Why Do We Sing Hymns?
This seems like a good title for what you are about to read but before I ask that question, I should probably ask the question ‘Why do we sing?’ and further, ‘Why do we sing in worship?’
We sing because we have been designed to sing. I can already hear your protest but hear me out. Scripture speaks about music and ‘singing God’s praises’ from the early beginnings. Moses sang praises to God (Exodus 15:1) the Psalms are full of singing references, the Prophets Isaiah, Zechariah, Amos and Nehemiah speak of singing, the Gospel writers remind us that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn before they left the upper room and St. Paul writes about singing in many of his letters. But there is one reference that often is overlooked.
“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while the breath of God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1)
The Hebrew word ruach is often translated as Spirit or wind or breath as in this case. Singing is basically phonated breath, so it is entirely possibly that the Spirit of God, the breath of God is also the song of God. Expanding on this thought, when God then created the first human “…he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;” (Genesis 2:7) This is the same word ‘ruach’ that is used earlier in Genesis 1:1. Did God breathe song into us?
When we think about our vitals what comes to mind is breath and heartbeat. It has been scientifically proven that when we sing, our blood pressure normalizes, and our heartbeat adapts to the beat of the music. When we sing together, we breathe together which does not happen in any other instance, and, our hearts begin to beat in unison. Singing is the ultimate community builder because we literally form one body that breathes together, and all the heartbeats become one. In fact, cardiologists recommend for us to sing in choirs because of these amazing health effects. Singing is good for our body.
Singing stimulates our brain more than any other activity. Actually, it does not only stimulate the brain, but it also promotes the growth of new neural pathways. Studies also have shown that people with dementia can have moments of clarity and remembrance when they sing the songs they have known. The memory of music is the last one to go. Singing is good for our mind.
My friend, Rev. Dr. Victoria Campbell, recently told me about a brand-new study about the affect of the presence of a human voice singing in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). They have found that when someone is in the room and sings, all the stats of the prematurely born babies go to normal.
You might call all these examples coincidences, but I think that God designed us that way. Singing is good for body, mind and spirit. And, not only did God give us a voice to sing, God desires for us to sing to him. We received the greatest commandment:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
When we sing to God, we express our love for God with our heart, soul and mind. When we sing to God together, singing each other’s songs, we also love our neighbor. Singing together to God fulfills the greatest commandment as we become one in loving God. That is why we sing in worship. It is also how we welcome the stranger into our midst, loving them by singing their song and them singing our song.
Back to the original title – Why do we sing hymns?
When I say hymns, I refer to the text, not the tune. Hymns are poetry written in love to God or as some scholars call it – lyrical theology. You might ask if this is a new thing, but it really is not. Miriam and Moses celebrated God and their rescue from slavery with a beautiful poem and certainly the Psalms are a witness to ‘lyrical theology’. In the new testament there are so called ‘Canticles’. I think you might have heard Mary’s ‘canticle’ also called the Magnificat.
46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me--
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
There are several more and I will be glad to show them to you if you send me a quick email. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The language of a poet is like a springboard for our imagination. I am certain that my spirit rejoices in God in different ways than yours and the poet evokes that kind of thinking in each of us. I always enjoy when our choir director Christopher Carter prints out the hymns for the choir and then asks them to read the text and write a word of response on a colored stickie note posting it on the hymn. Our choir is culturally and generationally diverse and the text evokes different emotions in different people and the responses are like a plethora of emotions. That is the beauty of poetry, it brings the word close to each of us through our experience with God and one another. We learn about God, each person in their own way and relationship with God. In other words, when we sing hymns, we learn more about God and deepen our relationship with God. Sometimes a hymn can reach an individual in a better way than another teaching can. (bible study, sermon, etc.) We continue to sing hymns in worship to God because we never want to lose out on an opportunity for someone to be in relationship with God.
Why did they not just write down the facts but instead used prose? The difference lies in the emotion and mystique of the genre. Poetry takes us into a world of imagination and emotion and we each will read it and experience it in a different way.
Rev. Suzi Byrd
Read more about her, here.