SINGING PRAISES TO HIS NAME
by Wayne S. Walker
“Praise the LORD, for the LORD is good; sing praises to His name, for it is pleasant” (Psalm 135:3). The New Testament teaches Christians to “Praise the LORD…; sing praises to His name” just as the Psalmist exhorts. Sometimes, this raises questions in people’s minds. I was recently sent the following request. “Thank you for your review of Sacred Songs of the Church. Some of your comments really got me to thinking about the songs we sing in our worship services. I love God with all my heart and pray that I am doing what He commands. Maybe you can help me understand this a little better, since you have a better knowledge of these songs and their writers than I do. My question is: How can we know that the songs we are using to worship and praise our Heavenly Father are acceptable to Him? I am looking forward to hearing from you. Thank you so much for your time.”
This is a very difficult question to answer for a couple of reasons. First, the scriptures do not give us much specific information about the kinds of songs that are acceptable to the Lord in worship. All we know is that He authorizes “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16). The usual definitions given to these terms are that psalms are devotional songs which are of the character of the Old Testament Psalms, hymns are songs of praise to God, and spiritual songs are songs which teach spiritual truth. However, I am not sure that Paul is intending to give us three hard and fast categories into one of which a song must fit to be approved but to provide general descriptions of the kinds of songs that God wants in worship.
Secondly, there is a great deal of personal taste involved. Historically, following the break between the English church and the Roman Catholic Church, the English churches sang only the Psalms. When “hymns of human composure” were first introduced, the older generation objected to them, but with the passing of time they gradually won out over the Psalms. Then, when gospel songs began to be popular, again the older generation expressed its preference for the more sedate hymns, but in succeeding generations the vast majority of hymnbooks contained a combination of older hymns and newer gospel songs. Now, we have the introduction of the so-called “praise song” drawn primarily from the genre of “Contemporary Christian Music,” and the differences in tastes between the older and younger again become pronounced.
Most of our newer hymnbooks contain a mixture of a few Psalms, some hymns, a lot of gospel songs, and a growing number of the contemporary “praise songs.” It is no secret that I do not care for the vast majority of these “praise songs.” However, I have no desire to set myself up as some kind of standard to dictate to brethren what they can and cannot sing. Yet, I do have some serious concerns about many of the “praise songs.” Now, I have no objection to new songs. I have often led “new” songs and have even written some myself. So the problems that I see with a lot of the “praise songs” have nothing to do with their being new but with their content and nature.
Since we are to be singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord, the primary focus in our singing should be that of praising God in hymns. However, since we are also to be teaching and admonishing one another, there ought to be a place in our singing for spiritual songs on scriptural topics that edify and exhort us as well. So, how can we tell if the songs we are using to worship and praise our Heavenly Father are acceptable to Him? Of course, we must first make sure that they are in harmony with truth. At the same time, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that “calling things by Bible names” means “calling Bible things by King James names.” There must be allowance for poetic license. But Bible truth must be a priority.
Second, we should strive for songs that are Christ centered rather than man centered. Obviously, some judgment will be involved as to how to apply these concepts. This does not mean that all songs in worship must be hymns that directly praise Christ, although we would do well to have more such songs in our assemblies. Merely singing “Let’s just praise the Lord, praise the Lord” ten times to a catchy tune is not the same thing as actually praising the Lord. It is not wrong for us to sing about our faith, our hope, our love, and so forth, because those are scriptural topics by which we can teach and admonish one another. Yet, we should be careful to strive for songs that place more emphasis on God and Christ than on us.
Third, we ought to seek out songs that are singable. The singability of various songs will differ from congregation to congregation depending on people’s abilities. However, the vast majority of hymns and spiritual songs which have endured through the years were intended for congregational worship and thus have simple melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that are within the reach of the average congregation to render. In contrast, so many of the newer “praise songs” from the “Contemporary Christian Music” genre, like the southern gospel style of convention songs that were so popular a few years ago, were written for primarily entertainment purposes and, while often very catchy, are frankly rather difficult for a large number of people, not only harmonically and rhythmically but even melodically. I believe that considering these three guidelines will help in choosing songs that are without a doubt acceptable to the Lord and beneficial for us.