The Poetry of Praise

Colossians 3:16
       Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

J. C. RYLE (1816-1900): There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die.

WILLIAM JAY (1769-1853): It is also a very enlivening exercise. Nothing is so adapted to excite holy affections. Let any one, in order to prove this, read only, and then sing the very same words, and what a difference will he feel in the effects of the two.

WILLIAM S. PLUMER (1802-1880): Nor is this all. What is sung in church is commonly in poetry. Much of it is the best poetry in our language. By being both read from the pulpit and sung by the congregation, a portion of it is apt to be impressed on the memory, especially as the psalms and hymns are often repeated. But should not a stanza or a couplet be remembered, yet the use of it improves and gratifies the taste, and often deeply impresses the heart. The love of poetry is lawful. God consulted our natures in giving us much poetry in the Bible. We may safely encourage this taste in sacred lyrics.

E. PAXTON HOOD (1820-1885): What is a hymn? Augustine has, in a well-known passage, defined a hymn to have a necessary three-fold function. It must be praise; it must be praise to God; and it must be praise in the form of song. These limitations, essential as they seem, would perhaps curtail many of our selections. We should then have to exclude much of that meditative devotion with which our best hymn books abound; much also of that too painful and curious self-anatomy which many of our best hymn-writers permit their strain to exhibit. Yet we are very far from thinking that to be the test of sacred song which Augustine has supplied.

C. H. SPURGEON (1834-1892): Several of the psalms have little or no praise in them, and were not addressed directly to the Most High, and yet were to be sung in public worship; which is a clear indication that the theory of Augustine lately revived by certain hymn-book makers, that nothing but praise should be sung, is far more plausible than scriptural. Not only did the ancient Church chant hallowed doctrine and offer prayer amid her spiritual songs, but even the wailing notes of complaint were put into her mouth by the sweet singer of Israel who was inspired of God. Some persons grasp at any nicety which has a gloss of apparent correctness upon it, and are pleased with being more fancifully precise than others; nevertheless it will ever be the way of plain men, not only to magnify the Lord in sacred canticles, but also, according to Paul’s precept, to teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in their hearts unto the Lord.

E. PAXTON HOOD: Our impression surely is that hymns should represent all that the spirit desires to express in its moods of praise and prayer.

A. W. TOZER (1897-1963): I’m always suspicious when we talk too much about ourselves. Somebody pointed out that hymnody took a downward trend when we left the great objective hymns that talked about God and began to sing the gospel songs that talk about us. There was a day when men sang ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ and ‘O Worship the King,’ and they talked objectively about the greatness of God. Then we backslide into that gutter where we still are where everything is about ‘I.’ ‘I’m so happy,’ ‘I’m so blest,’ ‘I’m so nice,’ ‘I’m so good’―always ‘I.’ The difference between heaven and hell is the difference between God and I. Jesus Christ, by cancelling His ‘I’ was the Christ of God―not as I will, but as Thou wilt. The devil by magnifying his ‘I’ became the devil, when he said, “I will arise, I will raise my throne above the throne of God,” Isaiah 14:13,14.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES (1899-1981): Always go for the hymns of the 18th century rather than the 19th century―that was the great century…Consider the great hymns which were written and which became so popular―there are so many of them, written by Charles Wesley, Philip Doddridge, Isaac Watts, William Williams, and by many others.

C. H. SPURGEON: Now-a-days we are having new and marvellous hymn-books full of perfect nonsense.

AUGUSTUS TOPLADY (1713-1778): God is the God of truth, of holiness, and of elegance. Whoever, therefore, has the honour to compose or to compile anything that may constitute a part of His worship should keep those three particulars constantly in view.

J. C. RYLE: Really good hymn writers are exceedingly rare. There are only a few men in any age who can write them. You may name hundreds of first-rate preachers for one first-rate writer of hymns. Hundreds of so-called hymns fill up our collections of congregational psalmody which are really not hymns at all. They are very sound, very scriptural, very proper, very correct, very tolerably rhymed; but they are not real, live genuine hymns. There is no life about them. At best they are tame, pointless, weak, and milk-watery. In many cases, if written out straight, without respect of lines, they would make excellent prose. But poetry they are not…Of all the English hymn writers, none, perhaps, have succeeded so thoroughly in combining truth, poetry, life, warmth, fire, depth, solemnity, and unction, as Augustus Toplady has.

J. C. PHILPOT (1802-1869): Toplady possessed that highest and most elevated, if not the greatest of all natural endowments, a poetical genius. To write verses is easy enough. Anyone can tag a few rhymes together and call it poetry―but Toplady had a real poetical gift, and when the Lord sanctified this endowment to His own glory, sweet were the strains that he poured forth. How a youth of eighteen could pour out such simple, easy, thoroughly original, and yet at times sublime verses, so pure in thought and language, so rich in experience, and so imbued with the unction and savour of the Holy Ghost, is indeed marvellous. Some of his compositions will live, as long as there is a people of God on earth―[hymns] such as “Rock of Ages,” etc.

J. C. RYLE: I strongly hold that holy thoughts often abide for ever in men’s memories under the form of poetry, which pass away and are forgotten under the form of prose.

W. Y. FULLERTON (1857-1932): [When C. H. Spurgeon was a boy] on one occasion his grandmother promised him a penny for every hymn of Isaac Watts that he could perfectly repeat to her. So quickly did he learn them that she reduced the price to a halfpenny, and still it seemed that she might be ruined by the calls on her purse. But then came a diversion, for his grandfather, finding the place overrun with rats, promised the boy a shilling a dozen for all that he could kill, so he gave up hymn-learning for rat-catching, which seemed to pay better. But I have heard him declare in later days that memorizing the hymns paid the best, for he was able to use them to advantage in his sermons.


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