As a child, I grew up singing old hymns of the faith — Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, and the like. Even today, many of these hymns are deeply ingrained in me. Then, somewhere in my early twenties, praise music became all the rage in the church I attended. And so, I was introduced to essentially a newer and more contemporary body of hymnody — largely written to be accompanied with a guitar than with an organ. And, as with some of the hymns that I grew up singing, some of these “old school” praise songs still can elicit a powerful emotional response.
As I’ve grown older and arguably more mature in my faith, I freely confess that I am drawn more to singing the psalms. This is not a dig against those who are writing hymnody so much as it is a reflection on the fact that I am paying more attention to the words I am singing and desire that those words be as Biblically and theologically accurate as possible. In many cases, when I sing hymns and praise songs, I end up singing with my guard up — something I don’t want to have to do. And so there is a natural gravitation toward the psalms and other Canonical songs.
What has struck me, though, is how different the tone of Canonical singing is than that of the hymnody and praise music with which I am familiar. Namely, I can’t think of too many hymns or praise songs that praise God for his wrath and for the destruction of his enemies. Sure, there is “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war…,” but that’s not really about God’s wrath, its a call to evangelism and spiritual battle. Truly this is an appropriate theme to sing, but it not so much sing praise for God’s work of destroying his enemies in judgment. And I am not saying this because I wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh my, I want to sing of God’s wrath!” But then again, sometimes I do.
What has struck me about the Biblical songs of worship is that they do not just cover the happy parts of the Christian life. They sing of the feelings of abandonment, the struggle with loss, and the righteous anger the Christian ought to feel when facing the abominations of the wicked. And they sing praise to God for his wrath against the wicked.
The reality of this proved striking to me this weekend as I opened our worship. I have been using the songs of praise from Revelation as the language of our calls to worship this year and I arrived on Sunday at chapter 19:1-3, where the multitude in heaven are praising God for judging the great prostitute. That was clear enough, but the words that closed these verses sing praise to God that her “smoke goes up forever!” Indeed! Here are the saints in heaven glorifying God that the destruction of the prostitute, Babylon, is so great that she will burn in hell forever. The language of judgment certainly fills the pages of Revelation, but this passage truly stood out to me.
To be honest, I can’t say that I ever remember singing a hymn or a praise song that contained language like that. Wesley, Toplady, Newton, Watts, etc…, I don’t think I have run into a hymn from one of them that is structured like that. And, if these authors did write hymns praising God for his wrath upon the unbelieving world, they I don’t think they have made their way into any of the hymnals that I have used. Yet, they are in the psalters. Why? Because they are in the psalms.
One of the main errors of the church in America today is that it is theologically unbalanced. Preaching on the Law and on Sin is de-emphasized and preaching on grace is emphasized to such a degree that it dominates the conversation of the Christian. This has created an imbalanced theology in much of America. And, this imbalanced theology has created a culture that don’t think that sin is that bad and they embrace a form of universalism that implies that everyone gets to go to heaven so long as they ask.
Could there be a connection between the way we think and what we sing? I think that there is. Songs have long been one of the most effective ways to teach ideas to people (young and old). This is why we memorize our alphabet using the ABC Song. In seminary, we had to be able to recite the 66 books of the Bible in order — I cannot even begin to say just how many of my peers memorized the books of the Bible as a song. Funny. Music has a way of bypassing many of our intellectual filters and therein lies the danger. When we are singing things outside of the Canon of Scripture, we open ourselves up to the errors of those who wrote the hymn or even to an imbalanced view of God based on the choices made by the one selecting the hymns to sing.
Am I arguing for exclusive psalmody? Not entirely, though it probably would not take much to convince me of the value of exclusive Canonical singing. There are also hymns that are essentially composed of sections of scripture that have been strung together. These can open the door to the potential for using a passage out of its context to make the hymn author’s point, but they are in the realm of what I am growing toward. Recognizing that even exclusive psalm singers are at the mercy of those who translate and versify the psalms, there is no bullet-proof solution. What I am advocating though, is more intentional choices when it comes to the selection of music for worship. Not only ought the music we sing be scriptural, but it also must reflect the breadth of the language with which the people of God are to use as we worship God. In other words, let us not just sing about the wonderful grace and mercy of God, but also of the wrath and judgment he wields over sin.