Mini Sermons For the Soul to Sing


MusicI’ve come to enjoy thinking of the great hymns of the church as “mini sermons for the soul to sing.” This is one of the main reasons why we should study, cherish and preserve hymn-singing in our churches. It’s not that hymns are inspired by God–as are the songs of Scripture (e.g. the Song of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, the Psalms, Song of Songs, Habakkuk, the Magnificat, etc.)–but, as Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained, “When truth gets into a hymnbook it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.” In short, it is the theological and experiential truth, coupled with the poetic form and intentional structure of hymns that makes them mini-sermons for soul to sing. 

Two things that have helped me grow in my love for so many of the hymns of bygone generations is (1) the way in which the rich truth of Scripture is set in beautiful prose and (2) the way in which it is intentionally structured. While there are a plethora of outstanding examples of this, I’d like to introduce you to two of my favorites and walk us through their purposeful theology and structure.

A Princeton Seminary grad and Dutch Reformed minister of the early 19th Century, George Bethune, left us one fine example of a hymn–though less known than many–that is rich in theological truth and structure. Moving from before Christ’s birth (verse 1) to his circumcision (verse 2) to his hanging on the cross (verse 3) to his glorified state on the throne of God (verse 4) and to all eternity (verse 5),  Bethune sets the theme of “Jesus’ name” in each stage in the unfolding of Christ’s work of redemption mentioned in Scripture. He does so to highlight the reasons why “There is No Name So Sweet on Earth” or in heaven:

There is no name so sweet on earth,
No name so sweet in Heaven,
The Name, before His wondrous birth
To Christ the Savior given.

We love to sing of Christ our King,
And hail Him, blessed Jesus;
For there’s no word ear ever heard
So dear, so sweet as “Jesus.”

His human name they did proclaim,
When Abram’s son they sealed Him;
The name that still by God’s good will,
Deliverer revealed Him.

We love to sing of Christ our King,
And hail Him, blessed Jesus;
For there’s no word ear ever heard
So dear, so sweet as “Jesus.”

And when He hung upon the tree,
They wrote this Name above Him;
That all might see the reason we
Forevermore must love Him.

We love to sing of Christ our King,
And hail Him, blessed Jesus;
For there’s no word ear ever heard
So dear, so sweet as “Jesus.”

So now, upon His Father’s throne,
Almighty to release us
From sin and pain, He gladly reigns,
The Prince and Savior, Jesus.

We love to sing of Christ our King,
And hail Him, blessed Jesus;
For there’s no word ear ever heard
So dear, so sweet as “Jesus.”

O Jesus, by that matchless Name,
Thy grace shall fail us never;
Today as yesterday the same,
Thou art the same forever.

We love to sing of Christ our King,
And hail Him, blessed Jesus;
For there’s no word ear ever heard
So dear, so sweet as “Jesus.”

Another fine example of a hymn–rich in theological truth and thoughtfully structured in its flow–is Johann Freystein’s 1697 hymn, “Rise, My Soul, To Watch and Pray.” In it, Freystein ties together the theology of prayer and the theology of temptation. It is one of the finest examples of experiential Calvinism found in the Trinity Hymnal. Freystein structured the hymn according to the biblical teaching on the three great enemies of the believer: The devil, the world and the flesh. In the first two verses, Freystein calls the believer to pray against the temptations of the devil; in the third line, he calls the believer to watch against the temptations of the world; and, in the fourth, Freystein charges believers to be on gaurd against their own sinful desires. Finally, the hymn is brought to a close with a reminder that the Lord is the one who delivers and that redemption and victory is in Him alone. Here’s the original text:

Rise, my soul, to watch and pray, from thy sleep awaken;
Be not by the evil day unawares be taken.
For the foe, well we know, oft his harvest reapeth,
While the Christian sleepeth.

Watch against the devil’s snares lest asleep he find thee;
For indeed no pains he spares to deceive and blind thee.
Satan’s prey oft are they who secure are sleeping
And no watch are keeping.

Watch! Let not the wicked world with its power defeat thee.
Watch lest with her pomp unfurled she betray and cheat thee.
Watch and see lest there be faithless friends to charm thee,
Who but seek to harm thee.

Watch against thyself, my soul, lest with grace thou trifle;
Let not self thy thoughts control nor God’s mercy stifle.
Pride and sin lurk within all thy hopes to scatter;
Heed not when they flatter.

But while watching, also pray to the Lord unceasing,
He will free thee, be thy Stay, strength and faith increasing.
O Lord, bless in distress and let nothing swerve me
From the will to serve Thee.

 
 

8 Responses to “Mini Sermons For the Soul to Sing”

  1. Frances says:

    Wonderful post! Here are links to the sheet music for those two hymns (both of which are in the Trinity Hymnal): http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/TH1990/page/589 , http://www.hymnary.org/hymn/TH1990/178

  2. Debbi's says:

    Sing on, my soul, sing on! Thanks so much for your words here to encourage our thoughtful singing of rich Truth!

  3. Those hymn lyrics are some not in my religious tradition, but certainly blessed my soul today. I’m going to post some of them on my Facebook page. Thank you so much.

    Latayne C. Scott
    http://www.latayne.com

  4. Ryan says:

    Great title by the way! Am preaching on Colossians 3 pretty soon and “mini sermons for the soul” seems to be decent imagery and working to use, in part, to get to thinking more about”psalms, hymns and spiritual songs”.

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I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve. (Romans 16:17-18)

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