So here are the words of guest writer Matt W. Bassford, from his blog, hisexcellentword.blogspot.com. (Used by permission.) I recommend the entire blog wholeheartedly.
Hymns and Scriptural Literacy
In the worship wars, one of the most common criticisms of traditional hymns (sometimes stated, often implied) is that they are boring. Particularly, they bore young people, so if we want young people to continue to worship with us, we’d better sing songs that are exciting or at least interesting.
Admittedly, most traditional hymn tunes are not the kind of music that sets the pulse to racing. In fact, many hymn-tune composers were aiming for solemnity and thoughtful repose rather than excitement. However, even though I find this to be true, I personally still don’t think that well-written hymns from any era are boring. Even if they leave me contemplative, they don’t make me want to go to sleep.
I wonder, then, if the source of boredom for some and fascination for others lies not in the music but in the lyrics. In particular, I wonder if it lies in the rich Biblical allusions that are characteristic of the best traditional hymns. Singers who are Scripturally literate will recognize the Biblical language and appreciate its use, while singers who aren’t Scripturally literate will miss the point and find nothing to dwell on.
I started thinking about this while singing “Peace, Perfect Peace” at a funeral last week. For those who don’t know it, here are the first five verses:
Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?
The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.
Peace, perfect peace, by thronging duties pressed?
To do the will of Jesus, this is rest.
Peace, perfect peace, with sorrows surging round?
On Jesus’ bosom naught but calm is found.
Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away?
In Jesus’ keeping we are safe, and they.
Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and He is on the throne.
“Peace, Perfect Peace” is a hymn I’ve known all my life. I can’t remember learning it. However, I certainly have not fully understood it for all or even most of my life. The music isn’t particularly stirring (see “solemnity and thoughtful repose”, above), and even though I knew what the words meant, I didn’t get the hymn.
That changed once I started reading through the Bible regularly. In the course of so doing, I encountered Isaiah 26:3, which reads, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.” (ESV)
Ohhh. All of a sudden, the hymn went from blah to brilliant. Edward Bickersteth didn’t pluck the phrase “peace, perfect peace” from thin air. He plucked it from Isaiah 26:3. In fact, he is confronting the apparent impossibility of the promise that Isaiah 26:3 makes.
How can it be that God guarantees that I will have complete and total peace despite all of these problems I’ve got? Just look at all of ‘em! I’m constantly struggling with sin, my life is busy and out of control, I’m depressed, I miss my family, and I have no idea what’s going to happen next!
(Side note: even though this was written nearly 150 years ago, it’s hard to imagine a better portrait of the lives of 21st-century Christians.)
In every case, Bickersteth points out, the answer to our problems is Jesus. In the blood of Jesus, we find forgiveness for sin. We rest in our service to Him. We turn to Him in despair. We trust Him to protect our loved ones, no matter where they are. It’s even OK that we don’t know the future, because we do know Jesus. In other words, Jesus is not only the fulfillment of all of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. He’s the fulfillment of Isaiah 26:3, because perfect peace is possible through Him.
That’s an amazing point. It’s so profound that “profound” doesn’t really do it justice. Any Christian should be able to sit and meditate on that for a good long time.
However, “Peace, Perfect Peace” doesn’t come right out and make that point. It implies it, but in order to catch the implication, you have to know Isaiah 26:3.
Sadly, a lot of Christians are more likely to know the square root of pi than they are to know Isaiah 26:3. They’ve never read the Bible cover-to-cover even once. When they come home from work, they don’t bust out the Good Book to relax. They turn on the television. As a result, their spiritual maturity is about on the level that a good friend of mine lampoons in his Answers To Every
Question In Bible Class:
“Who did it?”
“Where did it happen?”
“What should we do?”
Christians on this level are going to be baffled by the likes of “Peace, Perfect Peace” just as surely as the natural man of 1 Corinthians 2:14 is going to be baffled by the things of the Spirit of God. They will find their worship home in the contemporary songs written with a Jesus-Jerusalem-obey God amount of depth because that’s how much spiritual depth they have too.
Of course, it’s not necessarily shameful for a Christian to be at that level. If your hair’s still wet from your baptism, you’ve probably got some growing to do before you grow into Isaiah 26:3. Yes, our repertoire should include songs for brethren at the wet-hair stage of spiritual maturity. Often, believers at this point are best served by hymns that use simple, accessible choruses as a gateway to meatier verses. Here’s something for you to understand now; here’s something for you to grow toward understanding.
What is shameful, though, is for Christians whose hair dried 25 years ago to remain spiritually immature and Biblically ignorant. If you’ve allegedly been devoting your life to the Lord for decades (which is true of most Christians), you should know Isaiah 26:3.
In fact, “Peace, Perfect Peace” assumes this level of Biblical mastery. Bickersteth didn’t write the hymn because he thought that congregations of Victorian-era Anglicans would miss the point. He wrote it because he expected them to get it. The hymn’s survival, long after Bickersteth himself died, shows that worshipers did get it. It is only the Biblical illiteracy of our age that renders the hymn (and others like it) inaccessible.
The solution to the problem is not to dumb down the repertoire. That would be like “solving” the crime epidemic on the South Side of Chicago by making murder a misdemeanor. When you address failure to meet a standard by lowering the standard, all you get is more bad behavior.
Instead, we must allow our challenging hymns to challenge us. In our songs, we need to wrestle with concepts above the Jesus-Jerusalem-obey God level. We need to sing things that we don’t fully understand yet, identify our lack of comprehension, and seek answers in the word. Let’s put away the childish things of a content-light repertoire and worship with doctrinally rich hymns that will lead us on to maturity!
Matthew W Bassford