Why should we sing hymns?
Singing hymns in corporate worship has many excellent advantages for the catholic church. In this article I want to give a positive case for why we should take hymn-singing seriously as something vital for the ongoing life and health of the visible church of Christ.
First, we must understand that singing hymns is not, as far as we are concerned, singing “man’s words.” That is to say, not only are the Scriptures infallible, but the meaning of the Scriptures is also infallible.
When we sing the Scriptures (say, Psalm 110), is it unlawful for us to conceive the sense or meaning of the words in the Scripture? Or must we escape the true meaning of the words and limit ourselves to simply singing the words without meaning?
To somehow forego the meaning of the words we sing from Scripture would be to “make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word” (John Owen).
How, as Christians, do we as the people of God declare forth the praises of the doctrine of the Trinity? To do so, we must “make use of other words, phrases and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture” (Owen).
“God in three persons, blessed trinity” reflects the meaning of God’s words. So, as a hymn-singer, I believe that I am not singing “man’s words” but rather God’s infallible truth.
If “God in three persons, blessed trinity” reflects the truth of God’s word that is because truth begets truth. So, according to Owen, when the Scriptures reveal the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one God, seeing it necessarily and unavoidably follows thereon that they are one in essence (wherein alone it is possible they can be one), and three in their distinct substances (wherein alone it is possible they can be three), this is no less a divine revelation than the first principle from whence these things follow.”
Thus hymn-singing has the benefit of the church being able to corporately express the truth of God’s word – to set forth, positively, our theology of what is true. Another way to think of the value of hymn-singing is to consider that if we were to simply sing the actual words of God, and nothing else, then we could technically share the same hymnal as a Socinian, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Oneness Pentecostal, Arminian, Papist, etc.
However, singing hymns distinguishes our theology from the aberrant theologies of various heretical groups who may be happy to sing the actual words of God. The meaning of the words is as important as the words themselves. We are, in our singing, defending the truth of God in a corporate manner.
Moreover, hymn-singing is really no different than confessing the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed. They are essentially the same thing. We are able to look at truth that has stood the test of time and confess it before God. We are not confessing in our singing the words of man, but the truth of God.
Singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” provides the church with an excellent tool to convey, state, defend, and enjoy the truth of God’s word in a manner that even preaching and praying cannot. There is far less chance for error in selecting a biblically true hymn than a sermon and prayer.
A Test-Case: Psalm 8 or Hebrews 2?
What are we to think when we sing Psalm 8? Should we be thinking of Christ in Psalm 8? Is Psalm 8 explicitly Messianic? It seems to me that this is not the case. Hebrews 2 uses it perfectly with Gen. 1:26-28 and the created purpose of man/Adam. As soon as we argue that it is not explicitly Messianic, but rather that it refers to man in his original, innocent state, we are faced with a further dilemma. Does this Psalm refer to all men (including Gentiles) or Israel or David?
Like many of the Messianic Psalms, there is an immediate application to David (note Psalm 2; 2 Sam 7; Heb 1:5; Psalm 22; Psalm 110).
Psalm 8 is written in the context of the covenant of grace. Therefore, this involves a definite eschatology – an eschatology that finds it’s fulfillment in Christ. It is not creational and static but re-creational and eschatological. I am not saying that it cannot be “creational” in some sense – the obvious allusion to Gen. 1 means that it is – but rather that the main thrust of the Psalm is re-creational. So can we be thinking of Jesus in our singing of Psalm 8 and if so, in what sense?
The words in Psalm 8 speak of God’s intention for man. So, Hebrews 2:5ff. does not refer to Christ, but to David. The “Son of Man” language in Psalm 8 does not mean it is speaking of Christ. While it is true that “Son of Man” can be Messianic (Dan 7), it is also a title applied to Ezekiel close to eighty times (I think). Christ takes upon himself the title, “Son of Man”, because, in the context of Heb. 2, Christ is the true pioneer, the first man to rule over creation and bring it into subjection. Where Adam, Noah, and David failed, Christ succeeded.
However, this makes the “but” at the beginning of Heb. 2:9 a big one. Where David (hence, Israel) as representative of the new humanity has failed (miserably and absolutely), Christ has succeeded vicariously for us all, so too in his death as seen in the rest of the chapter. Representation language, so obvious in the Adam-Christ parallels in Rom. 5, is actually undergirding the exegesis of Psalm 8 in connection with 1 Chron. 17; Heb. 2; and 1 Cor. 15.
Though Christ is incarnate for a season, he is now supreme in all the Universe of men and angels (Heb. 1:1-3), and hence Psalm 8 is implicitly messianic. The bigger point in the context of Hebrews 1, of course, is to prove unequivocally that the incarnate Christ is way superior to the angels. This is true in his Messianic humanity and divinity (ch. 1), and in his perfect humanity (ch. 2).
So, where does that leave us?
Hebrews 2 makes clear what is somewhat unclear in Psalm 8. The “But we see Jesus” (v. 9) is crucial, as I have argued. In my opinion, while it is fine to sing Psalm 8, it is even better to sing Hebrews 2.
Why? Because Hebrews 2 makes clear what Psalm 8 leaves unclear. Man has failed, but Christ has prevailed. That is the thrust of redemptive history and I believe we ought to sing of Christ’s victory (leading many sons to glory, Heb. 2:10). Psalm 8 just doesn’t carry the same redemptive weight as Hebrews 2.
Psalm 8 becomes more glorious in Hebrews 2 because it is set in contrast to Christ. So, in singing Hebrews 2, we are not only singing a Psalm (a glorious thing), but we are also singing explicitly about Jesus (an even more glorious thing).
The New adds content that is not present in the Psalms, such as the name “Jesus” (a loaded name, Matt. 1:21). We are to confess the name of Jesus with our lips and we do this in song as we do in prayer, preaching, and reading. Why is it that singing is so sacred that we cannot sing the name “Jesus”?
Hence, when Christ declares in v. 12 “I will declare your name to my brothers,” he is speaking about the full revelation of God’s name and that is not limited to actual names (e.g. Jesus, Jehovah Tsidkenu, Yahweh, etc.), but all that encompasses the name. Declaring God’s name is declaring Christ’s redemptive work (see Acts 4:12).
The point is not that we can sing Psalm 8 with understanding in light of Heb. 2. That’s obvious. The point is that Heb. 2 is different than Psalm 8. Singing Psalm 8 is to sing only half the story. As a hymn-singer, we can sing of the full story that biblical theology goes to great lengths to tell us about.
Now, if one has all of the knowledge of Hebrews 2 in mind as he/she sings Psalm 8, why is it okay to think all of the thoughts of the eschatological meaning of Psalm 8 but not sing the words that Psalm 8 cries out for? It is to frustrate the point of theology and how God has constituted us in our desire to sing the truth.