FacebookTwitterRSS FeedPinterest

By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 10.45 am service, 2005-12-18

Text: Colossians 3:16

If you were here last Sunday you would have heard a message entitled "Why Do We Sing?." We learned that God's people are actually commanded to sing. And therefore we should all be 'singing Christians' and not 'sinning Christians.' Do you know that singing occupies a prominent place in the life of the believer and of the church? It is one of the prominent features of the worship that goes on in heaven, of worship at the temple of Jerusalem, and also of our worship. We sing when we are happy and thankful to express our joy (e.g. at an anniversary). We sing when we are sad and need comfort (e.g. at a vigil or funeral service). We sing to remember great events (e.g. Christmas). We also sing whenever we have any Christian fellowship meeting or prayer meeting. In fact we have half an hour of singspiration before the Prayer meeting every week. This is why we need another message on singing beside the one that we had last week. And this morning's message will focus what we are to sing - hymns. There are so many wonderful hymns to sing with a wide range of themes covering every expression of praise and trust!

Do you know that some of the hymns we sing are hundreds of years old and have been sung by many generations of God's people? The earliest known Christian hymn is 'Shepherd of Eager Youth' This was originally sung in Greek, and was composed by Clement of Alexandria (170-220, see RHC 59). Some other hymns were originally sung in Latin. One of them is the Gloria Patri which we sing at every worship service just after the invocation. This song dates to the end of the 4th century and it has therefore been sung by God's people for over 16 hundred years! That makes it older than any country's national anthem.

In order to be singing Christians it is good for us to learn what the Bible teaches about hymn-singing, and also about how the hymns we sing have developed up to the present time.

I. What Are Hymns?

The word 'hymn' occurs only 4 times in our English Bible: For example, please turn your Bible to Matthew 26:30 'And when they had sung an hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.' There are two verses where the Greek word for 'singing hymns' (humneo) is translated as 'sing praises' e.g. Acts 16:25 'And at midnight Paul and Silas prayed, and sang praises (humneo) unto God: and the prisoners heard them.' 

This shows us that hymns are basically praises that are sung. According to hymnologists, a song must have at least three elements in order to qualify as a hymn:

1. It must give praise to God (not to one's country - as in a national anthem)

2. It must be sung (It is not a poem that is read or recited in praise of God)

3. It must be sung by a congregation (unlike songs that are performed on stage by a soloist). It is interesting to note that during the Dark Ages congregational singing stopped, and all the singing for worship was done only by a small choir of monks. But the common people who attended the worship services could not understand what was sung at all because the monks sung everything in Latin! The 16th century Protestant Reformation has rightly restored congregational singing as we have it today. The invention of printing not only placed Bibles in our hands, but hymnals as well, to use for congregational singing!

II. How are Hymns Different from Psalms?

Now, hymns are a different type of song of praise from the psalms. Psalm-singing is a biblical practice, as James wrote in James 5:13 'Is any merry? let him sing psalms.' Do you know that the book of psalms was the original songbook that was used for worship by Israel? They were sung at the Temple and continue to be sung in synagogues today. In order to make the psalms easier to sing in English, the words of the psalms have been rearranged in metrical form to give a certain number of syllables per line. And these psalms that can be sung easily are compiled into a songbook called a Psalter. 

And since April this year we have been using the Trinity Psalter (red book) to encourage the singing of psalms both in our worship services and in our singspiration on Tuesday night before prayer meeting. The Reformer John Calvin said that whenever we look for suitable songs of praise, 'we shall not find better songs nor more fitting for the purpose, than the Psalms of David which the Holy Spirit spoke and made through him; when we sing them, we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if He Himself were singing in us to exalt His glory.'

Hymns are songs of praise to God other than the psalms. Unlike psalms, the words of hymns are composed by human writers, as a result of their own personal meditation on scriptural truths. 

Some people may then ask, if God has already given us the book of 150 psalms to use for our singing, why should we add hymns to our singing? Well there are several reasons why it is biblical to sing both hymns and psalms.

A. Hymns and Psalms are a medium to teach the Whole Bible

One verse that speaks of singing hymns and psalms is Colossians 3:16 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.' To understand what psalms, hymns and spiritual songs in this verse means, we need to look at the first part of the verse: 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.' This term refers to the whole Bible, and this verse exhorts us to know all of it well. This is brought out by the phrase 'in all wisdom' which implies that the whole counsel of God is meant.

Then it goes on to prescribe one way of doing this - through singing. Singing becomes one of the aids to be used in this ministry of teaching the Word of Christ to one another, and to admonish one another in the Word of Christ. Since the verse states that it is the entire Word of Christ that is communicated in singing, and not only what is written in the Book of psalms alone, then hymns and spiritual songs must logically be the medium for teaching what is found in the rest of the Bible. 

B. Many Biblical Songs Are Not Psalms

The singing of songs that are not psalms has been a feature of the life of God's people even in biblical times. In last week�s message Pr Quek provided us with a list of familiar songs both in the Old Testament (15) as the New Testament (9), including The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) The Song of Deborah and Barak (Judges 5); The Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10) Mary�s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:67-80); and Simeon's Nunc Dimittus (Luke 2:27-32). 

In addition to these, there are many portions of the New Testament which are believed to be early Christian hymns because of the poetic form in which they are written, e.g. Romans 8:31-39; Ephesians 1:3-14; Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:11-13. These were composed and probably sung in church services for the purpose of instruction, memorization as well as worship. 

C. Hymns Convey Truths about Christ better than Psalms

There is one more reason why we should sing hymns and not only the psalms: It is that hymns convey truths about Jesus Christ better than the psalms. God's revelation is progressive. In the Old Testament the truths concerning Christ and His salvation were revealed only in types and shadows. It is only in the New Testament that the fullness of revelation was attained. Because of this, the psalms cannot reveal clearly that Jesus is God in the flesh who came to die in the place of sinners. Christ is revealed only in vague and somewhat hidden forms in the psalms, in the form of allusions, types and prophecies. E.g. Psalm 16:10 'For thou wilt not leave My soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.' For clear teaching about Christ and the truths of the Gospel we must therefore sing hymns.

There are some hymns that express the full revelation of the New Testament very well. For example, let us listen to the words of the familiar Christmas Carol, 'Hark the herald angels sing' (RHC 157, 2nd stanza) 'Christ by highest heaven adored; Christ the everlasting Lord; Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th'incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel'. We can see how every line comes from the New Testament scriptures and is rich with New Testament teaching about Christ!

It is because of this that hymns have sometimes proved to be an effective tool for combating false doctrine ' especially when the church was faced with false doctrines that denied the deity of Christ and the Trinity in the 4th century. One example is the hymn 'O Splendour of God's Glory Bright' (RHC 23) - Note how it emphasizes Christ's deity and equality with the Father in last stanza: 'Dawn's glory gilds the earth and skies, Let Him our perfect morn arise, The Word in God the Father one, the Father imaged in the Son.' If you look at the top left of the music, you will notice that this hymn was composed by Ambrose (347-397), the famous bishop of Milan who fought against false teaching.

D. Many Hymns Have Stood the Test of Time

Dearly beloved, all of this means that we should sing both hymns and psalms in our worship. If we limit ourselves to singing psalms alone in worship, then we would also miss out on the rich heritage of Christian hymns that has been built up through almost 2000 years of history. Many of these hymns have stood the test of time, and have been used of God to bless the devotions of generations of God's people. 

It is interesting to observe that the greatest periods of spiritual renewal in Christendom have always been accompanied by an outburst of new hymns composed for God�s people to sing. For example, many of the hymns that we sing came as a result of the Protestant Reformation. John Huss, the Bohemian Reformer who was burned at the stake, wrote many hymns in the 15th century. Martin Luther (1483-1546) the German Reformer who initiated the Protestant Reformation. He wrote 37 hymns, one of which is the famous 'A Mighty Fortress' (a paraphrase of Psalm 46, RHC 46). Luther compiled a hymnbook for Protestants to use in worship, which included psalms, hymns as well as translations of many Latin hymns.

Two centuries later these hymns of the Reformation gave the inspiration to a famous Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) to refine and arrange them in four-part harmony both for choir as well as congregational singing. It is said that Bach made the greatest contribution of any composer to church music. (e.g. O Sacred Head RHC 188).

Spirited hymn-singing has been one of the hallmarks of the many Revivals in Church History. During the Evangelical Awakening in England and America in the 18th Century there was prolific hymn writing by godly writers like Charles Wesley, John Newton (Amazing Grace RHC307) and his friend, William Cowper (O for a Close Walk with God RHC 388), and Isaac Watts (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross RHC 551).

Another period of prolific hymn-writing was the John Sung revival in Singapore in the 1930s when souls were saved and believers were greatly revived in large numbers. Many of the choruses that were composed in that revival can be found in our hymnal (e.g. RHC 515 - How Marvelous His Love - John Sung Choruses). They bring back echoes of the spiritual vitality that characterized the revival.

III. What Hymns Should We Sing?

Now while we have seen how it is biblical to sing hymns composed by men, beside the singing of psalms of the Bible, we also need to exercise some wise discernment in our choice of hymns. Not all hymns are suitable for singing in worship. Some hymns are in fact unbiblical and also unedifying. In our choice of hymns we should sing those that have three qualities:

a. They should be faithful to the Scriptures (Colossians 3:16 'Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.')

b. They should be objective and free from introspection (1 Corinthians 14:15 'I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.' Cf. Psalm 47:7)

c. They should not be conformed to the world (Romans 12:2 'And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind')

Many new hymns composed in recent times lack these qualities. They are quite different from the old-time hymns that we sing in our worship services. The main difference is that they are becoming more and more conformed to the world's music, reflecting the same trend to compromise with the world that is also found in Christendom today. There are two parts in this trend: 

Firstly, the words of many Christian songs are less faithful to scripture and less objective than before. The stress has shifted away from doctrine to emotionalism and existentialism. 

Secondly, the tunes of the songs have become more like the contemporary sentimental pop music that the world loves to hear. This trend has gone even into rock music, e.g. In the 1980s a group called STRYPER - became the first Heavy Metal Christian band to break into the music industry. They set the pace for Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) until the band was disbanded in 1992. 

Some years ago I was invited to speak at a Youth Worship service of another Church, and almost all the songs they sang were contemporary, reflecting the prevailing type of music that appeals to the world, and sung to the rapid accompaniment of a keyboard, bass guitar and bongo drums. I personally do not think that this should be encouraged in our worship. I believe that the music that believers use to worship God should be intrinsically different from the world's music. Someone has put it this way: 'We do not sing the world's songs with God's words because the music of the world will always overwhelm the words of the song even with the best of intentions.' 

Let us remember that the primary purpose of all our hymns must be to praise and glorify God and not to entertain men. They should help us to love God more and to declare that love to others. Since our God is a God of truth, order, goodness and beauty, our music should be the same too, in order to reflect His glory well.

This brings us to the last and most important part of the message, which is on

IV. How Should We Sing Hymns?

The last part of our text in Colossians 3:16 tells us that we should sing 'with grace in your hearts to the Lord.' There are at least three things that must characterize our singing: Firstly we should sing with grace in our hearts. This means that one pre-requisite for singing hymns is that you must first be saved. If you have not experienced the grace of God that alone can saves you from sins, your singing of hymns will become a meaningless activity, and at worst, it may even be something displeasing to God! This happened to the people of Israel when they had turned away from God. God spokte to them in Amos 5:23 'Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.'

And so if there is anyone here who is still outside Christ, let me urge you not to wait anymore to receive Him as your Saviour and Lord. Only when you are saved will you be able to sing with a genuine thankful spirit, and with grace in your hearts to the Lord!

Secondly, we should sing in our hearts. Notice that it does not say singing with your mouths. It is easy to sing with our mouth, but it requires effort to sing with our heart as well. Singing hymns will be futile and meaningless if it becomes a mere outward form, done mechanically with no inward expression from our hearts. It may be possible for a person to sing a hymn most beautifully and with perfect pitch, but it will be nothing but noise to God, if his heart is not in it. Dearly beloved, when you sing hymns, please don�t get too carried away by the music. Pay close attention to the words that you sing. Think about what they mean, and let your singing be a genuine personal expression of the words. Only then will your soul be blessed with the Word of God that is found within them, and your singing will be filled with life!

Finally, we should sing to the Lord. Every hymn we sing in worship is an offering dedicated unto Him. We should not sing to be heard by the people around us, hoping that they will be impressed by our fine singing. We should not sing even to ourselves, for our own personal entertainment or enjoyment. But we should sing to the Lord, to minister to Him and to give Him the greatest pleasure that mortals like us can give. 

Dearly beloved, let it be our fervent prayer that the hymns of our Sunday worship services will always be sung with grace in our hearts to the Lord. And may this morning's message on the singing of Hymns help us to appreciate the value of the old-time hymns, and sing them often with meaning and expression, and promote their use in praising the Lord.


Vision & Mission


To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

February 18 & 25 - Fruit of Obedience

If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. John 15:10