Who Is Like Yahweh? Encountering God in the Songs of Moses

The first song recorded in Scripture is the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, written after the crossing of the Red Sea by the people of Israel. Moses also wrote a second song—this one dictated by God himself—just before the crossing of the Jordan into the promised land. These songs give fascinating insight into the character and attributes of God, and have an enduring relevance to the people of God. So enduring, in fact, that Revelation 15 depicts the redeemed singing the Song of Moses in heaven!

I chose these songs as the topic of a paper for my Old Testament survey class. I realize that posting seminary papers is a little out-of-the-ordinary for a blog, but I enjoyed writing this one and thought it might benefit others who have a similar interest in Old Testament worship. If you’d like to check it out, here it is: Who Is Like Yahweh? The God of the Old and New Testaments Revealed in the Songs of Moses. No word yet on what my grade is…

Three of the books I referenced in the paper are particularly excellent, so if you’re interested in learning more about the Old Testament in general or Old Testament songs in particular, these are a great place to start:

Now that this paper (and the rest of my homework for this semester’s classes) is out of the way, I should finally be able to get back to blogging consistently… at least until my next round of classes starts up in June!

Whose Hymns?

Typically, when people use the term “worship wars” they are referring to arguments over the style/genre of music used in worship services.  I, for one, hope that those who have made the declaration in recent years that the worship wars have ended (or at least reached a truce) are correct. Of course I have stylistic preferences of my own, but this has never been a high priority for me in choosing where to worship, or what songs I select when I lead worship. There are much more important considerations! See, for example, these comments from Ed Stetzer and Mike Harland and this blog post by Jason Helopolous.

Today I’m going to let you in on a related question that has me a bit puzzled, because there probably isn’t a “right” answer. If there is, I certainly don’t have it! But here’s the question:

To what extent should the personal beliefs or conduct of a hymn writer weigh into the decision to use a hymn in corporate worship?

In other words, should the personal life of the composer of song be a factor in our evaluation of its appropriateness for worship, or do we simply evaluate the work on its own merits? How much theological unity should we have with those who write the songs we sing? Does conduct matter?

There are two main Scripture passages that I keep going over in my mind as I think about this. The first is Colossians 3:16 — “Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The second is Philippians 4:8-9 — “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Here’s what I know for sure: all “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” are not created equal. There are some that are truer, purer, lovelier, and more worthy of commendation than others. I believe there is room for different interpretations of what the standard should be, but this is something worth thinking about. Philippians 4:8 leads me to want to accept or reject songs for corporate worship based on their own merit. Does a hymn fill my mind with the Truth of God? Does it inspire me to worship? Is it beautiful? Then let’s use it.

But in verse 9, Paul follows up his exhortation to think about the excellence of things by telling the Philippians to follow his example. They were to learn how to discern which things were excellent by following a trusted leader. The New Testament writers frequently connect the authority to teach and lead a congregation with the conduct of the leader.

The passage from Colossians 3 identifies corporate singing as a primary component of the teaching ministry of the church. So here’s where the water gets a little murky for me. Who exactly is teaching the congregation when we sing a song? The Holy Spirit, of course, and the song leader. But what about the song writer? Assuming he/she has at least some role in teaching through the lyrics we sing, is there a standard by which we should judge hymn writers before using their music to teach our congregations?

This question has been a little heavier on my mind recently, in light of my recent review of Robert Morris’ book The God I Never Knew. His book contains some blatantly heretical teachings — in addition to the standard charismatic doctrines with which I so strongly disagree — yet our church frequently sings songs written by members of his church’s worship team. I’ve selected many of them myself. Is this a problem? Are we implicitly endorsing the teaching of Gateway Church when we sing songs by Gateway Worship (or other Pentecostal/Charismatic churches like Hillsong and New Life)?

I lean toward saying no. I think by nearly any objective standard, many of their songs (and certainly most of the ones we have used at Stevens Street) are perfectly acceptable. Many of them are simply Scripture songs or tasteful re-arrangements of older hymns. Still, I want to be cautious about relying too much on songs from Charismatic writers, lest their teaching on the areas in which we find agreement lead us to uncritically accept their teaching on the areas in which there are serious differences.

Of course, churches have a long history of incorporating hymns written by those with whom they disagree. It’s not uncommon to see hymns by Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts in the same hymnal, and they had vastly different understandings of salvation. Augustus Toplady (who called John Wesley “the most rancorous hater of the gospel system that ever appeared in this Island“) wrote “Rock of Ages” as an explicit condemnation of Arminian theology, yet the hymn is beloved by Wesleyans and Methodists everywhere. Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” has even begun appearing in some Catholic hymnals!

So I think it’s relatively safe to say that we don’t hold songwriters to the same standard as we hold elders. We can sing a hymn written by someone we wouldn’t let preach in our church. Perhaps of greater concern, though, are hymn writers who have fallen into sin. Do extramarital affairs, fraud, and other moral failures disqualify the works of hymn writers? Perhaps two recent incidents will illustrate the point.

The hit song “Healer” was written by Michael Guglielmucci, an Assemblies of God pastor in the Hillsong network of churches in Australia. He wrote it as an anthem expressing his faith that God would heal him from cancer. The problem? He never had cancer. (Here’s a news report of the story.) The entire thing was a fraud (like many Pentecostal “healing” ministries), yet many Christians continue to use the song, accepting it despite its author’s dubious intentions in writing it.

The second example is singer/songwriter Steve Fee. His band stopped touring suddenly in 2010 when his four-year affair came to light. Basically, he was involved in sexual immorality for pretty much his entire performing career. What are we to do with the songs written during that period?

Two points from Scripture come to mind. First, Philippians 1:18 — “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul seems to say that it is possible for Christ to be proclaimed and glorified even when the motive behind the proclamation may be only pretense.

The second — and more obvious — point is that the primary author of Scripture’s hymn book was an adulterer and murderer, not to mention his profound failures as a father. Are the situations different?

Both Guglielmucci and Fee, like King David, have expressed repentance for their sins, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of that repentance. (Incidentally, I would be very interested to see one of them write something like the equivalent of Psalm 51; we don’t see many Penitential hymns being written today!) But what are we to do with the songs they wrote in the midst of their sin?

All I can think to do at this point is to examine the songs themselves. This task is relatively simple, at least. Unlike many songs from those with major doctrinal differences, the works of Fee and Guglielmucci don’t have much going for them. I was on record long before learning of Fee’s adultery as finding his songs lyrically trite and musically bland. And while the lyrics to “Healer” may not be wrong per se, I could never use that song in worship knowing what he (and his church) believes and teaches about healing. When Pentecostals use that word, it means something very different from how I use it (and how the Bible uses it), which is enough for me to stay away.

Thankfully, this is one of the benefits of preferring older hymns, which I do. It isn’t at all about stylistic preferences; in fact, most of the arrangements I choose or write when leading worship are stylistically very contemporary, though the lyrics are often centuries old. We have the benefit today of a long history of discernment by Christians who have come before. The songs that last are the ones that have been affirmed over and over again. They are the “best” of their era. All are written by sinners, of course, but these “best” hymns tend to have been written by men (and women) whose faithfulness and purity were evident throughout the course of their lives. There is probably not a direct cause here, but there is certainly a correlation.

There are some hymns being written today that will still be sung in 100 years. Most will be forgotten. That doesn’t mean they don’t have any worth, but I try to intentionally choose songs with more objective merit. For this I rely heavily on my own discernment, but when I can rely on the discernment of a few hundred years’ worth of Christians, it’s even better!

So after all that writing, I’m still basically where I was at the beginning. What do we do with all this? I have no idea. What say you? Am I overthinking this? Are these legitimate concerns?

Messing With “Come Thou Fount”

An interesting blog discussion happened this week about a line in the lyrics of the 18th century hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” by Robert Robinson. Mark Altrogge, a pastor and hymnwriter, questions the lyric “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it; prone to leave the God I love“. Are Christians really prone to wander, and to leave God?

Read his article here.

Tim Challies wrote a very good response, seconding a commenter from Altrogge’s original post defending the original lyric, while expounding on some very valid points that Altrogge made.

Read the Challies article here.

I commend both articles to you. While I agree with Challies on this one, I am grateful to Altrogge for asking the question in the first place. I love when Christians take hymn lyrics seriously enough to insist on their truthfulness!

Punctuation Pleas

Warning: Somebody’s fixin’ to get on a soapbox here…

When most people talk about “worship wars”, they’re talking about differences over the genre or style of music used in a corporate worship service. Sometimes the argument is fixated around whether a church uses printed music (e.g., hymnals and songbooks) or projects lyrics onto a screen. But what really gets my goat is a lack of proper punctuation in the lyrics of church music!

While there are many reasons why I might personally prefer to hold a hymnal when I sing, I really have no qualms at all about lyric projection. Punctuation, however, is often a problem whether lyrics are printed or projected.

Why am I such a punctuation snob?

One of the primary reasons that we sing songs corporately during our worship services is to “teach one another” (Colossians 3:16). In order to best accomplish this mandate, we need to be certain that we comprehend what it is we are singing! Plain and simple: Proper punctuation makes it easier to make sense of what we are saying as we sing.

* At this point it is worth pointing out that, yes, I am quite aware of the irony of making this argument when the entire Bible was written in languages that did not use any punctuation at all. Some modern innovations are for our benefit, though, so stick with me!

As an example, let’s use the Ben Fielding & Reuben Morgan song Mighty to Save, currently listed as the #1 most commonly used song in American churches over the last six months. Here is the bridge, printed as it most commonly is without punctuation:

Shine your light
And let the whole world see
We’re singing for the glory
Of the risen King Jesus
Shine your light
And let the whole world see
We’re singing for the glory
Of the risen King

Without getting into the separate issues relating to the merits of singing repetitive songs, how does the lack of punctuation affect this bridge? Well, for one, the issue of who is being addressed might be ambiguous, particularly when lyrics are often projected one line at a time, making it difficult to connect complete thoughts. This is compounded by the fact that in this song the verses seem to switch between speaking “about” and speaking “to” Christ. So we could punctuate this bridge a couple different ways. For instance,

We’re singing for the glory of the risen King: Jesus. Shine your light…

In this instance, we are instructing one another to shine a light for the world, and identifying the King about whom we are singing.

We’re singing for the glory of the risen King. Jesus, shine your light…

In this instance, we are asking Jesus to shine a light to let the whole world see. The phrasing and musical structure of the bridge doesn’t give us much help in determining which it should be, and it could probably be interpreted either way and still make sense.

Admittedly, this particular example is not going to make any earth-shattering differences in someone’s theology or understanding of the gospel. But a lack of punctuation that leaves ambiguity in the meaning of the lyrics of our songs is probably not a habit that lends itself to viewing the singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs as an essential portion of the teaching ministry of the Church. Sometimes, lack of punctuation makes a much bigger difference.

For example, one of our recent church services included the hymn “Jesus Loves Me”. Seems pretty innocuous, right? Not so! The lack of punctuation in one of the lesser-known verses leaves open two possible interpretations that are on opposite sides of one of the largest theological divides in the history of Christianity!

Here is how the lyric was projected onto the screen:

If I love him when I die
He will take me home on high

Comma placement makes all the difference! How do we interpret this? It could be:

If I love him, when I die he will take me home on high. (Calvinist)

Or,

If I love him when I die, he will take me home on high. (Arminian)

I told you this would get serious! Is your mind blown yet? Let me share one last example of why I crave punctuation during corporate worship.

Punctuation is often used in poetry and hymns to emphasize something which the writer wants to be certain to communicate to the reader. Often, this may be the most important teaching moment of the entire work! Here is a lyric from one of my favorite hymns of all time, without punctuation:

My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought
My sin not in part but the whole
Is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more
Praise the Lord praise the Lord oh my soul

Written this way — or worse, projected just one line at a time — this verse becomes one big run-on sentence that we tend to sing out of reflex without fully grasping what Horatio Spafford was saying. With the punctuation added, though, the full weight of glory in Christ’s atonement for sin comes to bear on my soul as the words achieve their desired impact. Spafford was so overcome by God’s grace that he could barely even spit the words out! See what a difference it makes when read this way:

My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin — not in part but the whole —
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Now THAT is what I’m talkin’ about!

Maybe I’ve made too much of an issue of this. This entire post has been at least halfway tongue-in-cheek. In the grand scheme of things it’s not that big of a deal, and certainly not a hill I’m going to die on. I just wanted to take the opportunity to publicize this request on the World Wide Web:

Punctuation, please!

/soapbox

New Album from Sovereign Grace Music

I’m a HUGE fan of the hymn albums produced by Sovereign Grace Music. We’ve sung many of them in our church. Whether original hymns (like All I Have Is Christ and I Will Glory in My Redeemer) or re-written older hymns (like Before the Throne of God Above and Oh the Deep Deep Love), they are always lyrically rich and congregationally accessible.

Their next album releases on April 10, but until then, you can pre-order it for only $5! Here’s a sample track from the new album:

Anybody else picking up on an “Adele” vibe with this one? Either way, I like it a lot!

Sunday’s Set List

I had the opportunity to lead worship at our church yesterday morning. It’s something I always enjoy doing, but I particularly enjoyed this week’s set list. Since several people have asked about the arrangements we used, I thought I’d share here:

The first song was Chris Tomlin’s arrangement of “O Worship the King”, from the Passion: Hymns Ancient & Modern album. I love the new take on an old hymn, with lyrics by Robert Grant (a member of the British Parliament in the early 19th century) and music by Johann Michael Haydn (younger brother of Joseph Haydn). I’m not generally a fan of adding new choruses to old hymns, but decided to retain this one, as it makes use of the original lyrics from the third verse. I did not, however, retain Tomlin’s juxtaposition of the first half of verse five (“O measureless might, ineffable love”…) with the second half of verse four (“Thy mercies how tender…”). Yes, it’s cool to use the word “ineffable” whenever possible, but as Tomlin sings it, the re-arranged verse makes no sense when read as a sentence. In the day and age of lyric projection, it is more difficult to reflect on the content of the songs we sing, but it is still very important to me that we sing sensible hymns! Here is Tomlin’s recording:

Second was “By Faith”, by Keith & Kristyn Getty. Thankfully, we never have to alter any lyrics from the Gettys, as they are among the most consistently excellent modern hymn writers around! We did, however, have to leave out the Uilleann pipes intro. This song is available on the album Awaken the Dawn.

Our third song was new to our congregation, but I absolutely LOVE it! Written by Mark Altrogge, Bob Kauflin, and Ken Boer, “You Have Been Raised” reminds us that the content of the faith through which we are saved (and about which we had just sung) is grounded on the historical fact of Christ’s resurrection. Here is the song as performed by NA Band, from the Sovereign Grace Music album Risen.

The final song was a new take on an old favorite: “Rock of Ages”. Originally written in the 18th century as a poem by Augustus Toplady and set to music a generation later by Thomas Hastings, this hymn has been brilliantly re-imagined by Brooks Ritter. We so rarely sing hymns in minor keys today, which is a real shame. Ritter’s setting absolutely fits the text, and the focus on our depravity and inability to save ourselves was a suitable finish to an order of worship which had progressed from praise & adoration to declaration of faith and confidence in the assurance of our salvation. Though our salvation was once-for-all accomplished by our Savior’s death and resurrection, we must never forget the great debt of sin for which his death atoned. Here is Ritter’s arrangement, from his album The War.

I hope that this music was a blessing to the congregation, and to anyone who has stumbled upon it over the World Wide Web!

Where Rock Stars Go To Die

I love this article for at least three reasons:

  1. It starts off in Ft. Wayne, IN, which is my old stomping grounds.
  2. It’s written by Ted Kluck, who is brilliant AND funny… two things I often try but fail to be.
  3. He has some great thoughts about worship and worship leading, from the standpoint of someone who isn’t a worship leader (but is a worshiper!).

Here’s a quote:

I’m visiting a church in small-town Ohio.

The lights are off, and there are candles burning somewhere, I think. There’s a giant screen up front with the Relevant magazine willowy font that is requisite for churches trying to appear “hip” and “edgy.” In front of the screen is a worship band in which every member has his/her shoes off, and is standing on an area rug, John Mayer-style. This is the kind of thing that would normally be snicker-worthy, except that the band is great and the lyrics are meaningful.

I know full well that meaningful to one guy may not be meaningful to another, but by meaningful I mean lyrics that remind me of my sinfulness/brokenness yet show me a Redeemer. They aren’t the sort of worship songs that make me feel like I’m skipping through a field of poppies with the kind of 80s-bearded Jesus who looks like he played third base for the Phillies in 1984. Nor are they the kind of songs that make me feel like I’m solving Africa’s groundwater problems with bandana-wearing Activist Jesus.

“Your blood has washed away my sins, Jesus thank you.”

They’re the kinds of songs that remind me why it’s important for me—a 30-something white guy from the Midwest—to stand in a church and sing. Something I would never normally do.

“The father’s wrath, completely satisfied. Jesus thank you.”

They’re important because the singing is an act of worship—an act of remembering what Christ did for me, what it means, and why it’s important.

It’s important that somebody lead me in this, because I wouldn’t do it on my own. It occurs to me that when the lyrics are significant and the intentions feel pure (worship), that I care very little about what the person doing the leading looks like. It could be a 92-pound guy in painted-on jeans (like it is today), or a Ken lookalike in khakis and a golf shirt like it was in 1989.  Or neither.  I appreciate what you do, worship leaders, even though you’re sometimes easy fodder for jokes, and you’re also usually the first guy at church to get complained-to about something (see: not being able to make everyone happy, all the time).

It also occurs to me that I enjoy this, without irony. That this isn’t just the thing I must endure before the 45-minute sermon. I’m having an experience (whoa), and what’s more, I like that experience. I’m being reminded that you can like something and have it also benefit your soul. This has to be at least a partial definition of joy. There’s joy in the fact that my sin is paid for, and that I’m invited to the table.

Read the rest.

Oh yeah! There’s a fourth reason I love this article! It gives me a chance to plug the fact that Ted Kluck will be speaking in Cookeville on Friday, October 11, as part of the Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture. He’ll be speaking on topics related to a book he recently co-authored with Kevin DeYoung called Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. The book is excellent (read my review here), and I’m super excited to get to hear him talk about it in person! As with all the Humanitas events, admission will be free. I hope you’ll come! I’ll post more details about this and the other speakers lined up for this Fall very soon.