Fourth, the lyrics of all songs offered to the Lord in His worship must be “the word of Christ” (Col 3:16). They must either be the perfect songs of the Psalter—every psalm, and every line of every psalm of which ought to be sung in the church of God—or hymns that are God’s Word in the same sense that proper preaching is the preaching of the Word. Every uninspired hymn must accurately represent the content of Scripture. Singing false doctrine is nothing less than to lie to God, and to do so in worship that has access into heaven itself. That every word of every hymn offered to God accurately represents the teachings of Scripture is no little matter. It is the difference between pleasing the holy and reverend King of glory and misrepresenting His nature, blaspheming His name, profaning His worship, and thus breaking the first four of the Ten Commandments. It is the difference between accurately representing the “honour of his name,” “mak[ing] his praise glorious,” and so bringing a blessing from heaven (Ps 66:2), and dishonoring His name or character, turning His praise into sacrilege, and bringing from heaven Jehovah’s wrath and curse. Do you offer God psalms and hymns that accurately represent who He is and so make His praise glorious?
Classic Baptist hymn writers were extremely careful to ground the statements of their hymns in Scripture. For example, Benjamin Wallin (1711-1782) in his Evangelical Songs and Hymns of 1750 annotated every stanza and virtually every line with copious references to Scripture, believing that “Care should be taken that they [the hymns] be perfectly agreeable to the Holy Testaments” (pg. 47, Arnold, The English Hymn). He followed, in this method of annotation, Baptist Joseph Stennett (1663-1713), who had acted similarly in his hymnal, although not as profusely. The New Baptist Psalmist and Tune Book edited by the famous Landmark Baptist J. R. Graves stated: “Particular attention has been paid to the doctrinal sentiments of the Hymns[.] . . . In this collection there will be found no hymns that teach the doctrine of baptismal remission or ritual efficacy, no praises to be sung to dead relatives or friends, nor are children taught to pray to the angels, or to desire to be angels. . . . What we sing in our worship should agree with the doctrine we preach and profess” (pg. 3).
Furthermore, while hymns with choruses are not wrong, as Psalm 136 has a refrain, the vast majority of the psalms—like the vast majority of old hymns—have no chorus. The introduction of hymns with consistently repeated refrains around the second half of the 19th century grew, not out of a careful study of Scripture on worship, but out of a desire to make songs that children would easily find attractive. These children’s songs then found their way into the corporate worship of the whole church body:
The material that accomplished that purpose we call gospel songs, sometimes “gospel hymns” . . . grew out of Sunday School music . . . a new type of song . . . with a catchy, easily remembered melody, simple harmony and rhythm, and always a refrain. It should not surprise us that when those Sunday School children reached adulthood, they were ready listeners for more songs with much the same musical characteristics[.] . . . preacher Dwight Moody (1837–99) and singer Ira Sankey (1840–1908) popularized [such music for adults]. (pgs. 111-112, Mr Moody and the Evangelical Tradition, Timothy George. New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2004)
Whenever singing a song with a regular refrain, extra effort must be made to be sure that one is closely paying attention to, wholeheartedly meaning, and offering to the Lord the words every time they are sung.
What is more, since the psalms not only glory in the Lord’s salvation (Ps 9:14; 13:5) but also regularly warn of hell and judgment (Ps 9:17; 11:6; 55:15), and the imprecatory psalms prophesy of the awful judgments which will fall upon the ungodly (Ps 69:22-28; 137:7-9), so modern hymnals likewise must sing not only of heaven but also of hell and judgment. A hymnal such as Asahel Nettleton’s Village Hymns for Social Worship does well to have extensive numbers of hymns not on heaven alone, but also on judgment and the eternal damnation of the wicked. Hymns such as the following ought to be sung:
All ye who laugh and sport with death,
And say, there is no hell;
The gasp of your expiring breath
Will send you there to dwell.
When iron slumbers bind your flesh,
With strange surprise you’ll find
Immortal vigor spring afresh,
And tortures wake the mind!
Then you’ll confess, the frightful names
Of plagues, you scorn’d before,
No more shall look like idle dreams,
Like foolish tales no more.
Then shall ye curse that fatal day,
With flames upon your tongues,
When you exchang’d your souls away
For vanity and songs. (Village Hymns, #30)
When the unconverted heard the “new song” of the Psalter their reaction was not enjoyment, but “fear” (Ps 40:3d), and only as a result of such fear do they come to trust in the Lord (Ps 40:3e). Ungodly men are not converted because they enjoy hearing Christian music—they are converted because of a miraculous Divine work has been done in their hearts by the Sovereign God through the hearing of the Word (Rom 10:17). If the unregenerate are not afraid and convicted of their sin when they attend the worship of the saints, but instead find a relish for it in their carnal hearts, something is very wrong.
Finally, since the psalter has no special section of dumbed-down psalms for children, little ones ought to be taught to sing hymns that have the rich content that the youth in Israel sang in their inspired songbook.