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THEN SINGS MY SOULBOOK 3
By Robert J. Morgan
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Robert J. Morgan
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Teach Me Some Melodious Sonnet"
About a year into our marriage, Katrina told me she might be pregnant. There were no home tests in those days, and it took awhile to get definitive answers from the doctor. He suggested we come back for the results in a few days. For reasons I can't remember, Katrina didn't accompany me on the return trip to the doctor's office; I went to hear the news by myself. Yes, the nurse said, we were expecting. Yes, we were going to be parents.
Though excited by the prospects, I drove home in a state of nerves. I didn't have a job. I didn't have health insurance. I had no idea how to support my family. We had been trying to find a church to pastor, but had been turned down a dozen times. How would we get by? Absently I switched on the car radio and heard these words suddenly wafting through the speakers:
Be not dismayed whate'er betide,
God will take care of you!
Beneath His wings of love abide,
God will take care of you!
God will take care of you,
Through every day o'er all the way;
He will take care of you;
God will take care of you.
Civilla Martin wrote that hymn at the beginning of the twentieth century (as well as the words to "The Blood Will Never Lose Its Power" and "His Eye Is on the Sparrow"). She died four years before I was born; but her song lived on to calm my spirits on that springtime day in 1977. Listening to the words of that hymn, I knew everything would be fine.
Have you ever had a similar experience? When in the grip of nervous tension, nothing soothes the soul like the words and melody of one of our beloved hymns. Many such testimonies from around the world fill my filing cabinets, sent in response to the first two volumes of Then Sings My Soul. Nothing can do for us what hymns can, for there's a part of our spirits that only responds to God's truth in musical form. Psalm 92:1–4 exhorts us:
It is good to say, "Thank you" to the Lord, to sing praises to the God who is above all gods. Every morning tell him, "Thank you for your kindness," and every evening rejoice in all his faithfulness. Sing his praises, accompanied by music from the harp and lute and lyre. You have done so much for me, O Lord. No wonder I am glad! I sing for joy. (TLB)
As I wrote in my book of hymn devotions, Near to the Heart of God: "Hymns are distillations of the richest truths of God, versified, emotionalized, set to music, and released in the mind and from the mouth. They're miniature Bible studies that lead us effortlessly to worship, testimony, exhortation, prayer, and praise. They're bursts of devotional richness with rhyme and rhythm. They clear our minds, soothe our nerves, verbalize our worship, summarize our faith, and sing our great Redeemer's praise."
The eminent church historian Philip Schaff wrote, "The hymn is a popular spiritual song, presenting a healthful Christian sentiment in a noble, simple, and universally intelligible form, and adapted to be read and sung with edification by the whole congregation of the faithful.... They resound in all pious hearts, and have, like the daily rising sun and the yearly returning spring, an indestructible freshness and power.... Next to the Holy Scripture, a good hymn-book is the richest fountain of edification."
Once upon a time, English-speaking Christians owned their own hymnals just as most believers today own their own Bibles. In the 1700s and 1800s, these were small volumes without musical notes, giving stanzas of hymn texts in tiny print. I have quite a few of these little tan volumes in my possession, bound in leather, pages brittle. Worshippers carried these undersized hymnbooks to church each Sunday, then took them home and sang from them in personal or family devotions the rest of the week. Hymnals were, as someone put it, the ordinary person's systematic theology books—their Bibles in one hand; their hymnals in the other.
For us today, hymns are portable units of praise, capable of being sung in the heart and with the voice, as needed by the soul, seven days a week. In the words of the apostle Paul: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (Colossians 3:16).
Our appreciation for Christian music skyrockets when we understand the heritage of our hymnody. Studying the annals of our hymnals is like sinking a shaft through the layers of church history until we come to the very core of praise in biblical truth and in biblical times.
In the prior two volumes of Then Sings My Soul, I've told the stories of hymns without providing much historical context. In this final volume, I want to devote a few pages to sharing in simple fashion the overarching history of worship and praise from biblical times to our own. Think of it as standing on a scenic overlook and viewing a panorama of praise that stretches back nearly four thousand years and that extends forward to the very throne of God in heaven.
I'm convinced that ordinary, pew-sitting, churchgoing Christians like me need to understand the history of our hymnody. Rather than a chore, it's an enthralling study, acquainting us with thousands of years of rich legacies, brave heroes, and astounding stories of the faith being passed down by Spirit-filled witnesses from one era to the next. We're largely unaware of our heritage, of the valor and victories of the great cloud of witnesses who have preceded us. But without knowing the heritage of our past, we'll leave no legacy for the future.
I believe the history of the church is encoded in her hymns, and the story of Christianity is enfolded in its songs. If you know the hymns of the ages, you'll know the history of the church. If we lose the hymns, we'll lose a priceless legacy; and we'll be the first generation of Christians to ever do so. Every other generation of believers has added its songs to the hymnal without discarding the contributions of earlier eras.
There are some great advantages to the modern technologies that allow us to project words to giant screens. We do it in our church and it enables us to sing tapestries of songs and hymns, both ancient and modern, without having to stop and turn to different pages in a book. But there are some disadvantages too. Without holding these old hymns in our hands, we're more likely to forget them. Without flipping through the pages of a hymnal, we're apt to forget its contents.
I think we need to teach, emphasize, and celebrate hymns in our public gatherings; and I'm also an advocate for keeping a hymnbook by our devotional materials for daily singing and personal use. Just today during my morning devotions, I found a much-needed prayer in the stanzas of that old hymn that says, "Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me. / Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part. Holy Spirit, breathe on me."
A good hymn combines prayer with praise, keen theology with vivid imagery, and the majesty of God with our daily needs.
And to think—there are thousands of hymns ripe for rediscovery, and that's what this book aims to do. Then Sings My Soul Book 3 isn't designed to provide an in-depth or academic approach to the history of hymnody. Instead, I'd like to tell a generalized (yes, and oversimplified) story to help you better understand and appreciate the wonderful heritage of our hymnal. The hymnbook is one of the richest treasure troves we have for biographical, theological, historical, and personal enrichment.
For our purposes, I'm going to divide the story of Western hymnody into seven segments:
? Biblical Hymns
? Ancient Hymns
? Medieval Hymns
? German Hymns
? English Hymns
? Gospel Songs and American Hymns
? Contemporary Praise and Worship Music
Charles Wesley exclaimed: "O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer's praise!" You may not have a thousand tongues, but you do have thousands of hymns and thousands of years of hymn stories. As we turn the page to get started, why not take a moment to pray:
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above,
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.
My friend Frank Fortunato, international music director for OM (Operation Mobilisation) International, recently gave me an account of what happened when three teams of national Christians tried to take the gospel into the towns and villages of a restrictive African nation. Braving bumpy roads and uncertain receptions, they lugged around portable 16 mm projection equipment sets. Each team showed the JESUS film every night for a month, which amounted to ninety presentations of the gospel in thirty days.
Just as they finished, civil war broke out in the area. The workers had to flee. They were extremely disappointed because they felt their presentations had paved the way for conversions to occur and churches to be planted. But the war made further contact impossible. For six years they prayed and wondered if anything had come from their efforts.
One day a man showed up in the capital asking to see the staff person who had overseen the JESUS film project. He had exciting news. "You know," he said, "I was with you that month [when] you and your team showed the JESUS film. I watched it every night. In fact, I memorized it."
The man pulled from his pocket a collection of eighteen dog-eared sheets of paper. It was a song he'd written from the words of the film. He had set the life of Christ to music. His ballad covered the birth, life, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Since this African culture was an oral society, his song was well received in the towns and villages where the film had originally been shown.
The man said, "I first taught the song to a few of my people—all eighteen pages. They learned it, and then they taught it to others; it went from person to person and from heart to heart." As a result, forty-eight new churches were planted as the story of Jesus was sung across cultural barriers and through the isolation of a remote and restrictive region.
That story gives us insight into biblical times. In the ancient world of the Bible, much of the collecting, preserving, and spreading of truth was done through song. The great hymns of the Bible—including the short ones like Psalm 117 and the long ones like Psalm 119—were meant to be learned by heart and circulated through singing, from person to person. Biblical hymns give us the singable version of God's good news. This is, in fact, why so much of the Old Testament (even many of the sermons of the prophets) is given in poetical form.
The first reference to music in the Bible goes back to a man named Jubal, who is described as the "father" of all who play the harp and flute (Genesis 4:21).
The first recorded hymn in the Bible is found in Exodus 15, after the Israelites escaped Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Moses and the Israelites quickly drew up the story in the form of a song that could be easily learned and spread abroad. It began: "I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea" (v. 1).
Exodus 15:20 describes the exuberance of the moment, saying: "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing."
The parting of the Red Sea was the greatest miracle in the Old Testament, a story to be told and retold as long as time endures. By setting it to music, Moses provided a vehicle of praise to spread the news from person to person, from nation to nation, and from one generation to the next. (See Psalm 90 for another of our oldest hymns, also penned by Moses.)
Unfortunately the next time we see the Israelites in song, it's in sensuous idolatry around a golden calf. Leaving the Red Sea, the mass of Israelites traveled to Mount Sinai where Moses hiked to the mountaintop to seek God's guidance. During his prolonged absence, the people grew anxious and impatient. They compelled Aaron to craft an idol of gold similar to those they had seen in Egypt, and the desert erupted with the sounds of singing and partying and revelry. Moses heard the strains of music in the distance, descended from the mountain, and broke the Ten Commandments on the rocks.
But by the time we get to the book of Deuteronomy, the old Law Giver is again teaching the Israelites the songs of Jehovah. We read in Deuteronomy 31:30–32:3: "And Moses recited the words of this song from beginning to end in the hearing of the whole assembly of Israel:
Listen, O heavens, and I will speak;
hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain,
and my words descend like dew,
like showers on new grace,
like abundant rain on tender plants.
I will proclaim the name of the Lord.
Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
Ending his song, Moses advised the Israelites to take the words to heart. "They are not just idle words for you," he said. "They are your life" (Deuteronomy 32:47). He was describing not only the nature of God's Word but the character of his hymn, which represented God's Word crafted for singing.
As we turn the page to the book of Joshua and read the rest of the historical books of the Old Testament, we find a few poems, hymns, and ballads sprinkled throughout the text, such as Deborah's song in Judges 5. Then we come to the story of David—shepherd, poet, musician, king. It was this iconic man—one of the greatest musicians in history—who launched and formalized the ministry of music in about the year 1000 BC.
David determined to establish Jerusalem as the spiritual center as well as the political and military capital of Israel. He employed thousands of musicians (both vocal and instrumental) for the great worship convocations in Jerusalem, and he personally wrote many of the hymns for them to sing and play. Scores of them are preserved in our book of Psalms—the Hebrew Hymnal.
Of the thirty-eight thousand Levites chosen by David for the service in the tabernacle, four thousand of them were musicians, appointed to lead the nation in praise (1 Chronicles 23:3–5). They were to "sing joyful songs, accompanied by musical instruments: lyres, harps and cymbals" (1 Chronicles 15:16).
When the temple was later built and dedicated by King Solomon, we read that all the musicians were dressed in fine linen and playing cymbals, harps, and lyres. They were accompanied by 120 priests sounding trumpets. The trumpeters and singers joined in unison, as with one voice, to give praise and thanks to the Lord. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments, they raised their voices in praise to God and sang: "He is good; his love endures forever" (2 Chronicles 5:12–13).
David and Solomon ordained great choirs to lead the nation in worship. This is important for anyone who believes in the power of the ministry of music in a local church. I have a friend who laments the dearth of choirs in many American churches. Only about half of all churches—and only a small number of contemporary, cutting-edge congregations—have choirs. Many worship leaders believe that modern praise-and-worship music can't be effectively conveyed through the medium of singing choirs. But as my friend points out, choirs are God's idea. We see them in the pages of the Old Testament, and we read of vast choirs of men and angels in the nativity accounts of the New Testament and in prophecies about our Lord's return in the book of Revelation. Vast groups of singers joining their God-given voices to proclaim God's truth through the harmony of song ... well, that's a potent force.
Excerpted from THEN SINGS MY SOUL by Robert J. Morgan Copyright © 2011 by Robert J. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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