What is a hymn?
The dictionary defines the word hymn as a song of praise or thanksgiving to God or a deity.
There are several types of hymns such as the ancient Egyptian and Homeric hymns, and the Vedas, a collection of Hindu hymns, and then there are the Psalms, a collection of Jewish songs found in the Old Testament in the Bible.
A Christian hymn is a type of song that is written for the sole purpose of praising and worshiping the God of the Bible. It is a method of articulating our praise and worship to our Creator.
Christian hymns are songs written about the eternal Godhead, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. They are songs about God’s character – His holiness, His goodness, His unconditional love for us, His grace and mercy, His protection, His blessings and His forgiveness.
Psalms were sung in the Jewish Temple and synagogues. The early church, the born-again Jews and Gentiles (Christians) continued to sing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” in their meetings. Christian hymns were modeled after the Psalms and were written with a special theme for holy days such as Christmas and Easter.
“Then they sang a hymn and went out to the Mount of Olives.” (Matthew 26:30 NLT)
“Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.” (Ephesians 5:19 NLT)
“Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.” (Col 3:16 NLT)
There is a distinct difference between the traditional Christian hymns written by such hymnists as Dr. Isaac Watts who is considered the “Father of English Hymnody”, and the more radical style of the Contemporary Christian music of today. Some churches prefer worshiping with the newer Contemporary Christian music instead of the traditional hymn.
The following article by Margaret Clarkson explains what is required to write a good hymn.
A hymn is an expression of worship—our glad and grateful acknowledgment of the "worth-ship" of Almighty God, our confession of our own creatureliness before our Creator, our bowing before his transcendence. Hymns are a celebration of who and what God is and of what he has done— songs of praise, thanksgiving, and joy in God. Christians sing hymns because our God is worthy to be praised.
It follows, then, that the words of a hymn are of the utmost importance. Good music must accompany them, but its highest office is to strengthen and enhance the message of the words. The best tunes are those that best help worshipers experience the text of the hymn; for it is the words, not the music, that decide the worth of a hymn.
What, then, constitutes a good hymn text? Watts and Wesley set the norm long ago, and their standards have never been surpassed. Today's hymns must be in our own language, idiom, and metaphor, but our main thrust will not be substantially different from theirs. I suggest that good hymns have six general characteristics.
What constitutes a good hymn? Good hymns are not the result of desire or ambition, but are an outgrowth of spiritual life. They are not based on feeling but on eternal verities, not centered on man but on God.
Writing a hymn is more than using certain techniques correctly. It is a matter of looking on the face of God, of worshiping in his presence, of embracing his will, of accepting his cross and living under its daily obedience; then, having learned the disciplines of good writing, of singing his grace. True hymn writers have not sought primarily to write hymns, but to know God: knowing him, they could not help but sing. Theirs are the hymns that have lived through the ages and will live far into the future. It is this kind of hymn writing we need today if our generation is to contribute anything of real worth to the church's treasury of worship and praise.
Margaret Clarkson is a well-known and widely published hymn writer who lives in Toronto, Ontario. This article is an excerpt from "A Singing Heart, The Collected Hymns of Margaret Clarkson," copyright 1987, Hope Publishing Co. (Used by permission - For more info on Margaret Clarkson, go to www.hopepublishing.com.)
John Newton is one of the better known hymnists who penned such hymns as “Amazing Grace” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!”
The lyrics to the traditional hymn by John Newton:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
T'was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.
Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
'Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
When we've been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We've no less days to sing God's praise
Than when we've first begun.
Here are lyrics to a modern hymn by Margaret Clarkson:
We Come, O Christ, To You
We come, O Christ, to you,
true Son of God and man,
by whom all things consist,
in whom all life began.
In you alone we live and move
and have our being in your love.
You are the way to God,
your blood our ransom paid;
in you we face our Judge
and Maker unafraid.
Before the throne absolved we stand;
your love has met your law's demand.
You are the living truth;
all wisdom dwells in you,
the source of every skill,
the one eternal True!
O great I AM! In you we rest,
sure answer to our every quest.
You only are true life
to know you is to live
the more abundant life
that earth can never give.
O risen Lord! We live in you:
in us each day your life renew!
We worship you, Lord Christ,
our Savior and our King;
to you our youth and strength
adoringly we bring:
so fill our hearts that all may view
your life in us and turn to you!
This song is not considered a hymn but it is a song of praise. This worship song was written by Darlene Zschech:
Shout To The Lord
My Jesus, my Savior
Lord there is none like You
All of my days I want to praise
The wonders of Your mighty love
My comfort, my shelter
Tower of refuge and strength
Let every breath, all that I am
Never cease to worship You
Shout to the Lord
All the Earth, let us sing
Power and majesty
Praise to the King
Mountains bow down
And the seas will roar
At the sound of Your name
I sing for joy at the works
Of Your hands
Forever I'll love You
Forever I'll stand
To the promise I have in You
As you can see, the styles are different but all the songs glorify the Lord and His majesty.