Lesson 5 – Singing Hymns
THREE BASIC REQUIREMENTS FOR THE HYMNS
HAVING BASIS IN THE TRUTH
First, the words of a hymn must be based on the truth. Many hymns meet the other two requirements but contain errors in truth. When God’s children sing hymns, their feelings are directed toward God. If the hymns have wrong doctrines, we will be cheated in our feelings and will not touch reality. God does not meet us according to the poetic sentiment of the hymn; He meets us according to the truth conveyed in the hymn. We can only come before God in truth. If we do not come to God in truth, we are in error and will not touch reality.
HAVING THE FORM AND STRUCTURE OF A POEM
Second, accurate doctrines alone do not constitute a hymn. A hymn needs to be poetic in its form and structure. Truth alone is not sufficient. After there is the truth, there is still the need for poetry in form and structure. Only when there is poetry is a hymn like a hymn. All the songs in the book of Psalms are poetry. Every psalm is fine and tender in form and expression and utters God’s mind in the way of poetry. Merely having every line follow a certain meter does not constitute a hymn. The structure must be poetic, and the form must be poetic.
HAVING SPIRITUAL REALITY AND MEANING
Third, in addition to the truth and poetic structure and form, a hymn needs to provide spiritual impact. It must touch spiritual reality. For example, Psalm 51 is a psalm of repentance by David. In reading it, we find David’s repentance doctrinally correct, his words carefully chosen, and the structure of the psalm intricate. But more than that, we feel something within the words; there is a spiritual reality, a spiritual feeling, within the psalm. We can call this the burden of the hymn. David repented, and the feeling of his repentance permeates the whole psalm. Many times in reading the book of Psalms, there is something we are struck with—every sentiment expressed in these psalms is genuine. When the psalmist rejoiced, he jumped up and shouted for joy. When he was sad, he wept. These psalms are not empty words void of reality. There is spiritual reality behind the words.
THE STANDARD, SENSATION, WORDING, AND TUNE OF THE HYMNS
The saints’ singing of hymns began with David in the Old Testament. The tunes from these hymns were then passed down from David all the way to the Catholic Church and then from the Catholic Church to the Protestant churches. Those who study music know that these “sacred melodies” have a distinct style that is grave and solemn. After World War II, the Americans, who like new things, called these sacred tunes the “Old Timers,” so they discarded them and composed many new tunes. Nevertheless, we selected some of the new tunes that have some value and included them in our hymnal.
THE OBJECTS TO WHOM WE SING
Most of the psalms in the book of Psalms are poetry directed toward God. Psalm 51 is a famous psalm of prayer to God. All hymns of praise, thanksgiving, and prayer are sung to God.
Other psalms are directed toward men. Psalms 37 and 133 are examples of such psalms. This kind of hymn either preaches to men or encourages men to go to God. All the gospel hymns and hymns of admonition are sung to men.
Colossians 3:16 says, “Teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to God.” Here we see that psalms and hymns can be used for teaching and admonishing. This is toward men. But at the same time, it involves “singing with grace in your hearts to God.” This is also toward God. Therefore, even hymns that are toward men are directed toward God.
There is still a third kind of hymn in the Bible—those which we sing to ourselves. Many passages in the book of Psalms include the phrase O my soul! All these hymns are directed toward oneself. Psalms 103 and 121 are good examples of such hymns. This kind of hymn is a person’s fellowship with his own soul. It is one’s counsel with his own heart and his conversation with himself. Everyone who knows God knows the meaning of fellowshipping with his own heart. When a person has fellowship with God, he spontaneously learns how to fellowship with his own heart. At such times, one sings to himself, shouts to himself, addresses himself, and reminds himself. Such hymns often end with a turn to God. A man may begin by fellowshipping with his own heart, but invariably he ends up fellowshipping with God.
TO ONE ANOTHER
Both Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 speak of the matter of mutual singing. In mutual singing, after one brother sings, another brother responds by singing. The first brother may sing again, and the other brother responds again. Or several brothers can sing and another group of brothers respond in singing.
In the church there should not be too many hymns directed toward men. In the book of Psalms, this kind of song occupies a small portion. We can have hymns that are directed toward men, but it is not proper to have too many such hymns. When there are too many of this kind of hymn, we lose sight of the main purpose of the hymns. The main goal of the hymns is to direct men toward God.
THE PRACTICE OF HYMN SINGING
EXERCISING THE SPIRIT BY PRAYING AND SINGING
Ephesians 5:18b does not mention the Holy Spirit, but it does say, “Be filled in spirit.” This is quite significant. This means that from the time that you let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, you need to learn to exercise your spirit; you need to stay in your spirit. The word of the Lord is already in your mind, but how do you cause the word of the Lord to become spirit? You need to exercise your spirit. When you exercise your spirit and use your spirit, the Holy Spirit will fill your spirit. The best way to exercise the spirit is by praying and singing. The more you pray and the more you sing, the more you exercise your spirit. The result will be that your spirit will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
In Ephesians 5:18-19 Paul says, “And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation, but be filled in spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and psalming with your heart to the Lord.” We are to be filled with the Triune God as the all-inclusive, consummated Spirit in our spirit. This filling occurs, not by our speaking in the common, worldly language, but by speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
The meetings, whether home meetings, small group meetings, or even large meetings, are a matter of speaking the Lord’s word with the spirit. First Corinthians 14:26 says, “Whenever you come together, each one has a psalm.…” In our mentality, once a psalm is mentioned, we think about singing. The New Testament, however, shows us that psalms are not primarily for singing, but for speaking. Ephesians 5:18-19 says, “Be filled in spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and psalming with your heart to the Lord.” From this you can see that psalms are primarily for speaking, and then for singing.
Also, Colossians 3:16, the sister verse to Ephesians 5:19, says the same thing.…It says here that we should teach and admonish one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. We must remember that the hymns are not only for singing, but they also are even more for speaking in the meetings. Our speaking of the proper hymns to one another and our singing of them to the Lord will enrich, enliven, uplift, refresh, and strengthen the meetings.