By Cindi McMenamin, Crosswalk.com
Although music styles and tastes change through the years, one thing never goes out of style: Worshipping God through song. While worship consists of many forms—not just singing— expressing our hearts toward God through song is older than the Scriptures themselves.
Ephesians 5:18-19 instructs Christ-followers to be filled with the Spirit, “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” No matter what era your preferred “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” are from, they can be a source of encouragement, especially when they are based on the Scriptures.
When I was looking for ways to change up my devotional time with God recently, I dusted off an old hymnal (that was published 40 years ago!) and sang aloud some of the hymns I remembered from growing up in church during the 1970s. These songs reminded me of some precious truths I rarely hear sung on the radio today. Here are just ten classic hymns you might remember (along with some of their lyrics in italics) and why they are so important.
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1. "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" - a song of victory in spiritual battle.
This old classic, written by Martin Luther, is based on Psalm 46 and speaks of the confidence we can have in God as our defense against Satan and his attempts to thwart us. Besides the majestic descriptions of God as a bulwark never failing and our helper… amid the flood, this hymn reminds us of the victory we have through Christ (whom Luther calls the right Man on our side).
Do you ever feel nearly crushed under spiritual attack? Do you tend to forget that you are on the winning side? Remember that you have a mighty fortress in Christ Jesus that is impenetrable by Satan and though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us. The battle is already won in Christ and this hymn reminds us of it in a powerful way.
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2. "And Can it be That I Should Gain" - a reminder of immense grace.
Although the refrain in this hymn has been repeated in the contemporary worship song “You Are My King”, written by Billy James Foote, Charles Wesley was the first to pen the lyrics: Amazing love! How can it be That Thou my God, shouldst die for me? Besides the rich theology in this song about the atoning blood of Jesus, based on Romans 5:8, there is also the presence of joy as the lyrics describe God’s pursuit of our hearts.
Do you ever feel your past precludes you from being wanted or used by God? Then meditate on these words:
He left His Father’s throne above, So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free; For O my God, it found out me.
This hymn is also a battle cry as the writer motivates us to follow wholeheartedly the Lord Jesus: My chains fell off, my heart was free; I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
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3. "It is Well with My Soul" - a song of peace during heartache and loss.
The story behind Horatio Spafford’s writing of this hymn puts us into perspective when we think we’ve had it rough. The traumatic events in Spafford’s life—including the loss of his son at the age of 2, followed by his financial ruin as a result of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871—came to a head when he received a telegraph from his wife who had been travelling on a ship ahead of him, with his family. His wife’s telegraph informed him that all four of his daughters had been killed when their ship sunk and his wife was one of the few survivors. Shortly after, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write this famous hymn as his ship passed near where his daughters had died.
Knowing that story makes his lyrics all the more powerful as he entrusted his life and circumstances to His Savior and sang: 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. Can you, too, in whatever catastrophic circumstance comes your way, turn it into a testimony of the peace that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7) as Stafford did? What a testimony, and what a comfort to anyone who wants to know the Source of your peace.
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4. "Crown Him with Many Crowns" - a reminder that Jesus reigns.
Every Easter Sunday we sing about Christ conquering the grave and reigning as King. But the other 51 weeks of the year we tend to think that Satan is ruling this earth and we long for the day when Christ will have the victory. But this hymn is about “Jesus victorious!” not “Jesus, come rescue us!” The lyrics remind us that not just on Easter, but today, now, and forever Christ sits at the right hand of God the Father (Hebrews 12:2).
Jesus said, after rising from the dead, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). Sing it, remember who is wearing the many crowns, and hail Him as thy matchless King thro’ all eternity.
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5. "How Great Thou Art" - a song that emphasizes Him, not us.
In a day and age when we can so easily slip into a “me-perspective” and feel that we are the ones who are great, this old Swedish hymn, originally titled “O Store Gud” by Carl Boberg, gets the focus off of us and helps us consider all the worlds Thy hands have made. It forces our eyes onto the One whose power is displayed throughout creation, through what Christ did on the cross, and through the return of our Savior.
Some of the more contemporary worship songs today can focus on us, our feelings, our needs, and even our desires for Jesus to hold us close; but this song puts all the emphasis on the One who bled and died to take away my sin. It is an echo of Psalm 48:1: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”
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6. "In the Garden" - a glimpse of the intimacy that is possible with God.
One of the most beloved songs that celebrates the relationship of God with man is C. Austin Miles’ “In the Garden.” He starts by singing I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses and his last stanza begins with I’d stay in the garden with Him Though the night around me be falling…. The precious chorus speaks of an intimacy that we all long to have with our Maker: And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own, And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.
Do you long to know God intimately like that? This song reminds us that sweet intimacy with God can be ours…we just need to make the time to come to the garden alone and listen for His sweet voice.
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7. "Come Thou, Fount of Every Blessing" - a song to keep us in perspective and on guard.
When you think of your blessings today, do you think of material possessions? Your house, a nice car to drive, a great job? Do you think of your family, children, loved ones? This hymn writer thought of his salvation, God’s love, and streams of mercy, never ceasing. When we consider what we have in Christ Jesus, it brings perspective to our lives and also makes us want to value and protect our relationship with Him above anything else.
We all need to be reminded of our soul’s tendency to wander, and our need to be tethered tight to our Savior. This hymn’s powerful third verse rings through my mind often as a constant spiritual self-check: Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, O take and seat it; Seal it for Thy Courts above. What if you and I sang that line as a prayer and plea to God each morning? How we might live differently!
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8. "The Old Rugged Cross" - a reminder of the power of the atonement.
Who—other than Christ-followers—would sing so affectionately about an instrument of execution? Yet the cross upon which Jesus died—this emblem of suffering and shame—is what writer George Bennard says he’ll cherish till my trophies at last I lay down. I will cling to the old rugged cross, and exchange it some day for a crown.
We seldom hear talk today about picking up our cross and following Jesus. We’d rather talk about the good things that happen once we come to Christ—like abundant life, eternal life, and finding your purpose. Talk of the cross is uncomfortable. Convicting. Shameful. But Scripture says “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Look at the rich theology in the lyrics of “The Old Rugged Cross” and you may find yourself cherishing it and clinging to it, as well.
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9. "All That Thrills My Soul is Jesus" - a decree that He is the Only One who satisfies.
Today it’s easy to get sidetracked with what this world promises will satisfy. Long before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones wrote “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Hymn writer Thoro Harris penned this song letting us know where true satisfaction really lies: Who can cheer the heart like Jesus, by His presence all divine? True and tender, pure and precious, O how blest to call Him mine! The fourth stanza celebrates the result of finding our delight and satisfaction in Jesus: Every need His hand supplying, Every good in Him I see; On His strength divine relying, He is all in all to me.
Do you find that Jesus is the Only One who satisfies? Are you delighting in Him as your heart’s desire (Psalm 37:4)? Sing a few stanzas of this old hymn until these words become your heartfelt plea: All that thrills my soul is Jesus, He is more than life to me. And the fairest of ten thousand in my blessed Lord I see.
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10. "Great is Thy Faithfulness" - a song of gratitude and praise.
This hymn by Thomas Chisholm reminds us of God’s great faithfulness that is new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). As we sing it we proclaim there is no shadow of turning with Thee; Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not, As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
How often we need the reminder that All I have needed Thy Hand hath provided. God is still faithful even when we are not. His faithfulness extends to not just our daily provision, but our eternal provision as well: Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thy Own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine with ten thousand beside. We need to remember this hymn simply because it keeps us humble, grateful, and constantly aware that every good and perfect gift comes from our Father above (James 1:17).
Cindi McMenamin is a pastor’s wife, Bible teacher, and national speaker with more than 30 years experience helping women and couples come to know God more intimately. She is the author of 17 books, including the best-selling When Women Walk Alone (more than 125,000 copies sold), When God Sees Your Tears, Drama Free: Finding Peace When Emotions Overwhelm You, and 12 Ways to Experience More with Your Husband: More Trust, More Passion, More Communication. For more on her resources to strengthen your soul, marriage, or parenting, or to learn more about her coaching services to help you write the book on your heart, see her website www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.
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