The word ‘hymn’ is used only twice in the New Testament. They are found in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. Though ‘hymns’ are linked together with ‘psalms’ and ‘spiritual songs’, it stands in its own category distinct from the other two. Psalms are basically what we find in the Old Testament Book of Psalms. Psalms are generally accompanied by instruments such as the lute and tambourine. They are primarily directed to God- to adore Him and to exalt Him. Spiritual songs encompass a wider variety of material that could not be classified under ‘psalms’ and ‘hymns’. Examples are short choruses, children’s songs and tribal (cultural) songs. Hymns are mainly testimonial-speaking to man about God’s acts and attributes. They also call for a response from any who listens and/or sings.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, hymnals were small and pocket-sized so that church members could carry with them to church. Their hymnals were like collections of poetry-different from what we see today where the music and the words are printed together on the same page. The tunes which the hymns go by were simply name and be referred to in another separate book called the tunebook. One famous hymnal was known as the Olney Hymns, co-authored by John Newton and his best friend William Cowper (pronounced as ‘coo-per’; composer of God Moves in a Mysterious Way), who often took long walks together, talking about God and making poems. This little glimpse of history tells us that hymns are essentially poetry, not tunes.
The hymn refers to the text, and so as a text, it shares similar characteristics with a poem. A hymn is equally divided into stanzas in a recurring pattern of rhyme and meter.
Rhyme is where the last sound of each line sound similar with a following line. Different types of rhyme patterns can be found in various hymns. The simplest type is the “a,a,a,a” scheme:
Dying with Jesus, by death reckoned mine—a
Living with Jesus, a new life divine—a
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine—a
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am Thine—a
The chorus of this hymn presents another rhyming scheme— “a,a,b,b,”
Moment by moment I’m kept in His love—a
Moment by moment I’ve life from above—a
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine—b
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am Thine—b
Meter is simply put, the number of syllables in a line, with regular accents . In the hymn above, each line consists of ten syllables each, and the accent is always on the second beat. Knowing the meter well will help to ensure that an appropriate tune be matched to the words.
Many poetical devices can also be found in hymns. Here are the simpler and more common ones—
Paradox is a statement that seems to contradict itself but is actually true. It is an effective and dramatic way of presenting the paradoxical truths of the Christian doctrine. Charles Wesley expressed beautifully how he found in Christ a sure refuge in the hymn Thou Hidden Source of Calm Repose—
Jesus, my all in all Thou art,
My rest in toil, my ease in pain,
The healing of my broken heart,
In war my peace, in loss my gain,
My smile beneath the tyrant’s frown,
In shame my glory and my crown.
In want my plentiful supply,
In weakness my almighty power,
In bonds my perfect liberty,
My light in Satan’s darkest hour,
In grief my joy unspeakable,
My life in death, my Heaven in hell.
Hyperbole is the literary use of exaggeration. For instance: “O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise” (Charles Wesley) and the last stanza of The Love of God—
Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Metaphor is a figure of speech to connect an object or idea with another object in the same likeness. In Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart, the writer expressed his desire to be wholly given to the Lord with the words “my heart an altar and Thy love the flame”.
As to how the entire hymn develops, hymn writers would employ styles such as the Dialogue—“Am I a soldier of the cross? A foll’wer of the Lamb?” (Issac Watts) or Itemization to show thematic unity. George Matheson wrote his hymn this way:
- “O Love that wilt not let me go,”
- “O Light that followest all my way,”
- “O Joy that seekest me through pain,”
- “O Cross that liftest up my head,”
Despite the above technicalities, a hymn should not be thought of as mechanic and difficult. The hymn is essentially simple, sensuous and passionate (John Milton). It is simple that even a child could understand, even though it deals with profound Christian thoughts and experiences. Simplicity is the servant of clarity. It is sensuous in the sense that common folk are able to relate to it as it includes images and ideas from daily life. It is passionate because it stirs up the heart and mind. It lifts up the soul to worship God and challenges us to obedience and faith in the Lord.
Essentially, hymns express what Christians believed through the ages and are still true and reliable today. They have their foundations in Scriptures and aptly set forth the right Christian doctrine and theology. This is why hymns are superior to today’s contemporary ‘Christian’ songs. Hymns are said to be the poor man’s poetry and the ordinary person’s theology. Learning how to appreciate a hymn has a place in our worship and devotion.
(Written by Eileen Chee)