Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Wonderful Hymns

Singing God's Praise

There is a lot of music produced by the church today.  Most of it is rubbish, some of it is good.  I will blog on that some other time.  Discussing it with a friend recently though they asked for a list of my favourite hymns so for now though I just want to briefly look at what I consider to be important in a good hymn before looking specifically at some of my personal favourites.

1.    It is more focused on God than it is on me.  There is a reason why it is called a him and not a me (sorry, that pun was awful). But seriously, any hymn that puts more stress on me than God is no good.  Now that doesn’t mention it can’t mention me, my struggles, my feelings.  But I really do think it should mention God’s help and goodness more.  Ideally when I’m singing about myself it should be in relation to what God has done for me.
2.    It needs to be profound and true.  Colossians 3:16 says “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God”. According to this verse singing is part of letting Christ’s word dwell richly in us and I cannot believe that singing empty platitudes does that.  Equally so, singing untruth is in many ways even worse than preaching it (due to the ease of memorising).
3.    As a corollary to the above it needs to not be too repetitive.  Some repetition is fine (and biblical) but often in modern songs you find yourself singing the same line time and time again.  I challenge you to find a Psalm that repeats the same line consecutively 10 times! Here is an excellent article on the use of repetition.
4.    It needs to be realistic.  I don’t want to sing a song about how much I feel love for God; I want to sing about how lovely he is.  I don’t want to sing about how much I’ll do for God; I want to sing about how much he has done for me.  I want to sing songs I can always get behind, even when I’m feeling crap.  Songs that are realistic about the hardship of the Christian life and songs that are realistic about the fact my heart is messed up.  It is the reason my favourite hymn is the one it is (nearly at that part…).
5.    It needs to be singable.  I left this until last because the words are more important but I firmly believe hymns are written for congregational worship and not for a band.  There is a place for band-based and biblical music (like Casting Crowns) but it is not in a church context.  Songs sung in church should be reasonably easy to pick up and sing.  They shouldn’t be so high you need to have a microphone or be a girl to sing with any sort of volume and vigour.  They should also make sense musically and not be too complex so that anyone can sing them without needing to be an expert singer.  If you have to practice it a dozen times in order to sing it, it is probably not going to be on my list…

So there are my 5 main criteria.  I will just stress that most of them are negotiable.  I am happy for you to like a simpler song, or a repetitive one, or indeed a super complicated one (but obviously not if it is unbiblical).  These are my criteria though, they aren’t necessarily the best ones, but they are what I like to see in a hymn.  So with that in mind, a few of the best (with reasons why).  It happens that most of these are older ones, not because older necessarily means better but just because the older ones have been test run through decades of church history and the rubbish ones got filtered out (well, most of them, Jerusalem I am looking at you…). In no particular order:

Come Thou Fount
Robert Robinson
(note that the ‘usual’ version misses the first half of v2 and the last of v3, as well as the last verse of this version)

I love this because it is just a marvellous call to God to rescues us from our own self absorbance.  Not to mention the beautiful pictures of the power of grace and reliance on God.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.

O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
S. Trevor Francis

This is just a wonderful reminder of how great and immeasurable Jesus’ love for us is and that no other love even compares to this.  As well as that beautiful last two lines, with their assurance that heaven is simply being where he is.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
’Tis an ocean full of blessing, ’tis a haven giving rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

The Love of God is Greater Far
Frederick Lehman

Again, this is just a beautifully poetic description of the indescribable nature of God’s love.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Approach, My Soul, The Mercy Seat
John Newton

John Newton writes the best hymns on prayer (this isn’t the only one on the list) and this is no exception to that.

Thy promise is my only plea,
With this I venture nigh;
Thou callest burdened souls to Thee,
And such, O Lord, am I.

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go
George Matheson

Another beautiful hymn about the love of God which stresses the fact that when all other loves prove false he still loves you.  This hymn has helped me an awful lot in tough times (I wrote a blog about how good it is /shameless self-plug).

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

All I Have is Christ
Jordan Kauflin

The newest hymn currently on this list, a beautiful reminder that Christ is everything; if you lose all you hold dear you still have him.

But as I ran my hell-bound race
Indifferent to the cost
You looked upon my helpless state
And led me to the cross

Come My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare
John Newton

Another marvellous prayer hymn from John Newton, this time on the confidence we have in prayer and moving beautifully through the various things we need to pray for.

Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring;
For his grace and power are such,
None can ever ask too much.

In the hour of trial
James Montgomery

I love this so much I wrote a blog based on it.   This time it is about prayer for us.

In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look recall,
Nor for fear or favour suffer me to fall.

I Asked the Lord that I Might Grow
John Newton

This is my second favourite hymn.  I can attest to the truth of it through bitter and joyful experience.  I love its realism and its quiet confidence in God’s guiding hand in the mess and strain of life.  Like so many of Newton’s, it is worth reading in full due to the wonderful progression he makes from wondering to being satisfied.

I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.

’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Humbled my heart, and laid me low.

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”

Be Thou My Vision
Dallan Forgaill/Mary Byrne

This is my all-time favourite hymn.  No matter how many great hymns I discover I always come back to this because it so aptly describes my heart.  I don’t often find that God is my vision, that my eyes are fixed on Christ and that he is all I long for.  But oh how I wish I did!  That is what this hymn conveys.

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

So that then is a short list.  There are so many more (Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted, Man of Sorrows, Abide with Me, I Will Glory in My Redeemer etc) but it is getting late.  I will try and add them some time but that is enough to be going on for now.  If you do think of any I haven't mentioned here then please do tell me!

Sing to the LORD, all the earth!
Tell of his salvation from day to day.
1 Chronicles 16:23


  1. Shrimpy, this is excellent. Thanks mate - and do list some more! There's so many that I hear that I think are great but then I what forget what they're called etc.

    1. Thanks Angus. I do exactly the same, which is why I thought it would be worth putting the list up here. I will write another one once I have cleared out my pile of song sheets I have saved from church and find all the notes I have made of hymns people have mentioned!