Songs with a Story
Every year, one of my churches has a ‘Songs of Praise’ service at the end of November. Church members are invited to select their favourite hymns and then somehow or other I try to link them all together in some kind of order, with words of Scripture, prayer and a message for the evening interspersed between them. Some hymns come up time and time again. Some are old, some are new. Some I’ve never heard of! However, what has struck me every year so far is how many hymns have a powerful story behind them.
One of my favourite newer songs is ‘Blessed be Your Name’ by Matt Redman. The emphasis on the sovereignty of God – to give and to take away – is not something you find in many hymns. The words reminds us that we are to worship, to bless the Name of the Lord, in the ‘land that is plentiful’ and in ‘the desert place’. This great song was written in light of the tragedy of 9/11, Matt and Beth Redman’s own life experience (including repeated miscarriage), and scriptures from the book of Job.
A traditional hymn with a powerful testimony behind it is ‘It is well with my soul.’ Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and friend of D.L.Moody, wrote this hymn after almost unimaginable personal loss. Horatio’s son died aged 4 from scarlet fever; a year later his entire real estate portfolio was wiped out by the great Chicago fire; and two years later his remaining children died after the French steamer ‘Ville de Havre’ sank in the Atlantic, claiming the lives of 226 people. When Spafford travelled to England a few days later to meet his wife, who miraculously survived, he asked the Captain to tell him when they reached the point where the ship had sunk. After they reached that point, Horatio then returned to his cabin and penned the lyrics of his great hymn. The words which Spafford wrote that day come from 2 Kings 4:26. They echo the response of the Shunammite woman to the sudden death of her only child. Though we are told “her soul is vexed within her”, she still maintains that ‘It is well.” And Spafford’s song reveals a man whose trust in the Lord is as unwavering as hers was:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
These are only two examples, but there are many others: ‘Take my life and let it be’ (covered in a previous post here), ‘Amazing grace’ (reflecting Newton’s past as a slave trader), and ‘All hail the power of Jesus’ name’ (reflecting E.P. Scott’s experience as a missionary in India). For more stories behind the songs, see here (mostly new songs) and here (mostly traditional hymns). This book, The Complete Book of Hymns, may also be of interest.
Do songs need a powerful story behind them? No, of course not. Good solid lucid Biblical theology is key. However, I do believe the stories can help us in our worship. If we recognise the faith and story behind a hymn it can challenge us or spur us on to imitate that faith. ‘Blessed be Your Name’ strikes a chord with many because we all struggle with tragedy in life, and struggle even more to see God’s hand at work in it. ‘It is well with my soul’ challenges us because, when we know the story behind it, we cannot escape from wondering how we would respond in such tragic circumstances. We can be inspired in faith and witness by the saints who have gone before. To God be the glory!