If we’re really honest, we might admit that hymnals seem about as relevant to our lives as eight-tracks and typewriters. We prefer contemporary worship played by a live worship band over an invitation to “turn to page 316 in your hymnals,” with worship piped in via an ancient organ.
Naturally, we tend to shy away from any sort of music style that dates back earlier than our grandmother. Unfortunately, we’ve tended to ignore the great hymns of the faith and failed to recognize their inherent value in our lives.
Recently I discovered the value in using and studying the hymnals in the pew racks. Do hymnals seem a bit outdated? Maybe. So maybe it takes a little bit of effort to overlook the ever-present “thees” and “thous.” But there is significance to singing (or at least reading and studying) the hymnal. (Don’t think that because you can’t sing well you can’t use a hymnal intelligently and effectively. I keep old receipts better than I can keep a tune so I use my hymnal often, but rarely to sing).
Almost all great hymns contain solid Christian theology. A hymnal can be used as a great primer for learning about aspects of the faith: grace, reconciliation, sovereignty, redemption, forgiveness of sins and more. You’ve probably noticed that every hymn is based on a verse or group of verses in Scripture. This can shed light on a specific passage of Scripture and offer great insight, truth and perspective to your times of study.
In addition, hymns offer the potential to learn many different themes and aspects of God’s character. Think about some of the songs in our hymnals and what they describe about God’s nature. Martin Luther’s classic “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” talks about God’s almighty power and reign over evil in spiritual warfare. “It Is Well With My Soul” speaks of God’s peace in the midst of heartbreak and disappointing circumstances.
We learn of God’s love and mercy in hymns such as “Amazing Love” and “Amazing Grace.” We reflect on God’s ability to keep His promises when we sing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We meditate on the great sacrifice God gave by sending His Son to die and reaffirm the power of the Gospel message in “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Most interestingly, hymnals can be viewed as history books of the Church and its great leaders. Church history is fascinating. While hearing the stories of those who have gone before us, we can learn from their mistakes as well as benefit from their great contributions to the faith. And as we learn about the history of the Church, we can learn specifically about the lives of Church fathers, such as Charles Wesley (author of hundreds of hymns), Martin Luther (ringleader of the Reformation), John Newton (a slave trader before his conversion to Christ who penned the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”) and many others.
A few years ago, I studied at a university in Jerusalem that had a cemetery on campus where a famous hymn writer was buried. As I walked through the cemetery one afternoon, I learned of a man by the name of Horatio Spafford whose touching story led him to write a famous hymn.
Spafford was a wealthy businessman who had invested much of his money in real estate in Chicago. When the great Chicago fire occurred in 1871, Spafford lost a great deal. Rather than despairing, he thrust his efforts into ministering to the people who had suffered loss from the fire, working to get them back on their feet. He worked so hard that his colleagues encouraged him to take a break and go on a vacation in England with his wife and four daughters. Deciding this would be a great idea, he and his family planned a trip overseas.
Shortly before boarding the ship for England, one of Stafford’s business deals fell through. He told his wife and daughters to go on ahead, and he would soon meet up with them. The ship Stafford’s family boarded, the Ville de Havre, never reached its destination. Off Newfoundland, it struck another ship, the Loch Earn, and sank in just 12 minutes. Stafford received a telegram from his wife that read only, “Saved alone.” His four daughters had been killed.
He boarded the next available ship to meet his devastated wife. During the voyage, the captain of the ship called Spafford to the bridge and told him they were passing the spot where the de Havre went down. Spafford looked out over the ocean, overwhelmed with the incredible presence of God’s peace despite his terrible circumstances. It was there, on the deck of the ship, that Horatio Spafford penned the words to the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.” Stories like these allow me to see the implication and the call to a deeper walk with my Savior.
Though we might not want to call up all our friends tonight and ask them to gather around the living room piano for a group hymn sing, we can use the hymnals for powerful corporate and personal use in other creative ways. Several years ago I picked up a hymnal at a garage sale for 50 cents. It was the best 50-cent investment I ever made.
The hymnal has enriched my understanding of God’s character and nature, encouraged me in difficult times, educated me about Church history and challenged me to think deeply and use my mind more effectively in my relationship with Him. As we enjoy our contemporary worship music, let’s make sure not to miss out on the golden nuggets of truth and wisdom that rest right in the pew racks.
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