40 Favorite Hymns: Reading Hymns as Poetry

BARBARANNE KELLY|CONTRIBUTOR

I recently joined the choir at church. I love to sing—in the car, in the shower, as I’m going about my tasks at home, on Sundays in church—but I have never been part of a choir. My first obstacle is that I don’t read music, but they assured me that wouldn’t be a problem. My second obstacle was that I normally teach Bible study during the same time the choir practices, but our study has ended for the year and that time is now free.

So, I joined the choir. And, oh dear, is it ever different from singing in the car! The sheet music holds a slight resemblance to the  pages of the hymnals in the pews—but only barely. During the entire first practice I felt so lost. Being an alto means that I can’t just sing along with the melody, but must learn to harmonize, which sounds so lovely when it’s done well, and not so lovely when it’s not. Fortunately, I sat next to a sweet friend who also sings alto, and I followed her like an imprinting duckling.

I’m certain that if I stick it out and learn to harmonize with the choir it will be worth it, because I do love to sing. I particularly love hymns. Filled with scripture and sound doctrine and written to lift the heart, mind, and soul to God, the hymns of our faith are a means of reminding us of truth and encouraging us in our walk with Christ. But singing is not the only way to enjoy them.

Reading Hymns as Poems

Did you know that many of the hymns we now sing were originally not set to music, but written as devotional poems? Leland Ryken writes in his new book, 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: “Much of the beauty that we experience when we sing hymns is the beauty of the music.” But then he continues, “Experiencing hymns as poems puts the focus on the verbal beauty of the words and phrases. The great hymns of Christian tradition are an untapped source of devotional poetry, just waiting to be made available for the pleasure and edification of Christians.”[1]

This is not to say that the music is unimportant. I, as do we all, thrill to the artistry and movement of music. Music conveys a range and depth of emotion which may draw my heart upward and invite me to dance in the splendor of the glory and grace of our magnificent Creator, or impress upon me the gravity of his holiness, and drop me to my knees in adoration and awe. Music is a good gift from God to minister to us and to accompany our worship.

There are times, though, when the notes of music can’t reach me, but float on past like so many leaves blown in the wind. Times when I need immovable truth to anchor my soul.

Words Which Bind Us

When trials come, and suffering and anguish and pain roll over me with all the force of the ocean behind them, it is not notes of music, but words of truth that I need to lift my head above the waves when I haven’t the strength to swim. True words, based in the rock-solid truths of Scripture, are the cords that will bind me to the Rock when fear threatens to sweep me out to sea. Horatio Spafford understood this when he wrote the words to the now beloved hymn, It Is Well With My Soul. Facing unimaginable trials: a fortune in real estate lost in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and then the loss of all 4 of his daughters at sea, he set his anchor firmly in Christ. Notice where his assurance lies and his reason for praise—even in grief:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed his own blood for my soul.

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

O Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll,
The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
“Even so”—it is well with my soul.[2]

Leland Ryken asks, when singing this hymn, are we offering a personal testimony to the congregation or addressing ourselves in a form of spiritual “self talk”? His answer is, “both,” reminding us of William Wordsworth’s view regarding lyric poems: “If a poem expresses truth and beauty, it serves ‘to rectify [people’s] feelings.’” Professor Ryken then shares a purpose for devotional poetry which ought to be true for any hymn we sing or Psalm we read:

Whenever the poems in this anthology seem to offer a higher standard than we ourselves feel to be realistically attainable, they nonetheless give us an ideal for which to aim. The feelings expressed in such a poem can help us correct our own feelings.[3]

Speaking as one who often needs my own feelings to be “rectified,” I appreciate the devotional value of these poems which point me to the cross of Christ as my only means of assurance and source of praise—even joy—in the midst of grief and sorrow.

And so, I will sing, in the car or with the choir, sometimes well and sometimes poorly. And I will add hymns, read as poems, to my devotional reading. My faith will feast on the truth and beauty they express, so that when the billows roll and I am unable to sing, my heart will be directed to the ideal for which it is to aim, and by grace, I will yet praise my Savior because “Christ has regarded my helpless estate, and has shed his own blood for my soul.”

 

[1] Leland Ryken, 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at Their Spiritual and Poetic Meaning, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019) 12.

[2] Horatio Spafford (1828-1888), It is Well With My Soul, Public Domain.

[3] Ryken, 79.

About the Author:

Barbaranne Kelly

Barbaranne reads, writes, cooks, runs, and shoots an occasional photo in Texas.  She and her husband Jim are the parents of five of the neatest people they know and grandparents to the first two of (hopefully) many grandchildren.  She has been blogging ever since she accidentally signed up for a blog while attempting to comment on a friend’s blog post and figured, “Why not?”  She now blogs at Gratefuland Women of Purpose, a ministry of the women of her church. Barbaranne and Jim are members of Christ Presbyterian Church in New Braunfels, Texas, where she leads a Bible study for women in the hope that she and they may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

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