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Music and the Arts in Worship Sample Resource

The Rise of the Scripture Song

The Scripture song is one of the most popular musical forms used in worship today. Although scriptural texts have been the basis for the church’s music throughout its history, recent historical developments have led to unprecedented use of songs based on short fragments of scriptural texts.

During the last several decades the Christian community has witnessed a vast explosion of hymnody. Some of these new songs are produced by gifted authors who write hymns that build on the heritage of Christian hymnody. But a larger part of this “hymn explosion” is Scripture songs—actual scriptural texts or paraphrases of Scripture set to music, often in a popular style.

Such Scripture songs are now used in almost every Christian church. You’ll hear them in the “upstairs” church during worship, at church society meetings of young and old, in church concerts, and certainly at Bible-study meetings. Scripture songs have become an integral part of Christian worship.

Actually, the “new” Bible song is not new at all; it has long historical roots. For centuries Christians have been singing both the Psalms and other portions of Scripture. Probably most familiar of the traditional Scripture songs are the four canticles from Luke:

  •          Luke 1:46–55 (Song of Mary, the Magnificat)
  •          Luke 1:68–79 (Song of Zechariah, the Benediction)
  •          Luke 2:14 (Song of Angels, the Gloria in Excelsis)
  •          Luke 2:29–32 (Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis)

The following Old Testament “lesser” canticles were also accepted by both the Eastern and Western churches during the medieval era:

  •          Exodus 15:1–18 (Song of Moses)
  •          1 Samuel 2:1–10 (Song of Hannah)
  •          Isaiah 12 (First Song of Isaiah)
  •          Isaiah 38:10–20 (Song of Hezekiah)
  •          Daniel 3:52–88 [apocryphal text] (Song of the Three Young Men)
  •          Jonah 2:2–9 (Prayer of Jonah)
  •          Habakkuk 3:2–19 (Prayer of Habakkuk)

The Reformation, with its emphasis on the Word of God and on worship, produced a flood of new church songs. Many of these were psalms and Bible songs. Most of today’s Christians know various hymns from this Reformation period, although they may not recognize immediately that some of these “hymns” are really old Scripture songs:

  •          “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night” (Luke 2:8–14—sung to a British psalm tune)
  •          “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (Isaiah 40:1—sung to a Genevan psalm tune)

After the hymns of Watts and Wesley became popular in the first half of the eighteenth century, psalm singing went into a decline in all but the most severe Reformed communities. Even during that time, however, some older Scripture songs survived, and some new ones were freshly set. In fact, the Scottish Kirk produced a collection of almost seventy paraphrases of biblical texts in 1781. A number of these Bible songs still appear in modern hymnals. The following selections, for example, are included in Rejoice in the Lord, Erik Routley, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985):

  •          “O God of Bethel, by Whose Hand” (Genesis 28:10–22)
  •          “The Race That Long in Darkness Pined” (Isaiah 9:2–7)
  •          “Come, Let Us Return to the Lord Our God” (Hosea 6:1–3)
  •          “Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift” (Romans 8:31–39)
  •          “Ye Who the Name of Jesus Bear” (Philemon 2:5–11)

Almost a hundred years later (1880) the Irish also published a book of paraphrases. But in most countries and churches Scripture songs were no longer popular. In North America, for example, some of the storytelling black spirituals seemed to fit into the Scripture song category, but most effort was concentrated on versifying the Psalms and on writing gospel hymns and Sunday school songs.

Four phenomena since 1950 have been major factors in the recent revival of Scripture songs. The first of these was the rise of the Jesus people, especially in California. The Jesus movement resulted from evangelistic work among the “hippies” of the sixties. Adherents of the movement liked folk music and had a fervor for Bible study—hence, the setting of short biblical texts to choruses and other simple verse/refrain songs, often by amateurs. The entire enterprise of Maranatha! Music is representative of this movement.

The second phenomenon is Neo-Pentecostalism, or the charismatic movement. Less colorful but more controversial than the Jesus people, the charismatics gained influence in almost all Christian denominations (including among Roman Catholics). Their emphasis on renewal of worship and on the use of believers’ gifts produced a great host of songs, again frequently composed and written by amateurs. Important on a worldwide scale, the charismatic movement has produced some gifted musicians: David and Dale Garratt in New Zealand of Scripture in Song fame; and Betty Pulkingham, Jeanne Harper, and Mimi Farra, leaders of the British group Celebration Services.

The evangelical revival in the parish churches of British Anglicanism is a third factor that influenced the re-emergence of Scripture songs. Initially focused on youth, this revival movement now dominates among the lower-ranked clergy and, as such, is influential throughout the Church of England. The texts for Scripture songs contributed by this group are often cast in hymn-like metrical forms. (See the texts of Christopher Idle and Michael Perry, for example.) The musical styles range from solid hymn tunes to the British pop styles. This group’s repertoire currently is becoming better known in North America through the publication of Hymns for Today’s Church.

The Second Vatican Council, which opened the door to vernacular liturgies in the Roman Catholic Church, is the fourth factor that encouraged renewed interest in Scripture songs. Shortly after the council’s decision, some well-trained composers, along with various Roman Catholic priests and nuns, began writing hymns, paraphrases of biblical texts, and liturgical music with English texts, some of it in decidedly popular styles. Willard Jabusch and Ray Repp are older representatives of this tradition, which has produced Scripture songs that range from chants to folk songs. Many of these songs are also being used in Protestant communities today.

The current revival of singing Scripture songs is certainly healthy for the Christian church as a whole. The strength of such songs is found in their biblical lyrics (is there any better way to know the Scriptures than by singing the words?) and in their emphasis on praising God in song. When used in conjunction with other psalms and hymns from the Christian tradition, such Scripture songs have their rightful place in Christian worship and nurture. And it is quite easy to point to all kinds of evidence of how God has used such a repertoire for his glory and for the edification of his people.

However, it is important to be aware of some inherent problems in Scripture songs. First of all, because these selections are often short, they usually contain only one verse of biblical text—a shortcoming that may lead to ignorance of the context of that single verse in Scripture. In the oral tradition from which many of these Scripture songs come, that problem is remedied by adding additional stanzas. Thus, the well-known “Trees of the Field” (with music by Stuart Dauermann) might receive the following second stanza:

The fir and cypress trees will grow instead of thorns;
the myrtle will replace the briers and nettles:
this will be a sign, a sign of God’s mighty name
that will not be destroyed. (Isaiah 55:13, versified by Bert Polman)

Other Scripture songs may have language problems: “Thou Art Worthy” is obviously based on the King James Version and, as a result, incorporates language that most people do not use in conversation and worship today. The obvious solution is to update the language, making the song more meaningful to contemporary Christians. Yet many Christians will resist singing the updated version of the song: “You Are Worthy.”

Finally, because many Scripture songs are the work of amateurs, some of them do not stand up well to repeated use. One tires easily of poorly composed tunes and trite patterns of syncopation. Songs that feature descants, rounds, or longer verse/refrain forms tend to live longer because they require more effort from the performers. Other songs are best sung once or twice—with thankfulness!—and then discarded.