Why Sing?


Ephesians 5: 18-20

I: — Why do we sing hymns at every service of worship? Why do we sing hymns at all? To ask this question is to find ourselves asking another question, “Why sing?” But if “Why sing?”, then also “Why make music? Why dance? Why paint? Why write poetry?”

Let’s begin with the last question. Why write poetry? Wouldn’t prose do as well? No, it would not. Poetry has what prose will never have. There is a density to poetry, a compression, a compactness which prose lacks. There is an immediacy to poetry, an intensity, a passion which prose will never have. Because of the vivid imagery in poetry there is a concreteness to poetry compared to which prose is very abstract. You must have noticed that children do not think abstractly; children think concretely. So do primitive peoples. That’s why poetry comes naturally to children and primitive peoples. Only developed societies use abstract prose. Poetry, like music and dancing, is rooted so deep in the human psyche that it could not be deeper.

Poetry plus music gives us song. We sing inasmuch as our psychic constitution impels us to sing.

And why do we sing hymns? Because God himself has reached into the very deepest depths of our heart. God, after all, is our creator. He has fashioned us in his own image. Luke tells us that all humankind has been made to “feel after” God. In addition, in Jesus Christ God has come upon us, poured himself over us, pressed himself upon us, overwhelmed us and soaked us. Every time he thinks of this St.Paul is startled afresh: “He loved me, and gave himself, for me”. St.John says, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as one dead.” Jeremiah exclaims, “The word of the Lord is like fire in my mouth.” The psalmist cries, “The Lord…delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant!” Mary, mother of Jesus, shouts, “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour”.

Something this profound can find expression only in a vehicle which is deeper than deep. The vehicle is poetry and music together. It is no wonder that we sing.

As the gospel informs us we learn the depth of God’s mercy, the extent of God’s patience, the scope of God’s wisdom. All of this stamps itself upon us as Jesus Christ stamps himself upon us. Not surprisingly, then, our hymns come to have a precise content, a rich substance, a specific theme and thrust. Our hymns articulate more exactly that truth of God which has seized us and now sustains us. It is surely obvious now why we sing hymns, and why we shall always sing them.

II: — What kinds of hymns should we sing? Hymns are divided roughly into two kinds: objective and subjective. Objective hymns sing about God, even sing to God. Subjective hymns sing about us. An objective hymn is “Glory be to God the Father, Glory be to God the Son”. A subjective hymn, “O that will be Glory for me”. Many hymns fall in between, embodying elements of both.

Remember, objective hymns sing about God, his person, his truth, his way with us. Subjective hymns sing about us, our moods, our feelings, our aspirations, our response. Now think about this. The New Testament is of one mind that on Calvary’s cross something was done for us, done on our behalf, done, ultimately, by God himself. What was done for us was done in order that something might also be done in us. The order is important. Scripture always moves from the objective to the subjective, from God to us. St.Peter says compactly, “Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree, in order that we might die to sin and live to righteousness”. Ultimately God did something for us in order that God might consequently do something in us.

If I were to ask you to name the best hymn in the English language concerning the cross, which hymn would you select? Many would select, “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”. But have you ever noticed that this hymn really isn’t about the cross at all. It says nothing about the atonement. It is about the way our attitudes change when we survey the cross. When we. behold the cross we pour contempt on our pride; we count our richest gain but loss; we cease our boasting. These are all appropriate changes of attitude, to be sure. Nevertheless, the hymn is not about what was done for us on Good Friday. The best hymn about what God has effected through the cross, in my opinion, is a Christmas carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” Listen to some of the lines:

“Pleased as Man with man to dwell” (an affirmation of the incarnation, the presupposition of the atonement)
“God and sinners reconciled”
“Born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”
“Light and life to all he brings”.

Let’s sing a stanza or two of each kind of hymn, objective and subjective, to illustrate the difference. The objective hymn is “All hail the power of Jesus’ name”. Note how the music supports the theme of the hymn. The sustained notes stand out just because they are sustained; they support the theme, Crown him Lord of all”. The subjective hymn is “O brother man, fold to thy heart they brother.”

III: — Let me say that there is a place for both kinds of hymns. At the same time we must be careful to retain a proper balance and emphasis. The emphasis has to be on the objective hymn; the balance is that we bracket a subjective hymn by having objective hymns on either side of it. We sang a subjective hymn immediately prior to the sermon today: “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand.” It is unquestionably subjective: “My sinful self, my only shame, my glory all, the cross.” Yet we began the service with an objective hymn and we shall end with one, as we always do.

Let me tell you of my experience a year or two ago. I was flown to Winnipeg to deliver the annual academic lectures at a bible college. I had never had anything to do with the place; I had never had anything to do with any bible college, and didn’t know what to expect. When I arrived I discovered that the students were not interested in academic lectures at all. Following the lectures I was asked to preach at a chapel service. For the service I selected hymns such as “A safe stronghold our God is still” and “Now thank we all our God”. The students would not sing. They stared at the hymnbook and uttered not a sound. The worship-leader, eager to save the day, jumped in and added half-a-dozen highly subjective ditties of minimal substance and maximal sentiment. Whereupon the students sang with gusto. Do those students think that their consciousness, their feelings are the measure of truth? Do they really want to sing about themselves to the exclusion of singing about God? Do they have more confidence in their own (supposed) piety than they have in the gospel? Do they think their faith is stronger than the Word and grace of God which engendered their faith? I was appalled.

Let me repeat. We should sing subjective hymns, for reasons we shall bring forward in a moment. Yet proper emphasis and balance must be maintained. After all, the gospel did not originate with us; the gospel is the self-disclosure and the self-bestowal of God.

To say that there is a place for subjective hymns is not to say that there is a place for mindless sentimentality. Years ago a hit-parade song had one line repeated endlessly: “All you need is lu-uv, doodely doodely doo”. There is a church equivalent: a ditty which consists principally of one line, and says very little. For instance, “Jesus is my friend/Jesus is my friend/Jesus is my friend/ My very own friend.” In terms of substance it doesn’t come close to the great hymns of the church. It says nothing about who Jesus Christ is, what he does, or what he calls forth from us. It is virtually mindless.

There are subjective hymns, however, which are much better than this; subjective hymns which profoundly gather up and articulate our fears, our guilt, our loneliness, as well as our exhilaration and exclamation — all in the light of the goodness and patience, the truth and triumph of God. These hymns we should sing, and sing every week. For we should be honest about ourselves and give expression to what is going on in our hearts, especially in view of the storms within and the storms without.

Think for a minute about bereavement. While it is not healthy for the bereaved person to be weeping all the time, it is equally unhealthy if the bereaved person never weeps. The person who has suffered enormous loss and yet never has a bad day thereafter is unconsciously denying her grief. What is denied is actually buried, soon festers and eventually causes greater emotional discomfort, distortion and even disability. Hymns which permit us, even encourage us, to express our suffering and sorrow in the light of God’s care are health-giving; they are the vehicle of our outcry to God as we hold up our burden to him.

If a thousand and one stresses are beginning to unravel us it is good to sing, “I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest.'”

When we are newly-acquainted with the bottomless depths of our depravity and we are stunned at how vast a work of restoration remains to be done in us, we shall be glad to sing, “Sin and want we come confessing, Thou canst save and thou canst heal.” When we are feeling abandoned (and who hasn’t felt abandoned) it is good to sing, “O love that wilt not let me go”. When we are so wounded that we are beyond even shedding tears we shall sing, as our foreparents did, “Come ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish”.

In all of this we must never lose sight of one glorious truth: how we feel is no indication of where we are. Believing people are “in Christ”, to use Paul’s favourite expression. Our Lord cherishes and secures us even if we feel we are only minutes away from extinction. We are in Christ, and he will ever bind us securely to him.

A splendid hymn which gathers all of this together is “Jesus, lover of my soul”. Before we sing it I want to say a word about the tune to which the lyrics are set. One tune is in a minor key, the other in a major key. Music in a minor key moves us toward introspection, reflection. Minor-key music is haunting, evocative. Not sentimental in the sense of maudlin, but certainly sober, pensive. I like to sing in minor keys now and then, since there is a place for singing soberly, pensively. At the same time, I am especially pleased when Robin Dalgleish resolves the last chord of a minor-key hymn so that we conclude on a major-key note; our mood then shifts from pensive introspection to affirmation. Let’s sing, “Jesus, lover of my soul”, the first two stanzas in a minor key, the latter two stanzas in a major key.

IV: — You must have noticed that we begin and end every service of worship in Streetsville with objective hymns. When we sing a subjective hymn it is always in the middle. (Remember what I said about emphasis and balance!) Have you ever noticed how the written gospels begin and end? Matthew and Luke begin with the annunciation of the birth of Jesus, Messiah, Saviour and Lord; they end with a narrative of the resurrection. Mark begins with a comment on Christ’s public ministry, and ends with his appearance to startled women. John begins with the foundational Word, with the insistence that the entire creation was made through this Word which became flesh. John ends with the risen one commissioning Peter to feed the flock of God. The written gospels neither begin nor end with people looking in upon themselves, fishing around inside themselves for who knows what. They begin and end with with a ringing declaration of the purpose of God in Christ and the fulfilment of that purpose. Shouldn’t this be the way we begin and end a service of worship?

Look at Paul’s letters. They begin with the apostle’s saying, “Grace and peace”. They end with the very same affirmation. Grace is the faithfulness of God whereby God keeps his promise to be our God and not give up on us. Grace points to God’s mercy-riddled steadfastness. Peace, shalom, is God’s end-time restoration of the creation when everything which contradicts the love of God and the truth of God, everything which harasses God’s people, will be dispelled forever. Every epistle begins and ends with the pronouncement of grace and peace.

What happens in the middle of the epistle? Highly disturbing stuff. In Corinth one parishioner was committing incest and appeared not to be the slightest bit upset about it. Some women in the congregation were dressing like streetwalkers and speaking out with comparable brazenness. Some charismatics were trying to turn the service of worship into an emotional exhibition.

In Galatia some church-members were bent on circumcising everything in sight, thinking that in order to be a Christian you first had to become a Jew. Paul was so angry about this that he boiled over and wrote, “If you are so knife-happy why don’t you go all the way and castrate yourselves?” In Colosse some church folk had decided to go in for asceticism: bizarre diets and silly self-denials, none of which was going to help their discipleship at all.

Nevertheless, at the conclusion of every epistle Paul speaks of grace, and only of grace. In other words, regardless of what silliness is going on in congregational life, however painful the truth he has to tell, however ridiculously some people have skewed the gospel, he concludes it all by commending his people to the faithfulness of their God who has promised never to fail them or forsake them. Isn’t this how we should conclude our service of worship?

V: — This morning it remains for us to hear how we are to sing. We are to sing with the same exuberance, ardour and unselfconsciousness that intoxicated people sing with at a party. Paul noted how many of the townspeople in the city of Ephesus became drunk regularly. He told the Christians in Ephesus that they shouldn’t be filled with fire-water; they should be filled with the Spirit (capital “S”!), “singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”

Centuries earlier still the psalmist had cried, “Sing praises to God, sing praises.” Isaac Watts, perhaps the best hymnwriter in the English-speaking world, said, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God.”


Victor A. Shepherd
October 1993