Truth and Encouragement In Song

As many of you might know, I am no great fan of contemporary Christian music: far too much silly repetition, vacuous choruses, and theological anaemia for me. Give me the great old hymns of yesteryear which were so very rich in biblical and theological truth.

hymnBut I have spoken about all this elsewhere:

I bring this up again because I was just recently listening to a bunch of Christian music. The story goes like this. I knew that my 8-hour flight to Singapore on an el-cheapo, no frills airline could be a long haul, so I got my sons to help load some Christian songs and hymns onto my phone.

So on yesterday’s longish flight I was listening to these. Just sitting there and soaking in the lyrics of some was a moving experience for me. Sure, I had heard these songs many times before, but some of them drove me to tears. The people next to me on my crowded flight must have thought I had just had something dreadful happen to me!

Let me refer to just two of these songs – one newish, and one older, which especially stood out on that flight. The first is the 1999 song “I Can Only Imagine” by MercyMe. What struck me was some rather important spiritual truth in the chorus especially. In a world of so many trite and fairy floss Christian worship songs, this one seems to have been birthed out of something much deeper.

The song goes like this:

I can only imagine
What it will be like
When I walk
By your side

I can only imagine
What my eyes will see
When your face
Is before me
I can only imagine

Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine

I can only imagine
When that day comes
And I find myself
Standing in the Son

I can only imagine
When all I will do
Is forever
Forever worship You
I can only imagine

As I say, it is the chorus that gives evidence of something other than the run of the mill Christian pop song. What will it be like indeed to finally see him face to face? What will it actually be like to see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? What will it be like to see the Lamb of God who once was slain, but is now a roaring lion?

So much trivial, juvenile and even disrespectful stuff can be found in so many modern worship choruses. But this one starts to get to the heart of things. Standing in awe, falling on our knees, and not even being able to speak may be much closer to our real reaction when that day finally arrives.

Here is a profound sense of the holiness and majesty of God which seems to be lost on so many believers today. He is seen as our buddy, our pal, our mate, and our go-to-guy who is there to meet our every bidding. One recent Christian song even talked about liking Jesus as much as liking ice cream. Sorry, but that does not exactly describe who this Christ is that we worship and serve.

You can hear the song while viewing the lyrics here:

The second song that brought moisture to my eyes was an older classic. The story of how this song came to be goes like this:

Annie Hawks wrote: “One day as a young wife and mother of 37 years of age, I was busy with my regular household tasks. Suddenly, I became so filled with the sense of nearness to the Master that, wondering how one could live without Him, either in joy or pain, these words, ‘I Need Thee Every Hour,’ were ushered into my mind, the thought at once taking full possession of me.”
After writing the lyrics, Hawks gave them to her pastor, Robert Lowry, who added the tune and refrain. The hymn was first published at the National Baptist Sunday School Convention in Cincinnati, Ohio, in November 1872. Some years later, after the death of her husband, Hawks wrote:
“I did not understand at first why this hymn had touched the great throbbing heart of humanity. It was not until long after, when the shadow fell over my way, the shadow of a great loss, that I understood something of the comforting power in the words which I had been permitted to give out to others in my hour of sweet serenity and peace.”

Here it is:

I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.
I need Thee, O I need Thee;
Every hour I need Thee;
O bless me now, my Savior,
I come to Thee.
I need Thee every hour, stay Thou nearby;
Temptations lose their power when Thou art nigh.
I need Thee every hour, in joy or pain;
Come quickly and abide, or life is in vain.
I need Thee every hour; teach me Thy will;
And Thy rich promises in me fulfill.
I need Thee every hour, most Holy One;
O make me Thine indeed, Thou blessed Son.

You can listen to one version of this hymn here:

The chorus again really touched me. Lately I have been under what can only be described as some real spiritual attack. People claiming to be Christians have assailed me rather viciously just lately, including saying all sorts of patently false and derogatory things about me.

I have no idea what their issues are, but they have been just so nasty in their attacks on me. All I can do is pray for these guys and hope they are able to open up to whatever work Christ wants to do in their lives. Such bitterness, hatred and obsession bespeaks of some big unresolved issues methinks.

So with that in mind, the idea that I need Christ every hour of course rings perfectly true. Indeed, it does not go far enough. I need Christ every minute. In fact I need him every second. Without him I am toast. I cannot go on without his continuous presence, grace and strength.

The longer I live the Christian life, the more I realise that it is Him, and Him alone, that has sustained me, strengthened me, protected me, enabled me, equipped me and used me all this while. It certainly has nothing to do with me, a weak, broken vessel that anyone else would have said about, ‘Don’t bother with that one.’

So it is great to be sustained and uplifted by some of these great hymns and by some of the better contemporary Christian songs. We need to regularly feed on such great music, along with regular prayer and feeding on the Word of God.

[1176 words]

31 Replies to “Truth and Encouragement In Song”

  1. My favorite still is Elvis singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ . In the Catholic church we are slowly emerging from the liturgical dark ages – thank God. We are moving away from singing to ourselves about ourselves but it is not yet clear where we are moving to.

  2. Thanks, Bill.
    It is gratifying to know that I am not alone in having a love for the great hymns of our faith.
    You may be interested in my forthcoming book, “Through the Christian Year with Charles Wesley: 101 Psalms and Hymns”.
    It divides into three parts, as follows:
    I. Introductory issues: the reasons for the book, a bio on Charles Wesley’s life and ministry, analysis of his poetry, and the sources of his tunes.
    II. 101 psalm versions and hymns arranged according to the framework of the Christian Year, but morning and evening hymns, communion hymns, and general devotional hymns are also included. I have selected a blend of better-known hymns, less well-known hymns, and other hymns not known at all (e.g. a complete paraphrase of Isaiah 53), plus psalm versions. It is not generally known that Wesley produced paraphrases of 110 of the 150 psalms, many of which turned up only after his death; indeed, a whole set as late as 1854. I have included 21 selections from these psalm versions.
    III. Six essays on theological and devotional themes in Wesley’s hymns, plus a first line index.

    It is currently with the publishers (Christian Focus), and I trust that it will be out by mid-year. I hope that you will be sufficiently interested to review it when the time comes. In my view Charles Wesley is the prince of hymn writers for his theology, his literary expertise, his rich devotion, his personal warmth, and above all, his love for Christ. His hymns belong to the whole Christian world, and should be sung the world over. My basic aim is to revive a love for the great hymn-writers of our Christian heritage, and Charles Wesley in particular.

  3. Let me share a verse from Wesley, one which would be unknown today. It comes from his hymn, “Lord, open thou mine inward ear”. Here is the verse:

    Thou hast undertook for me,
    For me to death wast sold;
    Wisdom in a mystery
    Of bleeding love unfold.
    Teach the lesson of the cross;
    Let me die with thee to reign;
    All things let me count but loss,
    So I may Thee regain.

    If you want a tune, it goes to “Leamington”, and can be found here:
    – Then click on Full MP3
    It is a truly beautiful, contemplative tune.

    And here is an exercise: match each line to a corresponding verse of Scripture. It has been well said that if we had no Scripture we could reconstruct it from Wesley’s hymns.

  4. Bill you’ve read my mind.
    I stepped foot into a church for the first time in about 8 years yesterday. I went by myself as a bit of an reconnaissance mission as I’m looking for a church to bring my husband and three little children too. My husband and I were both raised in baptist churches and stopped going on a regular basis around the time when Hillsong overtook all the worship sessions (didn’t stop going just for that reason mind you).
    My husband and I have different things we are looking for in a church, but one thing we agree on is music.
    Hillsong, if i can borrow your line, is theologically anaemic (my Dad is going to love that line). A worship song should cry out to the Lord, yet these do not. They sound like songs I could sing to my husband, my child, my dog.
    So needless to say, i walked away a little dissappointed after 3 straight hillsongs to start with, followed by another two to end with. Bill, are all churches like this now?

    But then, I listen to Keith Green and you can’t replicate that kind of hard hitting, testimonial worship music, albeit a little dated now. And what about the classic Old Rugged Cross! Gives me goosebumps. Thanks Bill for another great article.

  5. Thanks for these words Bill:

    ” I need Christ every minute. In fact I need him every second. Without him I am toast. I cannot go on without his continuous presence, grace and strength.”

    I am the same lately…maybe it’s the things happening in the world lately but many believers are being stretched beyond anything they’ve been through before…stretched to rely on God more deeply than before…I have found myself saying in a manner of speaking ”Lord, I need you l, and cannot go on without your presence within”…

    One passage that has helped me in recent times very strongly is ”Greater is He who is in you, than he who is in the world”

  6. You have done so much to lift the spirits of others with your writings about the Word of God. Your light has shone out in the gathering gloom. These empty vessels who wish you ill can only scream and hate. They have nothing to give – only something they want to take. I think Psalm 23, The Lord is my shepherd, is the best, and wish its sentiments for you. Thanks for all your tireless work, which puts the efforts of many professing Christians in the shade.

  7. Wonderful stuff Bill!

    You know, a while back, there was a wave of pop Christian groups doing covers of old hymns. Like everything in this world, not all of them are terrific, but there are some real gems in there that you and your readers might enjoy and gain inspiration from. If you or somebody you know has time you should browse through some of these on youtube or amazon. I’d also be happy to e-mail you some of my faves. They really are such a comfort, I find myself praying for the singers for God to bless them for all the comfort and joy they bring me, and I’m sure many others.

    Here’s one I like a lot and just recently happened upon. Chris Rice singing Great Is Thy Faithfulness:
    on youtube to listen to the whole thing:
    on amazon to sample/buy/download:

    I don’t know if I’m just not as careful as a listener as you, or if maybe I just have more time to listen to lots of different music, but I actually think there are lots of really good music and lyrics in Christian Music today – you just have to dig a little to find the good stuff.

    That said I still listen to some great “oldies” too. This one is not that old but it’s one of my mellow favorites from one of the big stars from 10 or 20 years ago:

  8. PS: Linda’s comment made me comment again 🙂 I listen to all genres and some country is great, if you don’t mind country flavor…:

    The Old Rugged Cross – Alan Jackson

  9. You really do express it so well Bill and I couldn’t agree more. And to you Murray, I shall look forward to your forth-coming book. Having sung the old hymns from childhood, “Thou, Thee Thy and Thine” express a reverence for God that resonates deep within my heart and soul. In reading the scriptures any time, the verse or chorus or just a line of one of the great hymns of past centuries will come to mind and voice.
    There are some very good new songs also which will be well-loved by the current generation now and into their future.
    Two favourites are “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And He walks with me and He talks with me. And He tells me I am His own………” And “When peace like a river attendeth my way. When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot Thou hast taught me to know, it is well, it is well with my soul ”
    How blessed we are to have beautiful music that accompanies the words and brings such joy to our souls.

  10. Well, Bill,
    I suppose, unfortunately (but probably, alas, predictably), being a voice for the light, you are going to be assailed by those who love the darkness. Don’t worry. There are many of us out here who have you in our prayers.

  11. Bill, sorry to hear you;re being given trouble by people attacking you, saying patently false and derogatory things about you. Even when we suffer for Christ, it is still painful. You speak the truth and back it up with scripture. There are many, even those calling themselves Christian, who resent that and strike out.
    You are so right about today’s church music. The old, traditional Christ centered songs have now been deemed “passe” and guitars, drums and vacuous songs rule the worship part of the service. I’ve tried to attend, to “like” the music….but just can’t do it. Our pastor is an incredible teacher and has opened up scripture for me in a life changing way with his sermons. BUT….the church is all about the “next generation” and everything is geared toward them, from classrooms decorated in a Disney style at great expense, to this noisy, vacuous “worship music.” If one is over 55, it’s either put up or leave. Sad. I worship alone with my voice and guitar and playing the old hymns on You Tube.
    Thanks for your truthfulness, your insights, and willingness to speak out. Know you are appreciated and prayed for!

  12. One thing I find about even some of the better “contemporary” songs is that I don’t go away with the melodies and words going through my head, as has happened over the years with many of the older hymns and choruses. I am not an expert on melody construction and analysis (a book on that subject lay almost unread on my shelves for years) but some of the melodies we meet have very strange and often difficult-to-sing progressions, as well as odd emphases.

    I won’t speak of the apparent need for drums in every song and bands that don’t seem to know what accompaniment means and singers with microphones drowning out all other voices, or the great superiority of a good organ and organist in being able to adjust volume and expression to fit the words, as well as sustain the melody. Well, I did, but that’s all I’ll say!

    I agree that some of the 19th century hymns have great words and can really uplift the soul. Some of them may be a bit over-sentimental, but I find great comfort in such songs as Abide with me, O love that wilt not let me go, It is well with my soul, I need Thee very hour, and many others. I also like the more “vigorous” hymns from various periods, such as Lo He comes, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, To God be the Glory, and even, I dare admit it, Onward Christian soldiers- either to Sullivan’s tune or a Welsh one whose name escapes me. Plus countless others, of course. In many congregations where one hymnbook with a finite number of hymns is used, only a relatively low percentage of the hymns are ever sung, and many really good ones are ignored. One good thing about most older hymns is that they can often be sung to a number of different tunes. If an unknown hymn is selected it can usually be sung to a well-know tune, making learning it a piece of cake.

    As for those attacking you, Bill, if they are Christians I hope they come to their senses.

  13. Thank you so much Bill for introducing me to that beautiful song “I can only imagine”. It touches something of my own imaginations and musings of what it will be to “be with Jesus and see his glory” (Jn. 17:24).
    Though still in excellent health at 85 and still enjoying life, when attending a Christian funeral, such as recently of my brother in law, I sometimes can’t help thinking: “Oh you lucky so and so, you now see Jesus”.

  14. I second Rachel’s recommendation re Psalm 23, Bill. ‘He prepares a table in the midst of my enemies’ is only one of the encouragements that the Lord has for those who love Him.

  15. Bill, I think you’ll like this one (you may already). A bit like “I can only imagine”, by the great Robert Murray M’Cheyne – enjoy!

    “I am Debtor”

    When this passing world is done,
    When has sunk yon glaring sun,
    When we stand with Christ in glory,
    Looking o’er life’s finished story,
    Then, Lord, shall I fully know—
    Not till then—how much I owe.

    When I stand before the throne,
    Dressed in beauty not my own,
    When I see Thee as Thou art,
    Love Thee with unsinning heart,
    Then Lord, shall I fully know—
    Not till then—how much I owe.

    Chosen not for good in me,
    Wakened up from wrath to flee,
    Hidden in the Savior’s side,
    By the Spirit sanctified,
    Teach me, Lord, on earth to show,
    By my love, how much I owe.

  16. These days I love to listen to Sons of Korah, an Australian band that put the Psalms to music. I love that we are singing the actual words of God – there is no need to examine the lyrics. I also love that through their music, our whole family is memorising large portions of scripture. My kids can now quote a large number of psalms – all I did was play the CD’s in the car.

  17. I absolutely love St Thomas’ Pange Lingua Gloriosi – Catholic Hymns, Gregorian Chant

  18. John Bunyan’s famous hymn expresses the degree of faith and commitment required for our day.

    He who would valiant be
    ‘gainst all disaster,
    let him in constancy
    follow the Master.
    There’s no discouragement
    shall make him once relent
    his first avowed intent
    to be a pilgrim.

    Who so beset him round
    with dismal stories
    do but themselves confound
    his strength the more is.
    No foes shall stay his might;
    though he with giants fight,
    he will make good his right
    to be a pilgrim.

    Since, Lord, thou dost defend
    us with thy Spirit,
    We know we at the end,
    shall life inherit.
    Then fancies flee away!
    I’ll fear not what men say,
    I’ll labor night and day
    to be a pilgrim.

    May the Lord bless you, Bill, and all who walk the pilgrim’s path.

  19. Sorry to hear that you are being attacked. Sadly, the more you speak the truth, the more this will occur as satan will try and shut down your dialogue and try to discourage you.

  20. Dear Bill,
    You’ve done it again! We went to a Baptist night service (mainly young people) two weeks ago, and the songs fell into the theologically anaemic category. They all seemed to be about our mainly emotional response to the Person of Jesus, but without describing Him in a substantial way, that would necessarily call forth such a response. The music, drums (too loud) keyboard and guitars were the order of the night. Done well, I like them, but done badly, like anything else, they take away from worship.
    The word “awesome” was overused during the service, for things that weren’t awesome. The word was devalued, and there are no words to replace it. Many it seems are using superlatives for the trivial and unworthy, but what can we say when the real comes along? Maybe in that moment, we/they would realise what “awesome” really means.

    Looking at the youth, I wondered why we (society) expect that this is the only music they will listen too? Why do they themselves think this is the only kind of music to play? The singers themselves, appeared to be in pain, rather than in the ecstasy they seem to be trying to portray. It all seems so wretchedly emotional and shallow, and its off-putting. Any reduction in meaningfulness in a service is deadly to wholehearted participation.

    I thought then, would these young people act like this if Jesus in all His glory walked into the room? I don’t think, they would be silent and undone like Isaiah. You are right, where is the in depth teaching through song (at least) that leads to reverence before Him? It seems that every Sunday we (many Christians) walk into a place of emotional hype and the insubstantial. But then, what do we each bring?

    Then I wondered again, is the way things are done here, a reason for what you spoke of not long ago, becoming a “done”?

    How desperately we need meaning in our lives, and not the superficial. A God of Truth who invites us into reconciliation with Him, and commands that we face ourselves, and confess our sins, leaves no room for the trivial, superficial or meaningless. These things shouldn’t be in our personal lives, nor in our corporate lives as a church, meeting in Sunday worship.

    Do I sound like a grumpy old man? I hope not, but things you write and what others say and do, seem to “come together” with what’s happening in me sometimes. The song “I can only imagine” did speak to me, and the line about silence is indeed, I think, a sign of growing in wisdom.

    Kind regards,
    Robert G.

  21. Hi Robert, 2 out of my 3 teenagers stopped going to Christian camps and Christian Youth Groups only because they hated the music so much. They were frequently forced to sing to Christian rock songs that they felt were blasphemous.

  22. How your comments have touched me! I attend a church with great teaching, outreach, etc. I felt led to attend there, but the music is so bad I have left many times with a migraine. Thus not even getting to hear the preaching. Why haven’t I left? It’s just your typical sing it too many times wing it like the pop star who first sang it nonsense. It’ll be in any other church I try to attend too. When a country music station that puts on hymns on Sunday morning can move me to tears, (and I dislike country music!) and the music in the church only pain…..well…hmm.

    On the being attacked. Surely you know to revel in persecution as Paul did. Surely you know many of us pray for truthful and Godly commentary and we bless you every day. And today I will devote extra time in prayer for you!

    Your sister in Christ

  23. I spoke at church just last Sunday about the circumstances in which Horatio Spafford penned “It is well with my soul.” He was a successful Chicago lawyer, blessed with a wonderful home, lovely wife, one son and 4 daughters, and he was a man hungry for the Word of God in his life. In the midst of a life of abundant blessings, things suddenly began to go in a different direction for Horatio and his wife, Anna. First they tragically lost their young son, and not long after that, Horatio lost virtually all of his real estate investments in the Chicago fire of 1871. A few years after this, he decided to head off to join an evangelistic crusade in England with others in his circle such as Sankey and Moody, but thought that this might be a good opportunity to treat Anna and their four daughters to a European cruise on the way over, to help them come to terms with the grief of the previous few years. He stayed behind in Chicago to make sure his businesses were in order before planning to join his family in England. However, a few days after Anna and his daughters departed, Horatio learned that the ship had gone down. Anna survived, but they lost their four daughters in the tragedy. It was while on board ship to join Anna in England to mourn the loss of their daughters that he penned the famous hymn. We concluded our service with the hymn last Sunday. By the time we got to the line ‘The sky, not the grave, is our goal,’ there wasn’t a dry eye in the pews.

  24. Bill,

    Thanks for your comments – the old hymns had theological truths that we sang.

    I have always had a “I” meter on songs.

    I count the number of times “I” and “me” appear in a song to assess whether it is true worship of Jesus. But those that worship God worship Him in spirit and in truth!

    Yours in Christ

  25. Nice to see a post about music, lyrics& songs, Bill, For me as a gospel singer/worship leader I’m always fascinated by the subjective nature of our personal tastes, even in worship music. I love the old hymns & know many of them by heart. Some of them are so rich in theology.
    Re subjectivity though: to take just a few songs, e.g Just a Closer Walk, In the Garden & I Can Only Imagine. To some people they’re examples of weakish me-centred sentimentality. To other people they’re pure gold, a lifeline.
    Thus it is often with Hillsong, Personally I find the performance approach unhealthily loud & possibly mind-numbing. We don’t need numb minds. Having said that when you remove the volume there is good songwriting there. I go to a church where the singing is sometimes led by a young mother with an unamplified guitar & no band. She only sings “Hillsongs”, but every line has profound meaning because of her passionate faith. I recommend Hillsong’s ‘Saviour King’ and ‘Yahweh’ acoustic – live at the Chapel. I could go on. This is my favourite topic…

  26. Hi Bill,

    There are some gems among the newer songs also. Below are the lyrics to “Miracle Maker” by Delirious:

    Miracle Maker

    Im waiting here for my life to change
    When the waters stir, You can rearrange me
    Just one touch is all I need
    Ive nothing much but the wounds I feel
    I’ve come to find the hand of the miracle man

    Holy, You are holy
    Who was and is and is to come
    Holy, You are holy, Saviour, Healer
    Im standing at the feet of the miracle maker
    I’m standing here

    Im holding on with Your life in mine
    Living waters come
    And Youve rearranged me

    You are holy, You are holy
    Who was and is and is to come
    Holy, You are holy, Saviour, Healer
    Im staring in the face of the miracle maker

    You are holy, You are holy
    Who was and is and is to come
    Jesus, precious Jesus, thank you, Saviour
    Im walking in the shoes of my miracle maker
    Im standing with the faith of a miracle maker

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