hymn, n [from the Latin hymnus, song of praise] 1: a song of praise to God 2: a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service
For centuries, Christians have sung hymns in order to praise God. Anyone who knows a hymn like “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” or “Now Thank We All Our God” recognizes how well the hymnody of the Church enables God’s people to raise their voices in thanksgiving for all that He has given.
Hymns are indeed songs of praise to God. Still, a dictionary definition can’t begin to grasp the riches of the Church’s hymns. For example, some hymns are not so much praise to God as they are prayer. Hymns can be confessions of sin or confessions of faith. Some hymns give praise to God by telling the story of what He has done. Finally, there are many hymns that masterfully teach the Christian faith, even as they lead God’s people to praise their Maker and Redeemer.
For an example of how rich our hymns can be, consider the Advent hymn of Paul Gerhardt, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You.” In the opening lines, the purpose for our Advent observance is clearly sounded:
O Lord, how shall I meet You,
How welcome You aright?
Your people long to greet You,
My hope, my heart’s delight!
Before celebrating Jesus’ birth, Christians do well to prepare their hearts for His coming. One way that is done during Advent is by recalling God’s Old Testament people and the centuries-long wait they endured before God finally sent the promised Savior. Echoing the words of Isaiah 9:2, Gerhardt writes in stanza 5:
Rejoice, then, you sad-hearted,
Who sit in deepest gloom.
We have much in common with ancient Israel, for we often find ourselves overshadowed by the darkness of sin and the trials of life. But the coming of the Savior has changed all that. Here’s how Gerhardt expresses the good news:
Despair not; He is near you.
Similarly, in stanza 3 Gerhardt beautifully describes both our sinful condition and our new status as forgiven children of God:
I lay in fetters, groaning;
You came to set me free.
I stood, my shame, bemoaning;
You came to honor me.
Confession of sins? Yes. Proclamation of forgiveness? Most definitely! Prayer, praise…and much more. That’s what our hymns are all about. As you sing them, give thanks to God for this great gift to His Church. Here is the whole hymn:
1. How shall I meet Thee? How my heart
Receive her Lord aright?
Desire of all the earth Thou art!
My hope, my sole delight!
2. Kindle the Lamp, Thou Lord, alone,
Half-dying in my breast,
And make thy gracious pleasure known
How I may greet Thee best.
3. Her budding boughs and fairest palms
Thy Zion strews around;
And songs of praise and sweetest psalms
From my glad heart shall sound.
4. My desert soul breaks forth in flowers,
Rejoicing in Thy fame;
And puts forth all her sleeping powers,
To honour Jesus’ name.
5. In heavy bonds I languished long,
Thou com’st to set me free;
The scorn of every mocking tongue–
Thou com’st to honour me.
6. A heavenly crown wilt Thou bestow,
And gifts of priceless worth,
That vanish not as here below,
The fading wealth of earth.
7. Nought, nought, dear Lord, had power to move
Thee from Thy rightful place,
Save that most strange and blessed Love
Wherewith Thou dost embrace
8. This weary world and all her woe,
Her load of grief and ill
And sorrow, more than man can know;–
Thy love is deeper still.
9. Oh write this promise in your hearts,
Ye sorrowful, on whom
Fall thickening cares, while joy departs
And darker grows your gloom.
10. Despair not, for your help is near,
He standeth at the door
Who best can comfort you and cheer,
He comes, nor stayeth more.
11. Nor vex your souls with care, nor grieve
And labour longer thus,
As though your arm could ought achieve,
And bring Him down to us.
12. He comes, He comes with ready will,
By pity moved alone,
To soothe our every grief and ill,
For all to Him is known.
13. Nor ye, O sinners, shrink aside,
Afraid to see His face,
Your darkest sins our Lord will hide
Beneath His pitying grace.
14. He comes, He comes to save from sin,
And all its pangs assuage,
And for the sons of God to win
Their proper heritage.
15. Why heed ye then the craft and noise,
The fury of His foes?
Lo, in a breath the Lord destroys
All who His rule oppose.
16. He comes, He comes, as King to reign!
All earthly powers may band
Against Him, yet they strive in vain,
His might may none withstand.
17. He comes to judge the earth, and ye
Who mocked Him, feel His wrath;
But they who loved and sought Him see
His light o’er all their path.
18. O Sun of Righteousness! arise,
And guide us on our way
To yon fair mansion in the skies
Of joyous cloudless day.
Source for notes on hymns.