast Thou" in "Hast Thou Not Known, Hast Thou Not Heard." "Who is He in Yonder Stall" is changed to "Who is He Born in the Stall" (which seems to go against the grain of the previous decision). "Rejoice All Ye Believers" becomes "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers" (again, same point as before, we get rid of a "Ye" and reinsert a "Hast Thou" - wonder how that debate went in committee?). Then "Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart" is changed to "Spirit of God, Dwell Thou Within My Heart" (which has to be some kind of a theological edit, because it doesn't make sense as an update). "As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised" is changed to "As When the Prophet Moses Raised" (I don't have a guess at all about that one--is that the way Watts originally wrote it?). "Come My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare" (which, of course, refers not to a lawsuit or a businessman's clothing, but to a petition or "suit"--however we don't use the word that way much anymore) is changed to "Come My Soul with Every Care" (which may be the best change we've seen so far, all though the sentimental side of me bears some regret).

I'm looking forward to studying the versions of the metrical Psalms that they have chosen. Shane Lems has already taken a quick glance at them. Thanks to all who worked on this Psalter Hymnal. As I continue to review it, I will report on it in more depth.

"To Nazareth came Gabriel, a herald of God's love"

[I probably do not need to inform regular readers of this blog that Christmas is not my favourite season. Nevertheless, I try to take the opportunity to use the occasion. Recently, preaching from Luke 1, I was disappointed with the range of hymns available that focused on the miraculous conception. What follows is a first attempt at addressing that lack. For those who enjoy such things at this time of year, I trust it is a blessing.]

D.C.M. (Haydn)

To Nazareth came Gabriel, a herald of God's love,
A message of rich grace to tell of mercy from above;
"Rejoice, you favoured of the Lord, for you indeed are blessed!"
But when the virgin heard his word, she felt a deep unrest.

"Fear not, for this is grace from God, and you shall bear a child!
The Son of God, and Jesse's Rod, a Saviour undefiled;
And he shall reign on David's throne, and all before him bend;
He reigns o'er Jacob's house alone, his kingdom without end."

"How can this be?" the virgin said, "I do not know a man."
The angel bowed his lofty head, and told the heavenly plan:
"The Holy Spirit will descend, God's mighty power apply -
The Holy One he thus will send, the Son of God Most High."

And Mary bowed her humble head, raised no untrusting cry,
But, full of faith, she sweetly said, "God's maidservant am I!"
And we, O Lord, would likewise bow, and trust the heavenly word,
Each heart embrace the Saviour now, and own him as our Lord.

Jeremy Walker
See other hymns and psalms.

See other hymns and psalms.
See other hymns and psalms.
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See other hymns and psalms.
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:
L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.
- See more at:

"Behold the blessèd Lamb of God"

L.M. (Eden)
Behold the blessèd Lamb of God,
Who for the world poured out his blood;
He died and suffered on the tree
That men the grace of God might see.

Behold the bleeding Sacrifice -
Salvation at unmeasured price.
He came to this dark world below,
God's greatest blessing to bestow.

Behold the Saviour, Christ the King,
Let all his ransomed people sing
Of him, who to redeem us died,
But reigns now at the Father's side.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"Every precious blessing"

6 5. 6 5 (North Coates)
Every precious blessing
Comes from God above;
Everything we have is
From his heart of love.

Jesus is the best gift,
Coming down to save:
Dying for his people,
Rising from the grave.

Gracious Spirit, give us
Hearts to trust the Son,
Souls that overflow with
Praise for all he's done.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"Let the praises of God's mercy"

8 7. 8 7. D (Dim Ond Iesu)
Let the praises of God's mercy
My poor heart and tongue employ;
Let each thought of grace and justice
Fill this soul with boundless joy.
Let me think on Christ my Saviour,
Let me dwell on his great love;
Let me serve with all my being
Till I see his face above.

Having known such great forgiveness,
And deliverance from sin's sway,
May the Spirit always teach me
To each truthful word obey.
Oh forgive me for transgression;
Grant me grace to do your will;
Keep my soul and flesh from sinning,
Every part with goodness fill.

Fill my mind with truth unchanging,
And my heart with holy fire;
Give me strength to work with gladness,
And with praise my lips inspire.
Let the Saviour be my pattern,
God the Spirit be my light;
God the Father, my protector;
And God's service my delight.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"God set before me love"

S.M. (Bod Alwyn)
God set before me love
To draw my soul to him,
But I was bound in Satan's chains
And revelled in my sin.

I saw the mercy seat,
Was taught the way to go;
I saw that Christ had died for sin,
But did not want to know.

I would not follow him,
I fought against his call,
But God would have me be his child,
Him be my All in All.

God set before me fear,
Darkness, despair and dread.
He drove me forth into the night
Where angels fear to tread.

As wreckage on the sea
Before God's storm I fled,
Exhausted, scourged and fearing still,
To where my Saviour bled.

While still his enemy
He suffered for my sin.
As clouds across a storm-swept sky
God sped my soul to him.

Still understanding not
I wept and feared until
At the bright throne of God I found
Grace, love, and mercy still.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End"

11 11. 11 11 (To God be the glory [without refrain])
Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End;
My Saviour, my Shepherd, my Lord, and my Friend;
The Righteous, the Holy, to you we will bring
Our prayers and our praises, a sweet offering.

A Prophet revealing by Spirit and Word;
A King all-triumphant with almighty sword;
A Priest interceding before heaven's throne,
Whose sacrifice does for his people atone.

The Word Everlasting, Creator of all;
The Root of King David, but laid in a stall;
The light of God's heaven - no longer afar -
Comes into our darkness, a bright Morning Star.

The promised salvation, God's Yes and Amen;
The Lion of Judah, the Lamb that was slain;
The one God incarnate, the Son of God's love,
Who stooped down to conquer from heaven above.

The Truth and the Life and the new, living Way;
The Conqueror of hell, whom e'en devils obey;
All-glorious, victorious, the church's crowned Head,
The Judge of the living, the Judge of the dead.

The great Lord of Glory, the First and the Last;
The light of the world, and our crucified Christ;
Himself both Redeemer and ransom-price paid,
All glory to him who atonement has made!
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"O Lord, the way is hard and long"

L.M. (Angel's Song)
O Lord, the way is hard and long
And fellow travellers are few;
I am not wise, I am not strong,
I fear I shall not make it through.

On every side a sinking mire;
Down every path a mocker's glee;
In every way a burning fire;
On either hand a roaring sea.

But you, O Lord, my portion are,
The rock in which my soul can hide:
Better, my God, and better far
Than all and everything beside.

Men will betray, and friends will fail,
Each day a newfound enemy;
Yet through the storm I safely sail
With you, O God, to comfort me.

My flesh, my God, is poor and weak,
My heart and faith so often low;
But I will find you when I seek,
And you will guide me where to go.

Lord God, reveal your gracious way,
Your Spirit deep within me dwell,
And guide me on to glorious day
In Jesus Christ, who loves me well.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"How can this guilty sinner flee"

C.M. (Godre'r Coed)
How can this guilty sinner flee
The judgement that is mine?
How can a wretched man escape
The punishment divine?

Tell me where wrath and mercy meet;
Show me God reconciled.
Where can a rebel find true peace,
Rest for a heart so wild?

Come, take the path to Calvary,
Climb up her shadowed side:
This is the way that Jesus went,
This is where Jesus died.

This is where Christ poured out his blood;
This is where peace begins;
This is where wrath and mercy meet:
Pardon for all our sins.

Here is the wisdom of our God,
And here his power divine;
Here is a full atonement made,
And righteousness does shine.

Sinner, would you escape God's wrath?
Would you be truly blessed?
Here God in Christ is reconciled;
Here is eternal rest.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"In Eden's sinless garden"

7 6. 7 6 (St. Alphege)
In Eden's sinless garden
A man and woman stood,
Each crafted in God's image,
And both entirely good.

The serpent entered Eden,
And entered both their hearts;
And neither did resist him,
Fell to his fiery darts.

So Adam's abdication
Was punished by the Lord;
Eve's insubordination
Jehovah much abhorred.

Then came the Second Adam
Into the wilderness.
Where Adam fell, he conquered,
Both to restore and bless.

He raises from the ruins
Of Eden's shattered bliss,
And by his saving power
Does Satan's blight dismiss.

True men, pursue with courage
Loving nobility;
True women, with true beauty,
Submissive dignity.

You sons of Adam, glory
That Jesus sets you free.
Eve's daughters, bow before him,
Embrace your liberty.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"He stepped from his high throne"

6 6. 6 6. 8 8 (Rhosymedre)
He stepped from his high throne,
And laid aside his crown,
And to this sinful world
The Son of God stooped down:
He came as our Immanuel
That God as man with men should dwell.

The virgin brought him forth
As promised from of old;
The Word in flesh appeared,
The Saviour long foretold:
He came as our Immanuel
That God as man with men should dwell.

The angels praised the Lord,
And shepherds came to see;
In royal Bethlehem,
The wise men bowed their knee:
They worshipped our Immanuel,
For God as man with men did dwell.

He came in servant form,
A King of David's line;
And those who looked for hope
Beheld redemption shine:
They looked on our Immanuel,
For God as man with men did dwell.

Messiah mediates,
The breach with God to mend;
He served because he loved;
He loved us to the end:
He came as our Immanuel
That ransomed men with God might dwell.

And Jesus was his name -
He died and rose to save,
And we shall know in full
His triumph o'er the grave:
For he is our Immanuel
And man at last with God shall dwell.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"I wander often from the way"

8 8 6. D (Tresalem)
I wander often from the way,
And sin afflicts me every day:
Oh, when shall I be pure?
Christ leads me to the path again,
And washes me from every stain,
A cleansing full and sure.

I hear the world's enticing voice,
That tempts me to a godless choice:
How shall I stand the test?
Christ draws my mind to things above,
To that which I should truly love,
And there I see what's best.

Weary and weak and full of pain,
I wonder shall I ever gain
Relief when I'm oppressed?
Christ takes me gently by the hand,
He strengthens me, and makes me stand,
And then I am at rest.

Too often full of bitterness,
Anger, frustration, and distress:
When shall I be at peace?
Christ bids me view his life again,
Where tender love and patience reign,
And there my turmoils cease.

All imperfection, falling short
Of every precept I am taught:
Is there no hope for me?
Christ is my hope: he bears my sins,
My heart makes new, my heaven wins,
And there is certainty.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"Grace abounding! Oh the sweetness"

8 7. 8 7 (Sussex)
Grace abounding! Oh the sweetness
Of those words to sinful hearts.
Trace the stream of heavenly mercy
That on darkened Calvary starts.

Kings dispensing earthly splendours
Cannot match our gracious Lord:
Grace abounding! Oh the riches
Of the bounty now outpoured.

Grace divine! How freely given!
Grace beyond the scope of thought!
Swell my heart to know the blessing
That with Jesus' blood was bought.

Christ pursues the wandering sinner;
Christ redeems the wretched soul;
Christ can meet the utmost need, and
Christ can make the sinner whole.

Deepest soundings cannot measure
All the goodness of God's grace;
How my thankful heart rejoices
At the smile upon God's face.

Jesus found me, Jesus bought me,
Jesus keeps me, holds me fast;
Christ will bring me safe to glory:
Christ will lead me home at last.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

"Come, merciful and mighty God"

C.M. (Brent)
Come, merciful and mighty God,
And break these hearts of stone:
Your word the heavenly instrument,
The power yours alone.

These stubborn wills conform to yours;
To feeble minds give light;
Put fire into these empty hearts;
Exert your gracious might.

Give life where death is ruling now:
Prove Jesus Satan's bane!
Break every chain, throw wide the door,
Let glorious freedom reign.

May Christ be Lord of every life,
And King of every heart;
Break sin's dominion; cleanse, renew,
And righteousness impart.

Come, merciful and mighty God,
We look to you alone;
Exert your power: give hearts of flesh
In place of hearts of stone.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.

Singing in worship

Now that the news has broken that my album - tentatively entitled Funkier Than You Think - may be hitting the market before long, I feel marginally better qualified to speak to the issue of the sung worship of the church.

The New Testament data with regard to singing in the worship of the church is, to put it bluntly, sparse. On the one hand, it seems strange that an issue which excited so little attention in the early church should be the sphere of so many of the worship wars which have erupted in recent years. On the other, perhaps it is precisely because the instruction is sparse and simple that we feel we have a right or even a need to develop our own principles and practice.

In this regard, it is strange how many of those who emphasise, even trumpet, their new covenant credentials in other areas are so quick to run to the Old Testament for a justification of the manner (as opposed to the matter) of worship. And, of course, for sung worship it is often very much a surface reading of the psalms, which immediately provide us with good reason for choirs and multiple instrumentation and a host of other options: after all, David had harps and lyres, didn't he? Q.E.D. Or, in fact, quod non erat demonstrandum. I do not deny that the Old Testament sheds much light on our principles of worship, and ought to be employed for that purpose, but I do not believe that it ought to be normative for its forms.

There are only a few passages which directly address the sung worship of the militant new covenant church gathered together in the presence of God:
"And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God." (Eph 5.18-21)

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Col 3.16)

"What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding." (1Cor 14.15)
I pass over James 5.13 - "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms" - because it seems to be primarily a private instruction, although it is interesting to compare it with the experience of Paul and Silas in prison (Acts 16.25). 1 Corinthians14.26 also suggests that psalms were in the mix in the Corinthian church, but is, perhaps, more incidental than the others. The simple and sweet narratives of the Lord's supper do not offer us much more. However, the clearest passages offer a few straightforward principles that we would do well to consider.

Firstly, the instrument to which the New Testament gives a clear priority, and on which it lays the greatest emphasis, is the human voice expressing the fullness of the heart. Whether or not you accept that this requires the positive and complete absence of musical instruments as accompaniment, I would suggest that it certainly puts them in their place, and the concern with the style and quality of the musicians that seems to dominate much of the discussion is seen to be simply inappropriate. At best, musical instruments ought to accompany the voice, guiding and supporting it, not competing with or drowning it. Given this, the use of musical instruments should probably be minimal, providing a platform for the voice, the primary instrument by which the saints of the New Testament praise the Lord.

Secondly, that instrument is to be played by every member of the congregation. Sung worship is essentially congregational. The light of nature may point toward, again, some kind of leadership, but there is nothing here of the individual or group, however formally or informally, isolated from the mass and pursuing something separate from or before them. Congregational worship helps to avoid any element of mere performance creeping in, no small blessing in an age in which music and singing are almost irrevocably linked with performance and show. Of course, the absence of a band or choir or soloist does not necessarily secure the ends intended. How many congregations are dominated and even crippled by people with powerful voices who sing without reference to anyone else around them, their timings, speed, and volume governed - it would seem - by their own spirit separate from others, or without any real awareness of what is happening, or even by the desire to be heard and to impress? A good voice, well and humbly employed, is a help to those of us who may not have such a gift from God and who sometimes feel that our contribution is "a joyful noise" but not much more. Individuals must bring their gifts within the body and for the purpose of serving the whole, not parading in front of them, ignorantly or otherwise. Edification will, in some instances, mean a proper and determined restraint in the employment of our gifts, as well as gusto in other cases. Families can assist in forming the pattern by singing in family worship, encouraging the children to make a cheerful and willing effort. Parents should set a good example, standing straight, opening their mouths and using their lungs, not mumbling themselves, nor allowing their children to slump and mutter through the singing.

Thirdly, this suggests something about the musical style. The tunes to be employed must fall within the range of the congregation. I am not saying that it would be wrong to develop the capacity of the congregation in the praise of God, either in the range or style of the tunes, or our ability to sing them, but - if the whole congregation is to sing - then the range and structure of any particular tune ought to lend itself to the participation of everyone. To that end, principles of simplicity and freshness and tunefulness and memorization ought to be part of what governs the writing and singing of tunes.

Perhaps here it would be appropriate to point out that the tunes ought to be fitting to the words. There is nothing that grates more than a melody that is in overt conflict with the mood of the lyrics that are being sung. Again, the light of nature dictates that a more contemplative song needs a more contemplative tune; a song of overflowing joy ought to be sung to a tune, in a key, at a tempo, and with a volume that connects with its meaning; the mournful cry requires its own setting if the singing is to be in keeping with the substance. Again, the temptation of many congregations - especially those with larger numbers - to sing with abominable and often increasing slowness must be resisted; so must the instinct to dash through everything without giving opportunity for breath or thought. Lingering on notes, especially at the ends of verses, tends to have the effect of dragging everything out, so that each verse begins more slowly than the last, and every tune becomes a dirge by the time it has been finished. As Spurgeon once encouraged his congregation, "Dear friends, the devil sometimes makes you lag half a note behind the leader. Just try if you can't prevail over him to-night, and keep in proper time." If the lively hymns are sung to lively tunes in a lively style, then there is space for the more meditative and mournful contributions to adapt.

Of course, these passages also speak to the internal realities of our worshipful singing. So we find that the singing is to consist in "psalms and hymns and spiritual songs," the outflow of the word of Christ dwelling in us richly in all wisdom and the filling of the Spirit. Whether or not one agrees with the interpretation that will have these categories as three divisions of the psalter, it is immediately clear that the fundamental content of our songs ought to be Biblical truth. That does not mean that there is no space for personal experience (the pattern of the psalms alone would indicate otherwise), but that experience ought never to be divorced from the truth. The content of our songs should be drawn from and governed by Scripture in all its wealth.

But notice further that this truth is to be expressed in both its vertical and horizontal dimensions. By this I mean that our singing is in part directed toward God and in part toward men. Godward, you are "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." Manward, you are "speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" and "teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs." It would be wrong to draw too fine a distinction between these elements, insisting that every composition must fall into one or the other category, but - whether or not, or to what degree, these are blended - we must consider that we are singing to one another, bringing needed truth before one another's minds and hearts, and singing to the Lord, expressing all the realities of his being and doing, and the realities of our relationship to him. But notice the motives: the intention is not to impress God nor to entertain men, but to thank and adore the Lord and to instruct and exhort his people. These aims must be ever before us as we sing, or we will lose our way.

And, as with all new covenant worship, it must be worship in spirit and truth (Jn 4.24). Whatever that much controverted verse means, there is surely something of the same sense in the instruction to "be filled with the Spirit," "singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord," "singing with grace in your heart to the Lord." This speaks of a supernatural dimension and assistance, of spiritual sincerity, thoughtful participation and genuine engagement. It does not permit us to avoid the happy songs if we are ourselves sad, nor to balk at the sad songs if we are ourselves happy. We are told to enter into the spirit of what we might not ourselves be instinctively feeling: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Rom 12.15). In so doing, we offer to others what they need, and perhaps dose ourselves with a necessary medicine: as John Wesley said to Methodist singers, "Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing."

Wesley went on:
Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.
Surely this is an instruction that every saint - regardless of their physical ability - can follow? Isaac Watts offers a similar sentiment by way of warning in his paraphrase of Psalm 47:

Rehearse his praise with awe profound,
Let knowledge lead the song,
Nor mock him with a solemn sound
Upon a thoughtless tongue.

Watts brings us back to the matter of truth and understanding, and so guides us again toward a blending of some of these concerns. If we are to sing in the way just described, we must heed Paul's conclusion: "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (1Cor 14.15). Spiritual reality does not suspend or bypass the mental faculty, and our singing - if it is to pass this test - must be coherent and intelligible. It is in this way that we enter most readily into the glorious truths of which we sing. This requirement does not mean that our songs must be childish or unintelligent. Words should be clear and accurate both in their meaning (if the poetry or the vocabulary require explanation, this is usually easily done) and their vocalization, so that they can be understood - after all, how can you instruct your brother if he cannot tell what he is hearing? I would suggest that it does mean avoiding what is unnecessarily archaic or abstruse in our language, especially in environments where there may be many visitors, or a number of people who are not singing in their first language. At the same time, our sole concern is not horizontal, and it is perfectly appropriate to use accurate and rich expressions of praise to God that may require explanation to those unfamiliar with them. In addition, part of the teaching we offer on the horizontal plane may also require further explanation at times. To borrow a pithy thought from Machen, and apply it in a slightly different way: "I am by no means ready to relinquish the advantages of a precise terminology in summarizing Bible truth. In religion as well as in other spheres a precise terminology is mentally economical in the end; it repays amply the slight effort for the mastery of it" (What is Faith? [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991], 162-3).

It seems to me that simplicity is of the essence of our worship, allowing the spiritual substance to be expressed with sincerity and without distraction. As I have commented to our own congregation, imagine a situation in which the church is being persecuted. The secret police have learned that following the people who leave their homes with pianos on flatbed trucks on Sunday mornings is usually quite a productive train of enquiry, no less so those who carry violin or guitar cases. Perhaps it is too great a risk even to carry a Bible. Therefore, taking all necessary precautions, the believers meet at a pre-appointed place in the misty dawn, perhaps under a gospel oak as they did in days not so long ago. The saints gather swiftly and silently and with much prayer for their safety. There the appointed preacher arrives, and after prayer asks one of the saints to recite from memory the portion from which he intends to preach. He then expounds the passage, making its appropriate applications. The saints softly sing a couple of psalms or hymns together, ones easily memorized and readily learned. In a nearby stream a new convert is baptized, changing swiftly out of wet clothes, and then the Lord's supper is celebrated by the saints breaking bread and passing around wine. Before they depart they sing again, their voices muted but intense. Before long, the service is over, and the believers melt away into the growing day, leaving in various directions and small groups so as to arouse no suspicion.

What more is required? I am not saying that this is the ideal, or that anything different would be inherently sinful, but I do contend that absolutely nothing is lacking to make this pleasing to the Lord.

While much more might be said, I hope that these few thoughts will at least stimulate us to consider once again and more carefully, the hows, whys and wherefores of our sung worship, lifting up heart and voice in the right way and for the right reason, glorifying God and doing good to men as we sing a new song to the Lord.

"A mighty host of angels stands"

8 7. 8 7. D (iambic) (Constance)
A mighty host of angels stands
Around Christ's throne in heaven;
Their sinless tongues extol his worth,
All praise to him is given;
With awe recount his mighty works,
His face behold with wonder,
Lift up their voice to hymn the Lord
With a celestial thunder.

A countless host of blood-bought souls
Adds its triumphant measure;
In robes of white they sing with joy,
Their hearts now with their treasure.
This happy throng could quickly tell
Ten thousand grace-filled stories,
But sooner are their lips and hearts
Filled with his radiant glories.

And shall my stumbling tongue on earth
Disrupt this happy chorus?
No - all I am shall glorify
The One who suffered for us!
Though fearsome foes and grievous woes
Our joys are now assailing,
A life safe hid with Christ in God
Calls forth a song unfailing.

So, called by grace and kept by love,
Protected by his power,
Our timeless glories with our God
Draw nearer every hour.
With eyes fixed fast on Christ above,
Unmoved by scorn or pity,
We travel on to where he dwells,
In God's abiding city.
Jeremy Walker

See other hymns and psalms.