Examining Lyrics

Featuring Tom Kraeuter Posted on January 20, 2010

The first thing to consider is whether or not the lyrics line up with Scripture. This is a very important point that is sometimes overlooked. Along with the obvious things (not misquoting or altering the meaning of a direct quote), you should also look at the context of the Scripture(s) being quoted. Occasionally even words right out of the Bible are taken out of context, radically altering the original meaning. Several years ago there was a song entitled “Lift Jesus Higher” which was very popular. The song was taken almost verbatim from John 12:32. It was sung as an enthusiastic song of praise, encouraging us to lift Jesus higher because then He would draw all men unto Himself. Unfortunately very few people ever looked at the Scripture verse that followed. “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). Jesus was talking about being lifted up on a cross, an instrument of death, and we were singing, “Lift Jesus higher.” We must be very careful to check the lyrics of our songs for their adherence to their biblical context.

The next thing we should check in our song lyrics is whether we really want to say them. Sometimes we can be swayed by a great melody to use a song which may have questionable lyrics. A song that has been quite popular over the years is, “Surely the Presence of the Lord is In This Place.” The melody and most of the lyrics are quite nice. However there is one line in this song which has bothered me for a long time: “I can hear the brush of angel wings.” Can you really? And if not, how much untruth is acceptable in our songs before we deem them unusable? Do we really want to say things which are not true? Think about it.

Another consideration in looking at your songs is whether or not the words are good quality in meaning and grammar. Songs which are nebulous or too ethereal may be best unused. Songs with poor grammatical form may be difficult for people to sing. Unfortunately both of these types of songs seem to be in abundance because of the many people with little or no songwriting ability or gifting who attempt to write songs. More about that later.

It is also good to be certain the lyrics of the songs are within the realm of understanding and experience of the congregation. Because of the changes in language usage 300 year old hymns (or even 75 year old hymns) are sometimes difficult to understand. Does this mean you should not use them? Not necessarily. However, you should understand that you may need to explain certain lyrics in order for people to really grasp the meaning. The old hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation,” almost always needs some explanation. The last line is “Gladly for aye we adore Thee.” When this song is used in congregational worship the word “aye” is almost always pronounced like “I.” The word is actually pronounced “A” and means “ever” — “Gladly forever we adore Thee.” But it seems obvious that if people are uncertain how to pronounce the word, they most likely do not know its meaning. So what exactly are they saying when they sing that last line? Your guess is as good as mine. A simple explanation will alleviate the whole problem.

Something else we should consider is this: do the words rhythmically fit the music? Some songs have four notes on one syllable and then follow this with four syllables on one note. Songs like this can be very difficult to learn and will usually require more time for the congregation to become familiar with the song. Depending on how strong you believe the song is (lyrically and musically) this may be something you are willing to work around. The ever popular Christmas carol, “Angels We Have Heard on High,” has sixteen notes on one syllable, yet the song as we know it has survived over 100 years of singing.

The final consideration I use for lyrics is determining whom they address. With some songs, such as “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” we are actually talking to ourselves. Other songs, “Praise the Name of Jesus” for example, are an encouragement to one another to do what the song is saying. Still others address the Lord. An example of this type of song is “I Exalt Thee.” None of this should come as new or revolutionary information, but I have found that we often miss the obvious. As those involved in the worship ministry, we especially need to understand to whom we are singing. Each song is different and we simply need to realize it.

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