In section 1 we sought to prove from Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–21, and from the pattern recorded elsewhere in Scripture, that the purpose of church music is to communicate. But what does it communicate? We learn this, too, from the Colossians and Ephesians passages. In both, the musical actions are linked to the subject and main verb of the sentence as present participles so that, at the very least, the grammar indicates that music is made simultaneously with the word’s indwelling and the Spirit’s filling, and it may also imply the means by which the word dwells and the Spirit fills, or the result of their doing so. That is, the Greek of Colossians 3:16 indicates that the word of Christ is to dwell in us as we teach, admonish, and sing. Some commentators go further and argue that it also implies that the word of Christ is to dwell in us by means of our teaching, admonishing, and singing; others argue that the word is to dwell in us so that we teach, admonish, and sing. Even though the exegesis of these participles can be nuanced in these ways, every possible exegesis will lead us to the conclusion that we are to sing the word of Christ. So, too, with the Ephesians passage. If the Spirit fills us, it does not matter whether our addressing one another merely occurs simultaneously with the filling, or also as a means by which we are filled, or as the outcome of the filling: in every case our speech will be informed by the one who fills us!

The word of Christ comprises not only that which he uttered during his earthly ministry (John 15:1–11) but also the apostolic message about him and his gospel (Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:17; Col. 4:3) and, indeed, it comprises the whole of the Scriptures, which bears witness to him (Acts 10:43). Probably Paul intended the phrase as the equivalent to his more characteristic expressions, “the word of the Lord” and “the word of God,” choosing here to emphasize Christ in light of the situation in Colossae and to establish a parallel to the “peace of Christ” mentioned in the previous verse (Col. 3:15).

To be filled with or by the Spirit is likely the same thing as having the word of Christ dwell within. Since every element that follows in Ephesians 5:19–20 has its counterpart in Colossians 3:16, it would be surprising if the imperatives themselves were not synonymous. Although the Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit working in us in various ways, the parallel with Colossians suggests that Paul here refers to the Spirit working through the word of God—that is, the Scripture and apostolic witness that he inspired—to enlighten believers and to move them to proclaim the word. The Spirit thereby enables us “to understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:17), and he arms us with our one offensive weapon: “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17). In fact, elsewhere, wherever the Bible says that someone was filled with the Spirit, it links that filling with proclamation. The person filled becomes more articulate in the things of faith. Bezalel artistically realized God’s instructions for the tabernacle and taught (Ex. 35:30–34). Micah and Zechariah prophesied (Mic. 3:8; Luke 1:67–79). John the Baptist turned many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:15–16). Elizabeth greeted Mary as “the mother of my Lord” and blessed her for believing that “which was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:41–45). Jesus himself used Scripture to resist Satan (Luke 4:1–12). In Acts, Luke records many more instances when the one filled with the Spirit testified to Christ, and the word of God is said to have increased and been glorified (Acts 2:4, 11; 4:8–12, 31; 6:3, 5, 7; 7:55–56; 9:17, 20, 22; 11:24, 26; 13:9–11, 48–49, 52). Note that Paul’s antithesis between being filled by the Spirit and being filled by wine figures in two of Luke’s references (John the Baptist and Pentecost).

It follows, then, that our singing in the assembly should be full of the inspired word of God. The word must dwell in us. “My tongue will sing of your word, for all your commandments are right” (Ps. 119:172). Spirit-filled singing, like Spirit-filled preaching and Spirit-filled prayer (Eph. 6:18), proclaims biblical truths in a manner consistent with biblical models. Whatever gets said or sung in worship—whether in prayer, confession, exhortation, blessing, preaching, or explanation of the sacraments—should be saturated with Scripture. We long to know God, and it is appropriate for us to expect this longing to be in some measure satisfied in corporate worship. We cannot see our covenant head during this mortal life, but we can hear his words to us. We may not feel God’s presence every Sunday, but neither his presence nor his activity depends on our feelings. He has promised that faith comes by hearing the word (Rom. 10:8, 17), which is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12–13). Why, then, are we so tempted to plan worship around the thoughts of men? “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is. 55:2). The historical experience of the reformed churches is that sound, hearty worship is always saturated with the doctrines, words, and imagery of Scripture.

Delighting in “Rich Food”

Perhaps the reader knows how this works from personal experience. The hymns that mean the most (that is, the hymns that convey the most meaning, the most important truths most clearly—the hymns that give voice to the deepest stirrings of regenerate hearts through all the stages of Christian life) are almost always meaty reflections on the word of God. By “meaty,” we mean reflections on the whole counsel of God, not just milk (“the basic principles of the oracles of God”) splattered about haphazardly or verses construed out of context. Hymnic meat synthesizes biblical ideas and biblical figures of speech into a biblical train of thought. Like Scripture itself, it develops its truths in a sustained and beautiful way. Its thoughts follow one another meaningfully, with a logic and rhetoric that lead us from line to line. By contrast, less biblical singing frequently flits from topic to topic and from vague reference to vague reference in a kind of liturgical impressionism.

Good hymns are vigorous, vivid, and precise—just like Scripture itself. In fact, no passage in the Bible is dull, scattered, or vague. Glorious truths cannot be communicated in an ugly way. “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (1 Chr. 16:25). “Sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!” (Ps. 66:2) The word of Christ is to dwell in us “richly.” This word in Greek, plousios, similar to its English equivalent, always bears both quantitative and qualitative denotations. That which is rich is both abundant and excellent. In our congregational singing the word of Christ is to dwell not just in abundance but with eloquence. And some of that eloquence is achieved poetically, or so the biblical models demonstrate: 1 Chronicles 16, for example, or the many psalms known to have been sung in the Temple, or the instances of corporate song in Revelation. The best English-language hymns will employ the devices of English poetry—meter, rhythm, sound, rhyme, imagery, and structured organization of ideas—to communicate the glory of God’s name as clearly and as memorably as possible.

With these principles in mind, we can appreciate factors that made the eighteenth century the golden age of English-language hymn writing. Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Newton each feared God and worked from sound theological foundations and convictions about the absolute authority of Scripture and the centrality of the gospel. Each benefitted from a classical education that sharpened his intellect and endowed him with a thoroughly literary imagination. Each was a skilled poet. Each had studied the Bible for many years in the original languages. Each wrote with a pastor’s heart, knowing the sins, hopes, fears, and weaknesses of Christian congregations. And each aspired to obey the biblical imperatives for congregational singing. Their best hymns were more coherent than the doggerel of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century psalters, generally more biblical and better wrought than nineteenth-century hymns, and radically more biblical and better wrought than hymns popular in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

At the time of this writing (2008) the hymn sung most frequently by congregations who report to Christian Copyright Licensing International is “How Great Is Our God,” by Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves, and Ed Cash (© 2004 Sparrow Records/sixstepsrecords). The reader is asked to look for a legal copy of the complete lyrics before proceeding.

The splendor of the King,Ps. 104:1
clothed · · · · · · · · · ·
let · · · · · · · · · ·Ps. 66:1; 96:11; 97:1; 98:4
He · · · · · · · · · ·Ps. 104:2
and · · · · · · · · · ·
and · · · · · · · · · ·
How great is our God!
How · · · · · · · · · ·Is. 40:5?
How · · · · · · · · · ·
And age to age he stands,
and · · · · · · · · · ·Ps. 31:15?
beginning · · · · · · · · · ·Rev. 21:6?
The · · · · · · · · · ·
Father · · · · · · · · · ·
the · · · · · · · · · ·Rev. 5:5–6
Name above all names,Phil. 2:9
worthy · · · · · · · · · ·
My · · · · · · · · · ·
is · · · · · · · · · ·

At first glance, given its many references to Scripture, the song might seem like a substantive reflection on God’s word, but it is not. The references allude to truth but do not connect with each other to proclaim it clearly. What is the message? That God is great. But what is greatness? Over the course of several minutes of singing, very little is said about it. A well-informed and well-intentioned worshiper could posit great truths about God onto the text: he is king; he judges evil; he is sovereign over time; he is triune; and all will see his greatness. These assertions would mean a great deal if they were proclaimed intelligibly as they are in the Bible, but instead they remain undeveloped and disconnected abstractions in the song. What does it mean that God is a king? What do the various phrases in the song have to do with each other? Why should all the earth rejoice? Michael Horton has written about this tendency in postmodern hymnody: “Vagueness about the object of our praise inevitably leads to making our own praise the object. Praise therefore becomes an end in itself, and we are caught up in our own ‘worship experience’ rather than in the God whose character and acts are the only proper focus.”[1] Indeed. “My heart will sing: How great is our God!” The vagueness of this poem’s theology compels us to wonder whether the exclamation mark in the chorus might not be a typographical error. How great is our God? I don’t know. It is a question that the singer of this song does not seem to want to answer. By comparison, consider the progression of thought in Robert Grant’s hymn “Oh, Worship the King,” which begins similarly.

Some of Tomlin’s vagueness can be attributed to his taking biblical language out of context. In lines 4–6, for example, we encounter a confusing mixture of figures of speech. Light is treated as a metaphorical attribute of God, as in Psalm 104:2, whereas darkness is treated not as an attribute of evil beings but as a metaphor for evil beings themselves. Thus light and darkness are not treated as parallel categories. Wherever the Bible personifies darkness (John 1:5; 2 Cor. 6:14; Eph. 5:8), light, too, is personified. But not here. The awkward juxtaposition of figures confuses because, in the vast majority of the instances where the Bible uses “darkness” metaphorically, it refers not to evil beings themselves but to their state of spiritual blindness (Matt. 6:22–23) or to God’s judgment on them (Prov. 20:20). The Holy of Holies was dark. So was Mount Sinai. The song’s image of darkness trembling and trying to hide, coming as it does after the image of the King wrapping himself in light, lacks Scripture’s precision, the kind of precision that we find, for instance, in Luther’s reference to the “prince of darkness grim.” Tomlin’s figure is all the more confusing because his opening idea evokes Psalm 104, where both light and darkness exhibit God’s glory. He “makes the clouds his chariot” (v. 3). He makes “darkness, and it is night” (v. 20). Here, it is not darkness that trembles but rather the earth (v. 32). Indeed, when God comes in judgment, we will all tremble and try to hide (Rev. 6:15–16). It’s just that some will find their hiding place in Christ. In its sloppiness Tomlin’s text falls woefully short of the standard set by biblical models for congregational song. How can a text that says so little be used by congregants to contemplate the objective greatness of God?

Ambiguity abounds. In the chorus, how will “all see” the greatness of God? Because it will be revealed? (As in Is. 40:5?) The poem does not say—unless we are meant to infer that all will see because “you have sung with me.” In verse 2, God stands from age to age, but what exactly does that mean? Scripture is more precise. His word stands forever. So does his kingdom and renown. He himself is called the King of ages. Tomlin names the Trinity (in the wrong order), but we don’t know why. He mentions the Lion and the Lamb, but we don’t know why—why he describes the Son only, when he has been talking about the Trinity.

The poetry is as bad as the theology is vague. It begins with a sentence fragment and moves through false and irregular rhymes to an unmetrical chorus: forms that do nothing to clarify the message or to plant it in our memory.

We will consider music in the next section. But for now, suffice it to say that if one’s criteria for judging a congregational song are (1) whether it musically pleases congregants and (2) whether it musically stimulates their emotions, one may conclude that Tomlin’s song is very beautiful, inasmuch as it proves well-suited to achieve these things. Judged by biblical criteria, however, the song is ugly. Whatever else can be said about a person singing this song, one cannot say that the word of Christ is dwelling richly in him. Or, if it does, it does so extrinsically, despite the poverty of the song, by some gracious act of the Holy Spirit. But how likely is this in hearts that persistently avoid contemplating the real and particular greatness of God? The Spirit normally works through the word.

There are thousands of other popular worship songs, of course, and by the time this website is read some other song may be most popular. It does not matter. Any objective appraisal of today’s popular repertoires will conclude that most Christians prefer songs that say very little. The Bible enjoins us to repent of this. We must reform our worship music. It will not suffice merely to call for songs that are better than Tomlin’s. There are already great songs being written today—in relative obscurity. Rather, we must try to understand the culture that makes songs like Tomlin’s popular. Perhaps there is a connection between our preference for a certain musical style and our preference for a vaguely defined God. If so, then a call for more biblical substance in that musical style would be misguided, for the two would be at odds. You cannot satisfy an appetite with material it does not like. In such a case, the appetite itself must be reformed or put in its proper place.

Continue to section 3, “Audience.”


[1] Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002), 26.