Hymns, Theology and Spirituality

One of the greatest sources of Christian theology and spirituality is the old hymns. In marked contrast to most of the worship choruses found in today’s church services, the old hymns were rich depositories of biblical spirituality, theological truth, and Christian belief.

There is nothing like going back to the old hymns for spiritual nourishment, especially in times of spiritual dryness, difficulty or pain. They stir the soul, sustain the spirit, and enrich the mind. They reflect so much theological depth – compared to what we find today – that is a real tragedy that we are neglecting these stirring anthems.

James Montgomery Boice once lamented, “One of the saddest features of contemporary worship is that the great hymns of the church are on the way out. They are not gone entirely, but they are going. And in their place have come trite jingles that have more in common with contemporary advertising ditties than the psalms. The problem here is not so much the style of the music, though trite words fit best with trite tunes and harmonies. Rather it is with the content of the songs. The old hymns expressed the theology of the church in profound and perceptive ways and with winsome memorable language. Today’s songs reflect only our shallow or non-existent theology and do almost nothing to elevate one’s thoughts about God.

“Worst of all are songs that merely repeat a trite idea, word or phrase over and over again. Songs like this are not worship, though they may give the church goer a religious feeling. They are mantras, which belong more in a gathering of New Agers than among the worshipping people of God.”

It is not just great theology which can be found in the old hymns, but very moving spiritual riches, aiding the Christian in his devotional life. Tozer was quite right when he wrote: “After the Bible the next most valuable book for the Christian is a good hymnal. Let any young Christian spend a year prayerfully meditating on the hymns of Watts and Wesley alone and he will become a fine theologian. Then let him read a balanced diet of the Puritans and the Christian mystics. The results will be more wonderful than he could have dreamed.”

But enough from me. Let me just mention a few hymns (out of so many) and offer a few verses from them. Where does one begin? One thinks of course as such classics as How Great Thou Art, Rock of Ages and Amazing Grace. And we can never go past Luther’s c.1528 A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. Consider verses 1 and 3:

A mighty fortress is our God,
a bulwark never failing;
Our helper he, amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe
doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great,
and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed
his truth to triumph through us:
the Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure,
one little word shall fell him.

Charles Wesley is always another great source. Consider the last verse of his Love Divine, All Loves Excelling from 1747:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Or the fourth verse of his And Can It Be That I Should Gain (1738):

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Isaac Watts of course wrote many great hymns as well. As an example, Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed written in the early 1700s. Here is the last verse:

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe:
Here, Lord, I give my self away
’Tis all that I can do.

Katharina A. von Schlegel’s 1752 hymn, Be Still My Soul, begins this way:

Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

And consider Be Thou My Vision. The fourth verse of this eight century hymn goes this way:

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

The third verse of Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing by Robert Robinson (1758) is also well worth sharing:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O Sacred Head Now Wounded, attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, 1153, has this as its fifth verse:

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

Also worth highlighting, verse six of Crown Him with Many Crowns by Matthew Bridges (1852):

Crown Him the Lord of love:
Behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds, yet visible above,
In beauty glorified;
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends His wondering eye
At mysteries so bright.

There is a Fountain Filled With Blood by William Cowper (1772) has this as its first verse:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

One last example, but a somewhat newer one: The Love of God. The lyrics were penned in 1917 by Frederick M. Lehman, but it is based on an old Jewish poem from the eleventh century. The third and final verse is remarkable:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

One could keep on like this forever; and we will in eternity – singing his praises, never tiring of worshipping him, and rejoicing in what he has done for us.

For more:

There are a number of very helpful sites to find hymns, get the lyrics, listen to the songs, learn about the composers and history, etc. Here are three of them:
www.hymnlyrics.org/
www.hymntime.com/tch/
www.cyberhymnal.org/

And to round this off, listen to one great hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded: www.youtube.com/watch?v=VdIMYTwCQKY

[1257 words]


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