A Historical-Prophetic Approach to Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs

Today, I want to continue the series on Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

As a recap, I introduced two key texts.  The first is in Ephesians 5:18-20:

Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The second passage is Colossians 3:16:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

In one sense, we can see these passages as defining different styles of songs which are sung in the church.  I have suggested in previous posts that perhaps the distinction between the three categories may be quite artificial.  That is certainly the perspective I take in the current renewal of worship.

But I’ve found it interesting also to look at psalms, hymns and spiritual songs from a historical-prophetic perspective, where the different types of song can be seen as representative of the different eras in the history of worship music.

Firstly, hymns.  The classic hymn can be described as doctrinal statements set to music.  Certainly, Luther saw this as an important burden: that music carry a teaching function.  As hymns evolved however, they started taking on a very personal, experiential flavour, describing a person’s encounter with God, such as “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine”.

We could say that in hymns, we are declaring God’s wonder and works through song.  From a historical perspective, hymns represent the first great era of the recovery of worship after the Dark Ages.

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the Jesus People movement. The movement brought a new immediacy and impetus to relevant expression.  

Andy Park observes in his book To Know You More:

This new generation of Christians had to find a way to express their newfound love for Christ.  In this milieu of radical cultural change and genuine spiritual renewal, it was only natural that a new style of worship would be born.  Baby boomers rejected the rigid forms and styles of their parents’ generation.  For the boomers, rock music was their language of choice.

But not long after the birth of what we now call the “Praise and Worship Era”, there was a distinct move towards the objective and back to Scripture.  In the 1970s, Dave and Dale Garrett from New Zealand rose to prominence with “Scripture in Song”.  This was, in effect, the era of the modern-day psalm.

If I were to define “psalms”, I would say that the psalm is Scripture set to music.  In psalms, we declare God’s word through song.

The Praise and Worship Movement hit its zenith in the late 90’s with the catch-cry “an audience of One”, rejecting the subjectivity of the hymns and the earlier “psalms” and instead emphasising the need for objective praise.

Around the early 1990s (possibly earlier), a new sound began to emerge, which I would call “spiritual songs”.  The early pioneers were Kevin Prosch and Kent Henry.  In this movement, the songs of the church began to take on a more spontaneous character and a more prophetic edge.  Scripture reading, prophetic release and intercession began to intermingle with singing and music.

In the New Testament, the Greek term for “spiritual song” is ode pneumatikos, songs that are breathed or inspired by the Spirit of God.  In the spiritual song, we welcome God’s will in song.

This stream was given wide exposure through Delirious and continues in the music of the International House of Prayer and the likes of Jason Upton and Rick Pino.

In a way, whilst I have generalised a fair bit, we can see distinct prophetic moves of God through worship music represented by psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

Where does that leave us today?

Well, I believe that the three streams are merging.  The distinctions between each stream are going to get more and more nebulous.  We will reach into the hymnody of our forebears, respecting our historical/denominational influences and we will push prophetically forward in contemporary (post-modern) expressions.  Our songs may seek to embed doctrine, and yet be entirely experiential.  We will be completely content with the healthy tension in saying that worship is objectively to God, but subjectively for the people.  We will be less and less fussed with form (even though we will seek to push artistic boundaries) and more and more concerned with substance.

Let me give you two examples in which to process this new paradigm.

I remember in the mid-1990s when our church started to sing Delirious’s “History Maker”.  It was a song like no other before it. It was edgy and raw, but it also didn’t lyrically fit the mould of “audience of One” worship.  Leaders in our church worship ministry started asking:  is this even a “worship song”?  Should we sing it as a “worship song” or present it to the congregation aan “inspiration song”?

I can tell you now that as our concept of worship has evolved and broadened, there’s no argument about it:  “History Maker” is a worship song because it depicts a generation of sold-out, sacrificial worshippers desiring to change their world for God.

A more recent example is John Mark MacMillan’s “How He Loves”.  Essentially, it is a song entirely about God’s love for me.  It  does nothing to express praise directly to God.

But, I submit, it is still worship.

Recently, I heard again a message by Joseph Prince about boasting in God’s love for us.  The starting point for Prince’s thesis was that the reference to John’s being the “disciple whom Jesus loved” could only be found in John’s gospel!  In other words, John refers to himself as the “beloved”.  And the point is this:  when you receive God’s love for you, you will be inspired to love God back.  We no longer need to be told to love God.  We do not need to strive to love God.

Further, when we learn to receive from God, it makes God feel more like God.  Take the example of Martha and Mary.  Martha kept serving to the point of exhaustion and frustration, but Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and “took” from Him.  Who made Jesus feel more like God?  Martha who sought to minister to Jesus’ apparent tiredness out of her own strength, or Mary, who recognised Jesus’ inexhaustible sufficiency?

In summary, in the current revolution of worship, we recognise that becoming is through beholding.  There are no longer rules, but worship revolves around relationship.

So a song like “How He Loves” is a perfect representation of worship today:  to be able, like John and like Mary, to humble ourselves before Jesus and to receive His love for us.  If nothing else, this elevates His deity all the more and is, quintessentially, worship.

In the current move of God in worship, the streams of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs will merge into a mighty river of God’s presence.  Expression, style and content will be subsumed within the relational graced-based focus on the person of Jesus, that in worship, He may be unveiled in all his loveliness, so that the world may see and put their trust in Him. And yes, this is revival!

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