I would imagine that everyone who knows the biblical reference where “Psalms and Hymns” comes from asks the same question.
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
Colossians 3:16 (TNIV)
“What about the third category? What about the spiritual songs?”
That’s a great question.
The short answer is that I think that there are enough spiritual songs out there and that the other two categories are neglected (especially the psalms). There are also side issues of simply wanting to write music and not spend hours fine-tuning lyrics when there are perfectly good lyrics out there.
The long answer is that I started writing when I was in college. Every week, I was learning new music. (Or, to put it more accurately, I was playing along with unknown music and figuring it out as I went along. That was a pretty harrowing experience! Thankfully, all of the music was fairly predictable.) There was such a drive for the latest expression of worship, the freshest tune, the newest lyric, that I got burnt out on it all. This isn’t to say that I wasn’t involved with some fine people who were doing a great job leading several hundred college students each week. It was just that the continual drive for what’s new forced me to stop and take a look at what’s old.
What I discovered was a treasury of incredible lyrics that my peers had all but forgotten. Here were words that were not captive to the latest pop metaphors for God but were rich and full of meaning. I found lyrics that had withstood the test of time and were rightfully called “the great hymns of the faith”. (Of course, there are some truly wretched old hymns, just like there are some fantastic spiritual songs being written today. One isn’t better than the other based upon its genre, necessarily. The content is the standard by which it should be judged.)
I found great hymns with some great tunes but also some great hymns with lesser tunes. Different musical settings of the same text can be wonderful counterparts to each other, as long as they both faithfully represent the content of the text. It’s like looking at a diamond from many different perspectives or like reading the bible in several different translations. They all add to each other. “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is a fabulous hymn whether it’s sung to “Hamburg” or “Gift of Love” (but not when it’s sung to the tune of “Green Acres”). So I began trying to compose tunes that would accurately reflect the content of hymn texts with a musical vocabulary that was more common to my peers.
For centuries, Christians not only sang hymns, but they also had settings of the Psalms to sing (the Psalter). I can’t possibly write everything there is to write on the use of the Psalms right now, but I’ll leave with an observation that we have all but forgotten the Psalms in public worship and it’s to our detriment.
God has given us the gift of music and he has given us a song to sing. Psalms and hymns allow us to sing the same song as the saints of old – the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs and all who have gone before us. We sing along with the “living faith of the dead” (as Jaroslav Pelikan has written) and join in the thunderous chorus praising:
Note: This was a post that I originally wrote on January 28, 2006 but haven’t posted until now. My thoughts on the subject have changed a little but I still agree with the main thrust of what I wrote. Today, I would only qualify that we be vigilant in rejecting any romanticization of the past, thinking that older lyrics (and older theology) must necessarily be better than more modern expressions. We must always be returning to the scriptures as our source for life and our vocabulary for worshiping the living God.