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The Importance of Hymnody

You might be asking yourself, “What is hymnody?” Put simply, hymnody is the writing, singing, and collecting of hymns to a particular person, place, or church. A hymnal found in a church pew is a type of hymnody. But what I want to focus upon today is the importance of having your own hymnody.

Throughout the letters of Paul contained in the New Testament, he will often cite a hymn or creed — quite possibly written by Paul himself — that seem to be known by his readers. These hymns offer up a concise statement about deep theological and biblical truths.

In Colossians 1:15-20, Paul includes a hymn about Christ as the Lord of Creation and Redemption:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul includes a hymn about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

It is also plausible that Ephesians 1:3-14 is a hymn about the salvific work of the triune God:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

As I have been studying and preaching through Titus, I came across another one of these rich hymns. Because of it’s structure and rich gospel truth, Titus 3:3-7 is believed to be an early Christian hymn and quite possibly a baptismal creed. As such, this passage is a hymn about the grace of God bringing salvation to sinners like us:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

In his writings, Paul gives us these hymns so that we would be reminded and encouraged by their deep and rich gospel truths. In light of this, I would suggest that this is what Paul spoke of in Colssians 3:16 where he 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.

In Colossians — which contains a hymn itself — Paul commands that we let the word of Christ dwell in us righly and then he speaks of poetry and song. It’s also peculiar that we can turn on the radio, listen to a song that we haven’t heard in a decade, and remember every word. Paul connects for us the power of memorizing scripture with the power of song.

As for memorizing scripture, it is often one of the most overlooked spiritual disciplines, and yet it is one of the most important. Why? Well, what did the devil do when he tempted Christ in the wilderness(Lk4:1-12; Mt 4:1-11)? In tempting Christ, the devil quotes scripture to Jesus, but in doing so he twists scripture to fit his evil intentions. But how does Jesus respond and resist the devil’s temptations? By quoting scripture! Hence, we see why we need the word of Christ to dwell in us richly. And one of the best ways to do that is by developing a deep and rich hymnody that powerfully proclaims the Word of God.

Last March I was diagnosed with a tumor and a few weeks later I would be diagnosed with a rare form of cancer (stage 2b myxoid liposarcoma). During my first appointment when my doctor told me that I had a tumor, I was all alone. My wife and son were at her grandparents because of covid restrictions. I remember calling Shelby after the appointment and not being able to tell her over the phone what the doctor said, and I had a 30 minute drive back to her grandparents from the hospital. And in that moment of dispair and desperation all I could do was sing, and this sweet hymn came to mind:

When I fear my faith will fail,

Christ will hold me fast;

When the tempter would prevail,

He will hold me fast.

I could never keep my hold

through life's fearful path;

For my love is often cold;

He must hold me fast.

Over the next several weeks I would find myself constantly singing these hymns that would preach the gospel to my weary soul and give me hope of eternal life in Christ. A few weeks later, I was given my cancer diagnosis. My doctor came in, told me I had cancer, and that I would need 5 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation before having surgery to remove the tumor. From the surgery, I would lose part of my quad and my left leg would always be smaller and weaker. But my doctor gave me three little words of hope: “But you’ll live…” And that’s the hope of the gospel: But you will live.

When I heard the diagnosis I didnt think about the side-effects of radiation and chemo. I didn’t think about losing part of my leg. What I thought about was losing that which is most precious to me. I thought about Shelby growing old without me, and I thought of not being able to watch Benaiah grow up. And those thoughts haunted me. Everyone always talks about fighting cancer, but honestly, I just felt like a hopeless and passive participant in my treatment. There was nothing I could do, and so I sang. I sang because I needed to hear the gospel. I sang because I needed to be reminded of where my hope is found.

I didn’t know if I would win my battle against cancer, but I was assured that the war against death had already been won through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And there was another hymn that just spoke deeply to my soul during this time. While all the stanza are powerful and rich of gospel truth here are two that I clung to:

In times of waiting, times of need

When I know loss, when I am weak

I know His grace will renew these days

The Lord is my salvation

And when I reach my final day

He will not leave me in the grave

But I will rise,

He will call me home

The Lord is my salvation

I didn’t know if I would survive my battle with cancer. I didn’t know if I would grow old with my wife. I didn’t know if I would get the chance to watch Benaiah grow up or if he would even remember me. But I did know is that whether I lived or I died, I had the hope of eternal life and resurrection. All of this to say, I implore you to begin developing your own personal hymnody. During the hardest part of my life, it was scripture recited through song that constantly nourished my soul and reminded me of the hope that we have in the gospel.

On a final note, I would just say that there is a reason why the longest book in the bible is the book of Psalms. If you want to start memorizing scripture, I would suggest first memorizing the hymns of Paul and the Psalter. Secondly, learn deeply rich theological hymns.

In your darkest days, keep singing.

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