What is a hymn?
By definition, it’s a religious poem set to song that gives praise and adoration to our deity, God. But what actually makes a hymn a hymn?
IT FUNCTIONS AS A POEM. In Sing With Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Hymnody, authors Harry Eskew and Hugh T. McElrath state that a hymn “should be simple and metrical in form, genuinely emotional, poetic, and literary in style, spiritual in quality, and in its ideas so direct and so immediately apparent as to unify a congregation while singing it.” Though most modern songs (not hymns) aren’t really meant to be taken as poetry and need the music, hymns are different. When you read the words of a well-crafted hymn, you can feel the cadence, even you aren’t aware of the melody composed for it. That’s why you find a lot of composers writing new tunes for old hymn texts.
ECONOMY OF WORDS. What? Hymns aren’t wordy? Yes, they are, obviously. Hymns establish a certain meter within the first verse. Don’t believe me? Look in our Celebration Hymnal and look at the bottom. Do you see numbers that may look like 188.8.131.52 or 184.108.40.206? That’s the number of syllables in each line. Most hymns will be set to eight syllable lines or alternate between eight and six syllables. Modern hymns, such as our hymn of the month, follow the same pattern.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE VERSE. In contemporary songs, the emphasis is usually placed on the chorus. Our classic hymns did not contain choruses. Hymnologists will argue that if a song has a refrain or a chorus – even if the verses are composed in hymn meter – it is actually a “gospel song,” not a hymn (think “Blessed Assurance”). In general, hymns tell a story in a series of verses, each one building on the other or continuing the narrative of the other. Because of this, hymns can cover more theological ground or present a wider narrative arc than other songs.
PRAISE FIRST, POETRY SECOND. We’ve already established that a hymn is a type of poem. A hymnist writes in such a way that all worshipers can understand and sing along, regardless of their level of education or their experience with literature and poetry. The hymnist’s goal is the same goal of any true writer of songs for God and His church: to give worshipers a language for thankfully praising our Lord and for speaking His truth to each other.
Read the words for our June hymn of the month and you will see why it is considered a
“modern hymn” and not a contemporary song.
Speak, O Lord, as we come to you
To receive the food of Your Holy Word.
Take Your truth, plant it deep in us;
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness,
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith. Your majestic love and authority.
Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us
All Your purpose for Your glory.
Teach us, Lord, full obedience,
Holy reverence, true humility;
Test our thoughts and our attitudes
In the radiance of Your purity.
Cause our faith to rise; cause our eyes to see
Words of pow’r that can never fail –
Let their truth prevail over unbelief.
Speak, O Lord, and renew our minds;
Help us grasp the heights of Your plans for us-
Truths unchanged from the dawn of time
That will echo down through eternity.
And by grace we’ll stand on Your promises,
And by faith we’ll walk as You walk with us.
Speak, O Lord, till Your church is built
And the earth is filled with Your glory.