One of the things that hymnology does is to reinforce our doctrine and theology. That’s not the only thing it does, but it is an important thing. As Christian worship has become more experiential in its expression, one of the dangers is that this undergirding of doctrine gets diminished. For the hymnwriters of previous eras, many of whom were steeped in Scripture, their words were a kind of precis of biblical truth. The writer expected singers of these verses to also be familiar with the references. The familiar Come Thou Fount contains such an example.
Here I raise my Ebenezer
hither by thy grace I’ve come.
Ebenezer refers to 1 Samuel 7:12. Nearing the end of his life and ministry, we read of him, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” Ebenezer means stone of help. The hymnwriter expects us as singers to know this reference and to link to it, as it were, as we sing. We are to recall God’s faithfulness to Israel through all their trials, and recall he is the same God today. Another example of that is less reference and more allusion comes from Horatius Bonar.
No blood no altar now
the sacrifice is o’er
No smoke, no flame ascends on high
the lamb is slain no more.
But richer blood has flowed from nobler veins!
To cleanse the reddest spots and purge the deepest stains.
Bonar gets at the truth that our redemption is a finished work, accomplished by the death of the Lord Jesus. His reference to the altar, the smoke and flame, these get back to the early chapters of Leviticus, where God had provided instructions on the various offerings. The burnt offering, the sin offering, and others all portray some aspect of the sacrifice of Jesus. Bonar is doing something of application in referring back to this, even though it is implicit rather than explicit. But he expects his readers/singers to follow.
This sort of agreement between hymnwriter and worshipper is a feature of Christian worship that we should cultivate. Christian songwriters, trust your audience to come along with you when you make references and allusions to Scripture in the words you write. Even if your allusions are not overt, continue to make them, because part of your job is to bring singers to the truth. If they don’t fully understand at first, they will. They need to come to where you are.
Every generation writes its own songs; they retell the story of redemption in words and music that reflects the culture they inhabit. That is normal and expected. But we can do so without becoming untethered from Scripture as the substance of our song. Many of the psalms are experiential, but they are experiences informed by God’s revelation. Staying moored to Scripture is a way of ensuring our experience is shaped by God’s Word. In short, experience can never be our authority; God’s revelation is. Our singing should reflect that. We best do that by infusing our song with Scripture, by singing God’s words to one another, and back to God.