One of my pet peeves as a pastor is finding the perfect words for a song of application after the sermon and the tune is terrible. As I am preaching on Philippians 1:6 this Sunday, I once again came across this problem. I just discovered the hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” and I love the words. They are so comforting and uplifting, but the tune seems so dark and sorrowful. In my opinion the tune would have been better suited to a hymn/psalm of lament or contrition.
There are at least two reasons why it is a bummer when good words are set to poor music. One reason is that the psalm/hymn might not ever be used in worship and God’s people will miss out on some of the rich words of our psalms and hymns. This is why I have highlighted one of these hymns below.
A second reason, which I want to focus on, is that if the song is used in worship, the music can create a sort of barrier to the words being sung. Having just preached on the 3rd commandment I can’t help but think that this in some way aids people in taking the Lord’s name in vain. It causes them to be emotionally detached from praising God’s name. This doesn’t excuse the worshipers who are detached, it just means that they have to work harder to focus on what they are singing. And it makes it hard to exhort people to heartfelt worship when the musicality of a psalm/hymn is conflicting with the words in some way.
The music should reinforce the words being sung and press them home to the heart of the worshiper. I liken this to a preacher whose sermon content might be great but his delivery style makes the sermon hard to listen to (I’m sure I am guilty of this at times). Perhaps he always shouts and emphasizes everything or perhaps he is too quiet and doesn’t seem moved at all by what he is saying. Or perhaps he is too fast or too slow. Either way, there should be a connection between the pitch, the volume, the speed, even the facial expressions and body language of the preacher and his sermon content. When it comes to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” we too need tunes that reinforce the words that we are singing so that our hearts and minds will sink deep into the truth of God’s Word and our faith will grow. We will not only be aided in worshiping God with all of our heart and mind, we will also have an easier time memorizing the words that we are singing and hiding God’s word in our heart.
That said, I do believe that there are many psalms and hymns set to great tunes in our various songbooks, but I am looking forward to improvement from the work of at least two Psalter Hymnal Committees that I am aware of (both in the URCNA and OPC). I hope that we will find great musicality in these songbooks that really support the words we are singing. In the meantime I’d like to highlight a great hymn, not so great tune:
A Debtor to Mercy Alone
by Augustus Toplady
A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.
The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.
My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.