During this Ordinary season that stretches before us, I want to do something not so ordinary: I want to preach from the Hymnal, rather than from the Revised Common Lectionary. I’m not forsaking the Bible; our hymns are scripturally based. There are some hymns that are not, but in our hymnal, most reflect or expound on a specific verse or group of verses.
I’ve made a list of all the ways I could preach about hymns.
- SUBJECT MATTER
- HISTORICAL ERA
- FAVORITE HYMNS
- OLD TESTAMENT/NEW TESTAMENT
- TRINITY–PERSONAS OF GOD
- KINDS OF HYMN BASED ON LYRICAL/MUSICAL STRUCTURE
I’ve always loved hymns. I cannot think of a kind of music that I enjoy more. I love attending the Quad-City Symphony. I enjoy my Zydeco/Cajun CDs. I love hearing Fred and Velda sing blue grass. I love live jazz. And, as a teenager in the 60’s, I certainly sang a lot of folk songs. But hymns are the music that is woven into my psyche. If I break into song while I’m working, it’s almost always a hymn.
When I was cooking full-time for the priests at the Chancery, I would wash dishes while the priests ate. Because the dishwasher was so loud, it drowned out any other sounds. I recall one evening in February,2013. As the priests brought out their plates for me to wash, one of them remarked, “We decided that you’re so happy because you’re preparing for Lenten services.” Evidently, my singing had carried into the dining room. Of course, they knew that I had been called to the same vocation as they had, and they intuited my anticipation of that holy season. I still cook for them occasionally, most recently Friday evening, and again, I found myself breaking into a hymn, protected (maybe) by the noise of the dishwasher.
I come from a family of hymn singers. My grandmother and her girlfriend, Tina, were the go-to group for funerals, back in the early part of the 20th Century. That was when funerals were held in the home of the deceased. One time, Tina started on too high a pitch, my grandmother related, but they pulled it off. The first tunes I learned to play on the piano were hymns, because that was one of two books of music we had. I taught myself to play by looking at the instructions in the back of a school music book and then moved on to hymns. The only music lessons I ever took were from our church’s organist, Mr. Grebing, so I was further immersed in hymns.
So, it’s no surprise, I guess, that I would see hymns as a fitting subject matter for sermons.
Today, I want to look at a few hymns that were inspired by the book of Psalms. That is certainly appropriate, as the psalms are among the earliest hymns sung in our tradition, starting with our Israelite ancestors. Not all of the psalms are meant to be sung, but we know, just by reading through the book, that many were. Many of them have a short introduction that indicates such:
Psalm 4 : For the director of music. With stringed instruments.
Psalm 18: For the director of music. Of David the servant of the Lord. He sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.
Psalm 22: For the director of music. To the tune of “The Doe of the Morning.”
Some psalms are songs of thanksgiving, some are purely for praising God. The Psalms were not only the hymns of the Israelites, they were also the hymns of the early Christian church.
In Ephesians 5: 18 b-19, Paul advises, “but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.” Again, in Colossians 3:16 (RSV), he repeats: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
James likewise encourages this practice: James 5:13 (KJV) Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
Not only did the first Christians use the the book of psalms as a hymnal; they also drew much of their theology from the psalms. I maintain that we do the same thing today. I once read that the hymnal is the second most important book, the first being the Bible. I would guess that in some ways, the hymnal is more important than the Bible when it comes to informing our theology and personal beliefs about God, about salvation, about eternal life, even about behavior.
My friend, J. Clinton McCann, has written several books on the Psalms. In the New Interpreter’s Bible, he mentions that Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary-General of the United Nations, always carried three things with him: a copy of the New Testament, a copy of the Psalms and a copy of the United Nations Charter. They were found in his briefcase that was recovered from the plane crash that took his life in 1961.
McCann says, in response to Hammarskjold’s preference for the Psalms and the New Testament, “I write as a Christian biblical scholar and theologian, and, like Hammarskjold, I consciously and constantly hold side by side the psalms and the New Testament. A careful reading of each reveals that the psalms anticipate Jesus’ bold presentation of God’s claim upon the whole world and that Jesus embodied the psalter’s articulation of God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations.”
Martin Luther urged that Psalms be sung by congregations so that “the Word of God may be among the people also in the form of music.”
This was especially good advice in the Sixteenth Century, as the average worshipper could not read scripture, for two reasons. One, the books were so rare and precious that only the most privileged had access to them. Second, because of not having access to books, no one needed to know how to read. But everyone could sing, everyone could learn the words to songs. In fact Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, is based on Psalm 46…and on Luther’s political views. Tradition has it that the words were set to a well-known tavern song, but that is disputed. Regardless, it’s easier to memorize words that have rhyme and rhythm than to memorize a bunch of sentences.
I know I can sing more hymns from memory than quote Bible verses. How about you? Any volunteers?
I ran across an article by pastor and writer, Uri Brito.
There are ten reasons I believe congregations should begin to sing psalms once again:
First, Psalm-singing is an explicit biblical command (Ps. 27:6). The Scriptures encourage us to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). To have the word of Christ dwell in you richly means to invest in the rich beauty of the Psalter. How can we sing what we do not know? Is there a better way to internalize the word is to sing it?
Second, Psalm-singing was the ancient practice of the Church and it continued for 1,800 years. We honor our forefathers and our history when we sing their songs.
Third, Calvin observed that the psalms are “An Anatomy of all Parts of the Soul; for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that it is not represented here as a mirror.” The psalms are satisfying to the human being. We are homos adorans; worship beings. God is not against emotions, he is against emotionalism. The Psalter is an emotional book. It provides comfort for the people of God at different stages of life. As a minister I have never once walked into a hospital room and been asked to read a text from Leviticus or Romans, but rather every time I have been asked to read a psalm (most often Psalm 23). The psalms reach deep inside our humanity in time of pain.
As a pastor, I can tell you that Psalm 23 is #1 on the lips of the barely conscious, the mute, the disabled, the mourners.
Fourth, singing the psalms builds our Christian piety. It is nurturing to our souls. It is God’s devotional book; God’s hymnal. Singing the psalms restores the joy of our salvation. Ask me what book of the Bible I would take to a desert island, and I will not hesitate to say “The Psalms.”
Fifth, the psalms are ultimately made for the body. You may sing the psalms on your own, but they reach their culmination when sung together. They are meant to be roared (Ps. 47:1), because they were written by the Lion of Judah. When we sing together we are both being edified and edifying one another. “We sing because in singing we join together in common breath and melody in a manner that no other medium can duplicate…We become an assembly unified in purpose and thought. And by our singing, we hear God’s Word for us, and the world hears it loud and clear.”
Sixth, we should sing the Psalms because they re-shape us; they re-orient our attention. We are a people constantly being sanctified by the Spirit of God, and the Spirit has specifically inspired 150 psalms for our sanctification. How should we pray? How should we ask? How should we lament? The Psalms helps us to answer these questions, and thus shapes us more and more after the image of Christ.
Seventh, by singing the Psalms we are worshiping the Spirit. The Spirit hovers, shapes, re-makes in the Bible. He is the music of God in the world. In an age when the Third Person of the Trinity has become the source of theological confusion, the Psalms keeps us focused on His role and purposes in history.
Eighth, we should sing the psalms because our current songs are often cheap and shallow. The Psalms are rich and full of substance. If we wonder why the evangelical community is so powerless, the answer is because of its trivialized worship. Modern worship is often a pietistic exercise, which is manifested in poorly constructed and pessimistic theology. But the Psalms teaches us that God is full of mercy and powerful over all His enemies (Ps. 2). The Psalms are political statements. They are direct attacks on those who challenge the supremacy of King Jesus.
I may have mentioned once or twice my disdain for some contemporary music–what I like to call 7-11 songs: 7 words repeated 11 times. I fear that learning theology from some songs doesn’t really nurture or teach us much. How many times has your faith been strengthened through the singing of a hymn. How many times have you felt the comfort of God overcome you during the singing of a hymn?
Ninth, the psalms should be sung because our children need them. Our little ones need to know the God they worship in profound ways from their earliest days. We become what we worship, and so our children will become what we sing.
Tenth, you should sing the psalms because the world needs them. The world does not need a weak Gospel. She sees plenty of it already. She needs to hear a Gospel of a God who delights in praise, who will not allow evil to go unpunished, and who prepares a table for us.
I think music plays a huge role in more than the faith life of us pew-sitters. It also speaks to those who have never entered through the doors of a sanctuary. When people whine about not being able to force their faith on everyone else, I think they must be living in a cardboard box under the bridge. Christian music is everywhere.
What kind of music do you hear on every street corner, in every store, starting the day after Thanksgiving? Not all of it is about Santa Claus and Rudolph. What kind of music do you often hear at choral and orchestra concerts? I worked at the Large Group Music Contest at the DeWitt high school a few weeks ago. The really good, challenging music is often religious, often Christian.
I wonder how many people have become serious Christians because they were first introduced to Jesus by someone singing joyfully, happily. Maybe it was that time that they were invited to go to church camp with a friend and they learned about the “joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” Maybe someone heard Carrie Underwood sing “Jesus Take the Wheel” or Alabama singing “Angels Among Us” or maybe they were at a funeral and heard Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
I’d like to review with you just a few of our hymns that reference the Psalms.
#215–When Morning Gilds the Skies
Psalm 5:3 (RSV) O Lord, in the morning thou dost hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for thee, and watch.
Psalm 59:16-17 (KJV) 16 But I will sing of thy power; yea, I will sing aloud of thy mercy in the morning: for thou hast been my defense and refuge in the day of my trouble. 17 Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for God is my defense, and the God of my mercy.
#169 Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart
Psalm 20:5 (RSV) May we shout for joy over your victory, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions!
Psalm 32:11 (RSV) Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!
#694 The Lord’s My Shepherd
23 (RSV)The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies; thou anointest my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
#758 LIft Up Your Heads
Psalm 24:7-10 (RSV) 7 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8 Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle! 9 Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 10 Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!
#405 I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord
Psalm 26:8 (RSV) O Lord, I love the habitation of thy house, and the place where thy glory dwells.
#33 Immortal, Invisible,God Only Wise
Psalm 36:6 (RSV) Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God, thy judgments are like the great deep; man and beast thou savest, O Lord.
#11 Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Psalm 36:7-10 (RSV)7 How precious is thy steadfast love, O God!The children of men take refuge in the shadow of thy wings. 8 They feast on the abundance of thy house, and thou givest them drink from the river of thy delights. 9 For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light do we see light. 10 O continue thy steadfast love to those who know thee,and thy salvation to the upright of heart!
# 712 Be Still My Soul
Psalm 37:7 (RSV) 7 Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over him who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!
46:10 “Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!”
# 151 A Mighty Fortress is Our God
46 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
#779 I’ll Fly Away
Psalm 55:6 (RSV) And I say, “O that I had wings like a dove!I would fly away and be at rest;
#788 Now Thank We All Our God and # 790 We Gather Together
67 May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us,
2 that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples praise thee!
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for thou dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise thee, O God;let all the peoples praise thee!
6 The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us.
7 God has blessed us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!
#794 Let All Things Now Living
Psalm 150:6 (RSV) Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
#90 Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee
Psalm 71:23 (RSV) My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to thee; my soul also, which thou hast rescued.
Psalm 145:10 (RSV) All thy works shall give thanks to thee, O Lord, and all thy saints shall bless thee!
#101 All People That on Earth do Dwell
100 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the lands! 2 Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! 3 Know that the Lord is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! 5 For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
#104 O Worship the King
104 Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, thou art very great! Thou art clothed with honor and majesty, 2 who coverest thyself with light as with a garment, who hast stretched out the heavens like a tent, 3 who hast laid the beams of thy chambers on the waters, who makest the clouds thy chariot, who ridest on the wings of the wind, 4 who makest the winds thy messengers, fire and flame thy ministers.
#508 Love Lifted Me
Psalm 18:16 (RSV) He reached from on high, he took me, he drew me out of many waters.
We have a rich tradition—thousands of years of tradition–of great music–and it all started with the Psalms.
Psalm 100 says it best:
Shout praises to the Lord, everyone on this earth.
Be joyful and sing as you come in to worship the Lord!
You know the Lord is God!
He created us, and we belong to him; we are his people, the sheep in his pasture.
Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple.
The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever.