Singing Scripture: a Healthy Revival

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, people like Timothy Dudley-Smith or Margaret Clarkson, 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 on earth. 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.

Long Roots

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 1-2:14 (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 branches of Christianity 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. Calvinists also continued to sing the New Testament canticles. Beza, a close associate of Calvin, even published a series of versifications of nonpsalm texts from Scripture (though these were not commonly used).

Most of today's Christians know various hymns from this Reformation period, although they may not recognize immediately that some of these "hymns"—the following, for instance—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—5—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:

O God of Bethel, by Whose Hand(Genesis 28:10-22)
The Race That Long in DarknessPined (Isaiah 9:2—7)
Come, Let Us to the Lord Our God (Hosea 6:1-4)
Behold, the Best, the Greatest Gift (Romans 8:31-39)
Ye Who the Name of Jesus Bear (Philippians 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.

Recent Revival

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 fifties and 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 Neopentecostalism, or the charismatic movement. Less colorful but more controversial than the Jesus people, the charismatics gained influence in almost all Christian denominations (including the Roman Catholic Church). 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 Gar-ratt in New Zealand of Scripture in Song fame; and Betty Pulking-ham, 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 reemergence 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 currentlyis 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 wriiing 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.

Evaluating Scripture Songs

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 the Lord, our God, uses such a repertoire for his glory and for the edification of his people.

However, it's 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."

"His Banner over Me Is Love" has a hermeneutical problem: the title phrase and the rest of the lyrics obscure the erotic metaphor that lies at the root of the meaning of this text from the Song of Songs.

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, and/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.

Scripture Songs in Worship

The suggestions that follow may help you make Scripture songs a more meaningful part of your worship liturgy.

1. Use a short Scripture song as a "frame" around another psalm or hymn, similar to the alleluia frames found in Psalms 103-106 (see left).

The following Scripture songs also make good "frames":

He Is Lord
Rejoice in the Lord Always
Our God Reigns (refrain only)

Be sure that the Scripture song and its companion psalm or hymn are in the same key or in a suitably related key that permits direct transition from one song to the other; transpose one of the songs if necessary.

2. Choose a Scripture song just as you choose other psalms and hymns—paying careful attention to its place in the liturgy and to the season of the church calendar. Note how the following songs fit into the liturgy:

This Is the Day—at the beginning of worship
Arise, Shine—at the Service of the Word (or during Epiphany)
Jesus, Remember Me—as a response in a litany-style prayer (see page 40)
The Lord Bless You and Keep You—at the close of worship

3. Add more stanzas, particularly to songs in which there is already some repetition of text. For example, add a second stanza to "I Will Sing of the Mercies," (see page 40) Or add other first lines to "Those Who Wait upon the Lord," as follows:

Those who love the God of grace shall renew…
Those who live a life of love shall renew…

Those who die on the march shall renew… [funerals]

Those who offer gifts of praise shall renew…

Those who grow in his ways shall renew… [profession of faith]

Those who pray "Come Quickly, Lord" shall renew…[Advent]

4. As with all other church music and congregational song, bring creativity and variety into the singing of Scripture songs. Make full use of musical features such as descants or rounds. Occasionally sing select songs in a medley style. And, if the group sings the same Bible song several times in sequence, introduce different levels of dynamics (louds and softs) and provide occasional changes in harmonization and/or in accompanying instruments (including Orff instruments and folk instruments in smaller settings). A number of the recordings listed in the accompanying bibliography demonstrate a variety of such performance practices.

The contemporary revival in singing Scripture songs is a powerful sign that the Holy Spirit is still making fresh the meaning of the inspired Scriptures to the lives of God's people. When the pitfalls of amateurism, poor leadership, and undue commercialization begin to loom larger, then a simple but well-crafted and wisely used Scripture song may help all of us:

"Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God."

Resources for Scripture Songs

This select list of resources first presents the materials that represent some of the mainstream sources of contemporary Scripture songs (#1-5); then follow materials from commercial publishers.

1. Rejoice in Jesus Always. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Maranatha Evangelical Association, 1973.

Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Maranatha! Music, 1983.The 1973 volume contains some 115 songs (melody and guitar chords only), many of which are short Scripture choruses. Now out of print, this collection grew out of the ministries of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa; the book includes Jesus-style graphics typical of the period.The 1983 book includes 208 songs, taken from the earlier Praise 1-6 and Kids' Praise series; 65 of the selections are listed in a separate index as Scripture songs. This volume occasionally includes questionable lyrics, such as "I keep falling in love with Him over and over again," but it represents well the West Coast trends in Scripture songs. The musical settings are for piano (with occasional awkward page turns) with guitar chords. The volume also includes a topical index.

Maranatha! Music has produced numerous recordings of their music: seven Praise albums, seven Praise Strings albums, Psalms Alive 1 and 2, Best of Praise samplers, numerous Praise recordings for children, and other albums of Christian rock music. Many of these recordings feature medleys of Scripture songs. Maranatha! Music sells direct and also distributes its song-books and recordings through Word, Inc.

2. Sounds of Living Waters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1974. 133 songs compiled by Betty Pulkingham and Jeanne Harper.

Fresh Sounds. Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1976. 108 songs compiled by Betty Pulkingham and Jeanne Harper.

Cry Hosanna. Carol Stream, 111.: Hope Publishing Co., 1980. 142 songs compiled by Betty Pulkingham and Mimi Farra.

All three songbooks are potentially full-fledged hymnals; all contain a mixture of psalm settings, hymns, and Scripture songs in a variety of musical styles. Originally published in Britain, these books reveal both a healthy respect for the hymn tradition and much creativity in the more contemporary songs. Musical settings vary from chordal-hymnbook style to piano-accompaniment style; guitar chords are provided for many songs. All three books include useful topical indices and additional suggestions for the use of the songs in worship.

Many of the songs in these books have been recorded by the Fisherfolk musical group in England. To date fifteen of their albums, produced by Celebration Services, are available in North American Christian bookstores.

3. Psalm Praise. London: Falcon Books, 1973.

Hymns for Today's Church. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.A group of primarily evangelical Anglicans produced Youth Praise (Books One and Two, 1966, 1969) which contained some of their earliest work in Scripture songs. In the early seventies and early eighties they published two additional volumes:

Psalm Praise contains 150 settings of psalms and of select New Testament texts, using a variety of musical styles.

Hymns for Today's Church is a regular hymnal, including more than 600 songs; it contains a high proportion of recent Scripture songs by Michael Saward, David Wilson, Michael Perry, Norman Warren, etc. Both volumes reveal a preference for hymn-style settings of biblical texts/paraphrases with regular meters (as opposed to the preference for chorus-style songs in North America).

4. Scripture in Song, revised edition. Mission, Kans.: Scripture in Song, 1979.

Scripture in Song, Volume Two. Nashville, Tenn.: Benson Co., 1981.Both volumes are compiled by David and Dale Garratt, who began compiling, composing, and performing Scripture songs in their native New Zealand in 1968. Their first book contains 212 songs, a mixture of biblical paraphrases, hymns, and choruses; over 60 of these are settings of psalm verses. An index of Scripture references is provided. Volume Two contains 246 songs, many of which are not versifications of Scripture but rather hymns, choruses, and Christian ballads. This book includes no index to Scripture references.

Both songbooks feature piano accompaniments (sometimes with awkward page turns) and guitar chords.

Scripture in Song has produced seven recordings of the Garratts' songs and medleys; Scripture in  Song: Here's Some of Our Best is their sampler album. Overhead transparency masters for the two songbooks are also available.

5. Many groups and institutions that are active in the renewal of Christian worship produce and perform Scripture songs as part of their repertoire. Some examples may be found in the songbooks and recordings of the following:

The St. Louis Jesuits
The Monks of Weston Priory

Jews for Jesus (Liberated Wailing Wall and Israelight)

6. High Praise. Wheaton, 111.: Harold Shaw, 1977.

This booklet contains 58 songs based directly on Scripture; many of them are well known. Compiled by Jonathan Lyle, these songs are all set in satb harmony (with guitar chords as well). This would be a useful collection for a church choir.

7. Scriptures to Sing. Kansas City, Mo.: Lillenas, 1977.

Cornerstone. Lillenas, 1982.

The older volume contains 123 songs: old psalter songs, other biblical versifications, and new  Scripture songs and choruses. Over 40 of these selections are based on psalm verses. The more recent collection features 191 songs of similar variety. Both books are compiled by Ken Bible and feature satb harmonizations (with guitar chords for many songs as well); both provide an index of  scriptural references.

Selections from each of these songbooks are available on their corresponding double-album record sets; reel or cassette accompaniment tapes (instrumental trax) are also available.

8. Scripture Praise. Waco, Tex.: Word, Inc., Lexicon Music, 1978. This collection of 101 old and new Scripture choruses features piano accompaniments and guitar chords. Virtually all of these songs are based on single verses of Scripture; more than 40 come from the psalms. This book also has a good Scripture index.

9. Bread of Life. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Singspiration Music, 1979.

This songbook features almost 90 Scripture songs, compiled by David Culross. Most songs are given almost-chordal piano accompaniments that permit easy adaptation to satb singing; guitar chords are also included. The Scripture texts, many of which come from the psalms and from the New Testament, are indexed.

A double album or cassette is also available: Bread of Life Sing 'n' Share.

10. Praise Unending. Alexandria, Ind.: Alexandria House, Fred Bock Music, 1982. Many of the 115 songs in this book are well known: 29 are Scripture choruses; others are familiar hymns. Provided with piano-style accompaniments and guitar chords, each of the songs also features a modulatory phrase that connects one song to the next, thus permitting a group to sing the songs in direct sequence in the style of a medley. The volume includes a topical index (which suggests, in effect, the groupings of songs into medleys) and a special Scripture-chorus index.

11. Worship Him. Alexandria, Ind.: Alexandria House, Tempo Music, 1983.

A good number of the 208 songs in this collection are familiar choruses. Though subtitled  "Scripture Songs for Worship," only part of the contents is directly based on Scripture, and there is no scriptural index. Compiled by Jesse Peterson and Mark Hayes, the songs have piano-style accompaniments and guitar chords. Poorly planned layout in this book requires frequent page turns in the middle of songs.

Almost all of the songs in this book are available in three double-album sets of recordings; usually the songs are grouped in medleys. Some of the songs are also available in overhead transparencies.

12. Hymnal for Young Christians. Chicago: F.E.L. Publications, 1966.

Glory and Praise, Vol. 1—3. Phoenix, Ariz.: North American Liturgy Resources, 1977-80.

Gather to Remember. Chicago: G.I.A., 1982.

Songs of Praise, Vol. 1—4. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Publications, 1975-81. Beginning in 1966 with F.E.L.'s Hymnal for Young Christians, various publishers associated with  the Roman Catholic Church produced a stream of supplementary hymnals and songbooks, most of which  contain a group of Scripture songs (psalm settings and other biblical texts) in a folk style. Recordings are available from the respective publishers.

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 2 © December 1986, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.