“Qualities of a Great Hymn”
First Published: September 24, 1998
We are all looking forward to the Hymn Festival on Sunday evening. I do hope that you will bring friends as well. The devotional treasures of the ages are stored up in the church’s hymnody, and it is a special privilege to gather as a congregation to sing praises to the Lord. The hymns that we will be singing Sunday night are familiar and beloved. One of the things that I treasure most about First Presbyterian Church is the hearty singing and the congregation-wide love of the psalms and great hymns of the faith. We live in a time when may young Christians do not know the hymns of the past. Indeed, hymnals themselves have become scarce in some churches! One speaker who recently preached in our church (and who regularly worships in a church which sings choruses but not hymns) said to me after our morning worship: “I feel like I am back in Christendom again!”
Perhaps we should pause to reflect for a moment on the qualities of a great hymn. The late Robert G. Rayburn, who taught Worship at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, identified three qualities of a great hymn. First, he said, a great hymn is Scriptural. That is, in both sentiment and expression it sets forth biblical truth. It borrows from the language and imagery of Scripture, and its theology is heartily biblical. Second, he noted, a great hymn must have a motion Godward. That is, it must be devotional in the highest sense of the word. It is characterized by a focus upon the Lord and his works. It is reverent and appropriate for us in corporate worship. Rather than being wholly subjective (like many modern Christian songs), it focuses on the great objective truths of the faith concerning God and his Word. In our sentimental and introspective age, such hymnody provides a wonderful spiritual corrective. Third, he argued, a great hymn is lyrical. That is, its poetry is not only capable of being set to music but especially suited for corporate singing. The lyrics should lend themselves to music, and indeed ought to be better sung than read. The great hymns all have great poetry in them, but they are not at their full potential unless they are sung. Furthermore, the music ought to be designed for corporate praise (not solo singing). You will note that the hymns we sing on Sunday evening will reflect these characteristics.