A character in Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Hours, uses two analogies for “the realm of the duped and the simpleminded.” One is “Christians with acoustic guitars.” While this post is not about determining the appropriate instrumentation in corporate worship (acoustic guitars vs. electric organs), it is about calling Christians out of the realm of the duped and simpleminded when it comes to the lyrical content of our songs. The point is not that we want the world to esteem our music. Whether or not the world asks us to “sing us one of those God songs,” as Judah’s captors asked them to do (see Ps. 137:3), matters little in our present time of exile. What does matter is how well our words reflect God’s Word. So I do care about this question, what can we do to return more to the Word in our worship? One of the ways is to return to singing what Isaac Watts called “moral songs,” or what I have called elsewhere “practical wisdom.”
In advocating “practical wisdom,” I do not mean “moralizing” Old Testament texts—e.g., allegorizing David’s five stones to symbolize obedience, service, Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship. Rather, I have in view applying the morals found in scriptural songs to our songs. I’m trying to say what John Calvin said in his Commentaries on the Four Last Books of Moses: “God never speaks except to render men fruitful in good works.” Or, what Peter Craigie writes of the Song of Yahweh (Deut. 32) summarizes well my effort. He speaks of that song being “similar to the wisdom literature in that it includes very practical advice (cf. vv. 7, 28-29); its function is to remind and to educate the people in the way they should take (cf. 31:19)—it is not simply a song of praise” (Deuteronomy, NICOT [Eerdmans, 1976], 374).
In my study of six OT canticles (God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs), I found that those scriptural songs (typical of the majority of Bible songs!) are not simply songs of praise, but songs that call us to live righteously—to put off pride, idolatry, immorality, and ungodly fear, and to put on courage and mercy—and even to rejoice in our God-graced righteousness (“I have kept the ways of the Lord,” 2 Sam. 22:22). And in this way, they function, as Paul noted in Colossians 3:16 they should, as “wisdom” with which we are to teach and admonish one another (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-4).
While such singing of sanctification is neglected in much of contemporary worship music, this theme is found throughout traditional Protestant hymnody. During the Reformation, it was common to write songs about the Ten Commandments, as Martin Luther did. Luther’s hymn, “That Man a Godly Life Might Live,” which is based on a thirteenth-century hymn used when Christians went on pilgrimages, gives a feel for this kind of moral song. The first verse of thirteen is as follows:
That man a godly life might live, God did these Ten Commandments give
By His true servant Moses, high Upon the Mount Sinai. Have mercy, Lord!
Verse 9 sings of not stealing:
Steal not; oppressive acts abhor; Nor wring their lifeblood from the poor;
But open wide thy loving hand To all the poor in the land. Have mercy, Lord!
Typical of Luther’s exegesis of the Ten Commandments, each commandment is bathed in grace—”Have mercy, Lord!”—and each negative command is given a positive replacement: for example, give instead of stealing. This type of moral singing is also found in Isaac Watts, the father of English hymnody. In his Divine and Moral Songs for the Use of Children, we have songs about Christian morality. Many of the song titles summarize the themes: “Against Lying,” “Against Quarrelling and Fighting,” “Against Scoffing and Calling Names,” “Against Cursing, Swearing, and Taking God’s Name in Vain,” “Against Idleness and Mischief,” “Against Evil Company,” “Against Pride in Clothes.” Watts also includes songs on “The Ten Commandments” and “Our Saviour’s Golden Rule.”
Many post-1800 Protestant hymns hold to this pattern. “How Firm a Foundation” is a song about personal sanctification by means of God’s Word. Established through faith in Christ—”who unto Jesus for refuge have fled”—we are reminded of “how firm a foundation . . . is laid for [our] faith in his excellent Word,” and how such a foundation can “sanctify” us through any trial—sickness, troubles, foes, etc. Another excellent, yet more specific, example (dealing with pride) is found in the first two verses of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”:
When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.
In “Take My Life and Let It Be” we sing to God to take our hearts, wills, voices, hands, feet, and minds—our very selves and lives—to be in service to the King. Other lyrics along this line include the following sampling, which sing (in order below) of our propensity to wander from God and his ways, our need for inward and outward holiness, our commitment, and our call to evangelism:
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love. (“Come, Thou Fount”)
Save from wrath and make me pure. (“Rock of Ages”)
Make and keep me pure within. (“Jesus, Lover of My Soul”)
Take away our bent to sinning. (“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”)
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. (“A Mighty Fortress”)
My gracious Master and my God, Assist me to proclaim,
To spread through all the earth abroad The honors of thy name. (“O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing”)
Bob Kauflin offers wise counsel with what he calls the Twenty-Year Rule: “If someone was born in our church and grew up singing our songs over the course of twenty years, how well would they know God?” (Worship Matters [Crossway, 2008], 119). That is a very good question. To that question, I would like to add another: how well will our people know our Lord’s commands and follow them? This is no peripheral question, for, as Chrysostom correctly comments, “The reason we comment on Scripture is not only for you to get to know Scripture but for you also to correct your behavior: if this does not occur, we are wasting our time in reading it out, we are wasting our time in explaining it” (Old Testament Homilies, trans. Robert Charles Hill [Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2003], 3:43). It is time we stop wasting our time with lyrics that do not focus on the gospel and challenge us to walk in a manner worthy of it. For our own growth in godliness, let us return to our Protestant hymnody heritage, firmly rooted in God’s own inspired lyrics.
Excerpts from O’Donnell, God’s Lyrics, were used with the publisher’s permission.