Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Hymns, Theology and Spirituality

Feb 15, 2012

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:

And to round this off, listen to one great hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded:

[1257 words]

40 Responses to Hymns, Theology and Spirituality

  • Dear Bill, There is at least a thousand years of Christian music. For a thousand years the main patron of the art-form of music was the Church. This includes Gregorian chant, various musical settings of the main parts of the Catholic Mass, and of course many hymns. Over the centuries various composers have set the Psalms to music, and called them motets. You have raised a very good point.
    Regards, Franklin Wood

  • Yes quite right Franklin. There is a very rich heritage here indeed. Yet sadly, many Christian young people may only know what comes out of Hillsong, as good as those songs can be. There is so much more we should be making use of here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I also have noted in my blog disparities between the rich, older hymns and thin, popular contemporary offerings. There is treasure in the historic church that needs to be unearthed. Not all is bankrupt, though. There are songs with solid doctrinal content being produced in the 21st century, just not enough of them.
    Steve Bricker

  • I agree Steve. Although I do not listen to too much contemporary Christian music, I have in other articles singled out a few artists, such as Keith Green and Rebecca St James:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I think of Fanny Crosby whose biography I read in 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren W. Wiersbe. She wrote, among many hymns To God be the Glory and Blessed Assurance.

    When she was only 6 weeks old, a doctor’s careless treatment of a minor eye inflammation caused her to lose her sight (the application of mustard poultices to her eyes). The doctor never forgave himself – He left town. But Fanny wrote about him “If I could meet him now, I would say ‘Thank you, thank you’ – over and over again – for making me blind.” She stated that if she could have her sight restored, she would not attempt it. She wrote “I could not have written thousands of hymns if I had been hindered by the distractions of seeing all the interesting and beautiful objects that would have been presented to my notice.”

    Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
    Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!
    Heir of salvation, purchase of God.
    Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

    This is my story, this is my song,
    Praising my Savior all the day long …

    Annette Nestor

  • Many thanks Annette for sharing that wonderful story.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Surely people today can write news songs with all the good parts of the psalms and traditional hymns, but that fit contemporary tastes better! Why don’t they? Why must the modern world be about burying the past, instead of building onto it?

    Felix Alexander, Melbourne.

  • Quite right Felix.
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, I think it’s unfair to label modern worship songs as trite jingles, though SOME of them may be. Often they are a piece of scripture set to music, particularly the choruses of the charismatic renewal. Repeating them gets a scripture entrenched in your mind. And I love it when my pentecostal church uses a hymn in the service, hymns are not dead.
    John Bennett

  • I meant to add, whether you sing old or modern worship songs, the important thing is to be cognisant of the words and their meaning, don’t just sing along.
    John Bennett

  • Thanks John

    Of course I didn’t say all new songs were lousy, and I even gave some examples in my comments of some of the better contemporary artists. But I hear what you are saying.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • The drift away from hymn-singing has taken place in the context of a church which for a time neglected any forms of discipline save for the tyranny of majority opinion. At one time most clergy generally deferred to trained musicians to choose and provide service music. It was commonly said that choirs were the battleground for spiritual warfare. At least from the sixties, folk music and hymns complemented each other in Sunday worship well into the eighties. Sadly many pastors or church elders disbanded choirs partly to avoid conflict and partly in the hope of attracting new believers. They were replaced by ‘praise and worship’ teams which only exchanged one elite group for another slightly younger. Even so, we can still learn ways to share the best from both old and new. As we re-integrate ‘In Christ Alone’, we shall find ‘How Deep the Father’s Love for us’ and ‘Above All’ that ‘Jesus shall Reign’. ‘My Lord, what a Mornin’ ‘.
    Richard Bunn

  • Your readers may enjoy this image, Bill.

    Very tongue-in-cheek, but has a certain ring of truth to it:

    Mathew Hamilton

  • Many thanks Mathew

    Hey, I like it!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks Bill
    As I’ve mentioned before, I played guitar in rock bands years ago and so I guess the contemporary style of worship would be fitting. But no matter how hard I’ve tried, I can’t get into it. And I have beaten myself up about it many times, trying to get into the chant; you know singing a line over and over again.
    More often than not, I sit down and pray it will stop.
    Daniel Kempton

  • i used to go to a church that had very modern music – matt redman, chris tomlin, and I didn’t mind the music much, it was fairly good, and fairly worshipful, but when I suggested that we play more hymns it was met with serious opposition- the leader implied that the old hymns stunk with religion.

    I think that’s just silly. There are many of the older generation who loved hymns. These hymns were about a vibrant, beautiful faith, and had a capacity to penetrate to the heart of a person. I find that newer, modern worship often doesn’t take you to a higher place than your current circumstances.I also agree with some traditionalists who say that modern worship doesn’t speak of the blood of his sacrifice much. I believe if God is half as Great as he says he is, he deserves a better class of worship.

    I love the old hymns.

    Ben Mathewson, UK

  • Thanks guys

    For me this debate is not so much about different music styles. People have various preferences here, which is fine. But my main concern in all this has to do with the content. Just what are we singing? What is the message? Are the depths of Scripture found in our songs and choruses? What we desperately need is rich, solid biblical content. But too often this seems to be lacking. So hopefully this post will stimulate a bit of debate. If it leads to even better content, I will be grateful.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Point taken, all at once I have a mission to introduce a hymn or two, to my church soon. Mmmm now which one?
    Daniel Kempton

  • Thanks Daniel

    The three sites I link to above contain around 9,000 hymns each! Happy choosing!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • One for your column:
    ONCE TO ev’ry man and nation, Comes the moment to decide, IN THE STRIFE of truth with falsehood, For the good or evil side; SOME GREAT cause, God’s new
    ‘Messiah’, Off’ring each the ‘bloom’ or ‘blight’, AND THE CHOICE goes by for ever ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

    THEN TO side with truth is noble, When we share her wretched crust, ERE HER cause bring fame and profit, And ’tis prosp’rous to be ‘just’; THEN IT is the brave man chooses While the coward stands aside, TILL THE MULTITUDE make virtue of the faith they had denied.

    BY THE LIGHT of burninjg martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track, TOILING UP new ‘Calvaries ever With the cross that turns ot back; NEW OCCASIONS teach new duties, Time makes ancient good ‘uncouth’; THEY MUST upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth.

    THO’ THE CAUSE of evil prosper, Yet ’tis truth alone is strong; THO’ HER portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong; YET THAT scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown, STANDETH GOD within the shadow Keeping watch above His own. A-men

    David Shearer

  • How many people sung those words when they appeared on the screen? I don’t know “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” and “God of Love” You certainly can see strong statements in those hymns of old. My personal favourite is “How Great Thou Art!” since it is such an inspiration hymn about God’s majesty and his wonderful creation.

    My favourite Carol is “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” Especially the last verse.

    Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
    Stamp Thine image in its place:
    Second Adam from above,
    Reinstate us in Thy love.
    Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
    Thee, the Life, the inner man:
    O, to all Thyself impart,
    Formed in each believing heart.

    It is such a wonder verse tying in the whole Gospel right from the beginning of creation.

    Ian Nairn

  • I love the old hymns, and the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) service. There is substance and meaning in all this that is lacking in so many churches today. We are becoming a dying breed, though many are yearning for that “Old Time Religion”, today, and seeking out traditional worship and hymns. And thanks for the links!
    Monica Craver

  • Before the age of seven I learned at school in England two hymns that have meant a lot to me. ‘There is a Green Hill far away’ and ‘Stand up, Stand up for Jesus’. Also when in grade five near Montreal, in about 1967, I was asked to memorize some poetry and I memorized Psalm 23 for the class but when I stood up to read, the teacher, after hearing the first few words, told me to shut up and sit down as Scripture was not considered to be acceptable as poetry.
    Since then I have sung that Psalm from memory using contemporary and modern texts and tunes.

    Richard Bunn, Toronto

  • Bill, thought you’d want to know that Net Hymnal (linked from your site with the URL is an illegal and potentially site on a server in Panama. They pirated thousands of our pages several years ago, and have been passing them off as their own. They have ignored all notices about copyright infringement, and are unfortunately beyond legal reach. Recommend people avoid that site like the plague.

    God bless,
    Dick Adams

  • Thanks for that Dick.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • On of the unfortunate things about concentrating on the simpler or more “contemporary” songs is that very few of them last the distance. The CSSM choruses which I loved fifty and more years ago have gone and the songs we sang at ISCF in the 70s and 80s, some of them with good words and good melodies (good singable melodies largely being now a thing of the past), have mostly disappeared.

    Even when traditional hymns are used occasionally they are often ruined by poor tunes or the traditional ones tampered with. Sometimes some of the more robust words are changed in the direction of the insipid.

    I am not against non-traditional songs, especially for use with children, but it would be good if more churches had hymns as their staple meal and perhaps chorussy and modern songs as a side-salad.

    But then again, I am of pre-World War II vintage and out of touch with much that is modern (although my son does play modern jazz which I like).

    David Morrison

  • Bill,

    I’ve become so concerned about the lack of theological content in modern worship (and in our church in particular), and my daughter’s suffering from that lack, that I’ve just started the practice of singing along with hymns on CD (well, on computer now) in our devotion. I find I simply can’t worship when my mind isn’t engaged along with my voice and emotions.

    My daughter loves Michael Card’s Hymns, and we also enjoy the wonderful hymns on the 2nd Chapter of Acts CDs, Wow Hymns, Jars of Clay’s Redemption Songs, all sorts of Christmas albums (particularly Rebecca St James’s), and, of course, any of Sons of Korah’s fantastic albums of the Psalms set to music.

    Given how good many of these arrangements are, there’s really no reason for churches to be avoiding hymns, I believe.

    Malcolm Lithgow

  • I am with you David and Malcolm.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It’s true that there are many modern worship songs that are trite, and just plain boring, but lets not forget that the hymns from yesteryear which we find wonderful and inspiring are probably only a small selection of hymns that were written. There is also a whole truckload of uninspiring dirges. I know because I have sung a number of them and have gone to sleep singing them! You just have to look at some of the titles: ‘tell mother I’ll be there’, ‘give me that old time religion’, or what about that old sentimental favourite -‘the old rugged cross’-nice tune, but just sentimental nonsense. And what about some of the tunes? certainly not all are equally inspiring. Yes, I like old hymns too, but I’m selective. I also like some modern worship songs, but again, I’m also selective. I do think though, that as far as artistry goes, you just can’t beat the poetry of some of the old hymns. I am not so sure about the advice of Tozer. I think it may not be too wise to immerse oneself in mystics as there is a lot of experience and not much theology. Also, the puritans are a hard read. I don’t think I would recommend any new christian reading the puritans. Even as a mature believer, I have found their work at times quite difficult to get into. There is certainly alot of good there, but for the modern christian, not easy stuff! Don’t forget, they wrote in a time when people were hung strung and quartered, burnt at the stake, etc. for the whiff of heresy.
    Iz Ruzic

  • Have a listen to some of the songs by Keith and Krysten Getty – modern hymn writers who write songs with substance.
    It’s not all bad!
    Iz Ruzic

  • and Stewart Townend -‘How deep the Fathers Love’
    Iz Ruzic

  • Graham Kendrick – ‘Meekness and Majesty’, etc.
    Iz Ruzic

  • Thanks Iz

    I will have to check some of these out, time permitting.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Steve Bricker: “…thin, popular contemporary offerings.” I agree. For the “oldies” & anyone else seeking meat in music over milk, the Hymnmakers CD series seems to be the last bastion of tuneful theology in music.

    The Salvoes used to theologise pub dittys….now it seems worldly music styles help to dumb-down Christian theology.

    Grant Wedale

  • I grew up in the Churches of Christ and every Sunday night before the 7pm service there was a 10-15 minute Song Service. The hymns regularly sung were “THERE IS A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD and also AND CAN IT BE. My father, who had a fine tenor voice regularly lead the Song Service and whenever I hear those hymns I immediately recall his singing them.
    I also enjoy the 2nd Chapter of Acts, the Paul Coleman Trio and who can forget the late great Larry Norman’s WHY SHOULD THE DEVIL HAVE ALL THE GOOD MUSIC??
    Wayne Pelling

  • In the end, I believe that all anointed music will stand the test of time and there are songs written today that still might be sung in 100 years if the holy Spirit has inpsired them.
    Ian White is another good modern one, he sings the psalms in quite various contemporary styles.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • As a child in a very charismatic church in the 1950’s I grew up mainly singing Pentecostal choruses and psalms…. but the older I grow the more I love the old hymns. In very tough times I have found tremendous comfort and encouragement in them. The ones mentioned in this article are some of my favorites.

    Annette Hammond

  • Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Great to know there are others on the Net promoting a love of the great hymns and gospel songs of the church. I’ve been studying them for over 40 years, and I’m always finding new blessings. Many of the over 350,000 visitors to my blog feel the same. God bless. Keep up the good work.

  • Thanks for that. I do agree and at the same time reflect on the simple fact that the repetitive choruses
    are, in my experience and belief, a means of expression of praise for those who participate. Wherever
    we look, there is room for improvement. I do have a desire to introduce more respect for ‘old hymns’
    in some way with an increased integration into our congregational music in the fellowship I attend.
    I have sung ‘Southern Gospel’ with joy in a workshop run for the purpose.

    I really appreciate the hymn ‘Sacred Head sore wounded’ which has been excluded from your website
    because of a copyright issue. Surely Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ is not copyright, so that access to
    this material may be available from some performance of this work.

    The words to ‘Once to every man and Nation’ by James Russell Lowell are also special for me, and
    exactly fit your ministry, finishing with the powerful last verse –

    Tho’ the cause of evil prosper, yet ’tis truth alone is strong;
    Tho’ her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;
    Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown,
    Standeth God within the shadow Keeping watch above His own’.

    God Bless


    Thanks for the suggestions. I don’t mind Stephen Curtis Chapman.

    The above link is Keith Green singing The Victor. I love it! The sound quality isn’t great, and it’s a bit daggy but the words are trembling! it’s REAL! It’s TRUTH!

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