The Value of Hymn Singing
Posted On May 12, 2023
Written by Dr. John Tweeddale, vice president of academics and professor of theology
I’m often asked for book recommendations from people who want to build their home library and grow in their Christian faith. For starters, I recommend that all Christians have a good study Bible, a collection of the historic creeds and confessions of the church, and a solid hymnal. To simplify matters, I encourage them to pick up a copy of the Reformation Study Bible, which includes a series of creeds, confessions, and catechisms, and a copy of the Trinity Hymnal, which happens to be my favorite hymnal. Folks are often surprised that I recommend a hymnal, yet few books have had a greater impact on my life.
Hymns are important because they remind us that we are called not only to study God but also to know, serve, and worship Him. This is why hymn singing has played such a vital role in Reformed theology and practice. In the early days of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Martin Luther collaborated with his friend and composer Johann Walter to publish in 1524 what is affectionately known as the Wittenberg hymnal. Luther opens his preface by affirming what all Christians know to be true: Scripture teaches us that we are to sing praise to God. He states, “That it is good and God pleasing to sing hymns is, I think, known to every Christian.”
Luther frequently commented on the importance of music and hymn singing for Christian worship. “Next to the Word of God,” Luther writes in another preface, “music deserves the highest praise.” He understood that music has a way of impacting our emotions. “For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate . . . what more effective means than music could you find?”
What we sing shapes what we believe and how we live. This is one reason why hymns are so helpful for learning theology. Recently I was asked to speak at Abide, a student-led ministry at Reformation Bible College, on a theology of hymns. We spent the evening considering how singing biblically faithful hymns enhances our understanding of theology and strengthens our relationship with God. I walked the students through several hymns that focus on the theme of God’s love. Singing hymns like these reinforces the Bible’s teaching on God’s love for us while also helping us give expression to our love for God.
Here are a handful of the hymns we considered.
In “O Worship the King,” the nineteenth century British hymn writer Robert Grant draws upon themes from Psalm 104 to describe the majesty of God as King. The hymn begins and ends with a focus on the love of God.
O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his pow’r and his love;
our shield and Defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.
O measureless Might! Ineffable Love!
While angels delight to hymn you above,
the humbler creation, though feeble their lays,
with true adoration shall lisp to your praise.
In “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!” Samuel Trevor Francis, a Plymouth Brethren merchant and poet, compares the love of Christ to a mighty ocean.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus!
Love of ev’ry love the best:
’tis an ocean vast of blessing,
’tis a haven sweet of rest.
O the deep, deep love of Jesus!
tis a heav’n of heav’ns to me;
and it lifts me up to glory,
for it lifts me up to thee.
In “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” John Newton, the converted slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace,” reminds Christians that as long as we draw breath, we should proclaim the love of God. While we may struggle to do so, we are comforted in knowing that our faith will one day give way to sight, and then we will be able to love and worship God as we ought.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see thee as thou art,
I’ll praise thee as I ought.
Till then I would thy love proclaim
with every fleeting breath;
and may the music of thy name
refresh my soul in death.
In “My Jesus, I Love Thee,” a Canadian teenager named William Ralph Featherston reflects on the precious truth that God’s love for us precedes our love for God. This well-known poem was later set to music after the young man’s untimely death at the age of twenty seven.
I love thee because thou hast first loved me,
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree.
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
In “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place,” Isaac Watts, who is often described as the father of English hymnody, meditates on the wonder of God’s everlasting love and redeeming grace. The inspiration for the hymn comes from Jesus’ parable of the great banquet in Luke 14. The hymn ends with a moving prayer asking God to bring many into the doors of our churches. The point is an important one to grasp: When you’ve feasted with God, you cannot help but long for others to do the same.
How sweet and awesome is the place
with Christ within the doors,
while everlasting love displays
the choicest of her stores.
While all our hearts and all our songs
join to admire the feast,
each of us cries, with thankful tongue,
“Lord, why was I a guest?”
Pity the nations, O our God,
constrain the earth to come;
send your victorious Word abroad,
and bring the strangers home.
We long to see your churches full,
that all the chosen race
may, with one voice and heart and soul,
sing your redeeming grace.
Each of these hymns reflects on the love of God in Jesus Christ. They help us to “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” (Eph. 3:18–19). There are plenty of other hymns to explore. But to do so, you’ll have to pick up a good hymnal for yourself. Take up and sing!