In Defense of Hymns

Hymns have the distinction of being stereotyped as old and dull. Many of them certainly are old. My favorite (Be Thou My Vision) was translated from the old Irish in 1905. And, of course, they can also be sung and played with little life or vibrancy, making for a dull service. But the problem with stereotypes is that they are often unjustly applied. For example, you could also sing modern songs with little enthusiasm and, well, they’ll be old one day as well.

I have little (or no) musical talent so I can’t comment on the musical merits of hymns (all I can say is how they help me feel right things about God). Even though I’m limited on this subject I can comment on the substance of hymns and why many of them must continue to be sung by the church. One a side note: since we live in a very sensitive and tender age, I should clarify that I’m not against modern songs. I do think the church should continue to write new songs. But I also want to see good, old songs cherished and defended by God’s people.

Ultimately, why many hymns should be defended is because of their biblical depth and scope. In other words, many hymns tackle very specific, essential bible doctrines AND they tackle many different bible doctrines, often in one song.

This is important because Paul tells us it’s what our songs are supposed to do.

Colossians 3:16, 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 (ESV).

Paul tells us one of the ways we teach each other is through what we sing. Consider the new Hymn, “Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery” as an example. It may not be the “grooviest” of songs but consider the biblical depth and scope.  

Come behold the wondrous mystery
In the dawning of the King
He the theme of heaven’s praises
Robed in frail humanity

In our longing, in our darkness
Now the light of life has come
Look to Christ, who condescended
Took on flesh to ransom us

Here the hymn tackles several biblical doctrines. The incarnation of the Son of God – “He the theme of heaven’s praises, robed in frail humanity.” In this one verse we’re told Jesus is God, who became human, without ceasing to be God and because of his coming we can have life. Wondrous mystery indeed.

Come behold the wondrous mystery
He the perfect Son of Man
In His living, in His suffering
Never trace nor stain of sin

See the true and better Adam
Come to save the hell-bound man
Christ the great and sure fulfillment
Of the law; in Him we stand

Here we’re told about the sinlessness of Jesus. Though he was fully human (the Son of Man) he was “perfect” and had no “trace nor stain of sin”. Also, in this sinlessness, he represented us! He stood in our place and lived the life we should have lived. He is our “true and better Adam” who obeyed and fulfilled God’s law. It is “in Him we stand”, i.e., only in spiritual union with him by faith that we are not condemned.

Come behold the wondrous mystery
Christ the Lord upon the tree
In the stead of ruined sinners
Hangs the Lamb in victory

See the price of our redemption
See the Father’s plan unfold
Bringing many sons to glory
Grace unmeasured, love untold

Having sung Christ’s incarnation and perfect life in our place the song now comes to his death in our place. Though Christ is “Lord” he died “upon the tree” in the place of “ruined sinners”. This is what theologians call the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. It is the very ground of the gospel. If Christ didn’t die instead of me, I am lost. This verse also teaches the sovereignty of God over sin, suffering and evil. All this happened according to the “Father’s plan”. The Lamb was not hung in defeat but in “victory” in order that all these “ruined sinners” could become those “many sons” brought “to glory”. And all this was done not because we were worthy but because of “grace unmeasured, love untold.”

Come behold the wondrous mystery
Slain by death the God of life
But no grave could e’er restrain Him
Praise the Lord; He is alive!

What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes

What a foretaste of deliverance
How unwavering our hope
Christ in power resurrected
As we will be when he comes

Finally, we come to the resurrection of Christ as the ground of our hope for life after death. Because Jesus was sinless “no grave could e’er restrain Him” and demand any further payment for sin. We’re taught that those who share in Christ will share in his actual resurrection: “Christ in power resurrected as we will be when he comes.” Christ’s resurrection is a “foretaste of our deliverance” and why we have “unwavering hope”.

I’ve heard it often said that the best songs are those that help God’s people prepare to die well. Come Behold The Wondrous Mystery is one of those. It points us to our hope both in life and in death. It canvases the life and work of Christ from eternity past to his life death and resurrection. It has depth and scope and it’s just the sort of song that ought to survive in the coming generations.

Not every hymn is good. Many hymns have fallen out of use and they ought to stay buried. Yet, many that have survived have survived for good reason. They teach with depth and scope, prepare God’s people for eternity, and honor to Jesus.

Published by Cory Kitch

Pastor at Discovery Church, Yankton, SD.

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