Evaluating Worship Song Lyrics

This question came from Jeff:

One of the members of my worship team is struggling with the line from one of your songs, Glory Be to God. The line is “Being’s source begins to be.” She feels that it communicates that God is not eternal, that there was a time when the second Person of the Trinity did not exist and then began to be. I have tried teach her that language always has to be interpreted in context and that the line is basically highlighting the mystery of the incarnation – that Jesus was both infinite God and somehow a finite man
(or baby)…Is it acceptable to change the line of the song when we sing it to “Being’s source becomes a babe”? I would rather not, but I am not sure how much I should try to accommodate her.

The first thing I want to say is how grateful to God I am when people ask me about the words to the songs we sing. That means they’re actually thinking about them! The verse in question is this:

Emptied of his majesty
He comes in human form
Being’s source begins to be
And God is born

We need to understand how lyrics work in songs for worship. There is a poetic aspect to them that helps us see truth from a new perspective – not new truth, but a new way of looking at it that helps us see another facet of the truth. That’s one of the differences between poetry and prose. The form itself causes us to hear things in a fresh way.

Jesus has not eternally been man. He became man when he was conceived in Mary’s womb by the Holy Spirit. In that sense he came to “be.” But he is also the one through whom everything was created (Col. 1:16). So in that sense he is “being’s source.” The line simply puts those two thoughts together in a way that should make us marvel, not confused. It would take away from the effect to change the lyric to what you suggested (although I appreciate your desire to try something else). In general, though, I don’t recommend changing lines from songs that are currently under copyright, for two reasons. First, it honors the writer’s intent. Second, there are so many other songs we can choose from!

When considering the theological accuracy of a lyric, I take into account what the rest of the song is saying and whether or not a certain understanding is likely or simply within the realm of possibility. If it’s the latter, and the rest of the song makes the meaning clear, I generally don’t worry about it. (My really smart and gracious friend, Jeff Purswell, has taught me that.) I think that’s the case here. You could also find problem with the line “and God is born.” God is from everlasting to everlasting. But Jesus is God, so in one sense God was “born” in Bethlehem. I might add that there are many lines of hymns sung today that could be scrutinized for error and fail the theological test. (the line “God and sinners reconciled” from “Hark the Herald.” Does that mean that all sinners are reconciled, or just some? Is it preaching universal salvation? I don’t think so.)

An example that I think fails the test is the song “Above All.” The last lines of the chorus say:

Like a rose trampled on the ground
You took the fall and thought of me
Above all.

Paul Baloche, who wrote this song with Lenny LeBlanc, has received a great deal of criticism for that line. Paul is a very humble guy and a good friend. When I asked him about it a few years ago he said he simply wanted to communicate the wonderful truth that Jesus had me in mind when he died for me. I wasn’t simply a nameless face. It confirms what Paul said in Galatians 2:20:

And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

However, the phrase “above all” communicates that Jesus thought about me more than his Father’s glory. That’s simply not true. Because I think that’s the most natural understanding, I don’t use the song. But I do understand how people can sing the song and not take it in the “me-centered” way it sounds.Finally, in talking these things through with someone who’s struggling with a particular lyric, I’d encourage them to consider that not everyone understands it the way they do, that few probably will, and that our faith is filled with seeming paradoxes that should lead us to worship God, not struggle. In our efforts to sing what is biblical we want to avoid having an arrogant attitude that’s not.

Hope that’s helpful. Thanks for caring about what the church sings.

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13 Responses to Evaluating Worship Song Lyrics

  1. barb December 5, 2006 at 6:22 PM #

    Thanks for the posted response to the lyrics of your song. As I scrolled down I came upon the very song that I have had trouble with since it was introduced. I appreciate your reminder to have the attitude of humility and even though I do understand the line to have a “me centered” sound I will be able to sing it now having heard the writer’s explanation.

  2. Becky F. December 6, 2006 at 3:58 PM #

    I have a problem with the song “‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus”. My problem is with the chorus, namely this line: “How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er.” What was the writer trying to say? Christians do not always “prove” Jesus with their words and actions. When I sing that song I sing “How He’s proved it o’er and o’er” because Jesus is the only one who never fails. What can you tell me about this line?

  3. Bob Kauflin December 6, 2006 at 4:10 PM #

    Becky,

    Thanks for stopping by. The hymn writer is speaking in the sense of testing something that you know is going to hold you. Like testing a parachute. You’re not expecting it to fail. We rejoice that we can “test” God’s faithfulness over and over, because he will never break his promises.
    Is that helpful?

  4. Nick Fitzkee December 7, 2006 at 8:42 AM #

    Thanks for being willing to reconsider (and defend) your own lyrics. Just out of curiosity, I’m wondering how you might frame your response with respect to the immutability of God. I recall being stumped (and awed) by Grudem’s statement in Systematic Theology that, in some respect, Jesus retains his human aspects even to this day, though his physical body is no longer with us. A corollary to that would be, in eternity past, Jesus also exhibited those attributes. Do you think this is accurate?

    This type of thinking still blows my mind, and it may be one of those areas where we may never fully grasp what exactly is going on. I’m still interested to know what you think, though.

    Nick

  5. Becky F. December 7, 2006 at 3:41 PM #

    Yes, that is helpful. Thank you. However, I still think that I am not the one proving that the parachute works, but it has proven itself. So, I don’t prove that Jesus is trustworthy, He proves it.

  6. Bob Kauflin December 7, 2006 at 4:31 PM #

    Becky,

    I think you’re being tripped up by the definition of the word “prove.” You’re using it to mean “showing to others that something works.” I don’t think that’s the meaning of “prove” here. In this particular song it means, “To determine the quality of by testing; to try out.” Jesus doesn’t test (prove) Himself – we do. But we’re not testing Him to see if he’ll be faithful or not – we know he will be. So we can “prove” him over and over.

    Hope that’s helpful. Thanks for seeking to sing with your mind (1 Cor. 14:15).

  7. Paul Huxley December 8, 2006 at 1:40 PM #

    Good post. Many of the best ‘worship’ songs, from my experience, contrast what Edwards called ‘divers excellencies of Christ’ or God. Things like “being’s source begins to be” – am looking forward to getting the new CD for Christmas!

    Onto a question:

    ‘Ev’ry eye shall now behold him
    Robed in glorious majesty;
    Those who set at nought and sold him,
    Pierced and nailed him to the tree,
    Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
    Shall their true Messiah see.’

    A related verse from a hymn we sang last Sunday. I was a little hesitant singing exactly that, though I agree with it all, it seems a little twisted in the way it seems to gloat over those who crucified Jesus (historically speaking, the Jews and the Romans).

    Any thoughts on that?

  8. matthewsmith December 14, 2006 at 1:26 PM #

    Paul,

    That is a good observation about that verse in “Lo He Comes.” I’ve recorded my version of that song (with slightly different lyrics), and had not thought of that verse in a Jews-and-Romans way, but now that you mention it, your interpretation seems fairly obvious and could well have been the intended meaning.

    I always took those lyrics to mean “all those facing judgement,” since all of us are culpable for the crucifixion, not just those present on that day. I don’t see it as gloating though, but a sobering part of longing for the Christ’s return. We may cry “Come, Lord Jesus!” but part of that is also crying “Come, Lord Jesus to judge!” Not a comforting thought necessarily, but I think the key to worship here is twofold:

    1) Here is a chance to say to God “Your ways are higher than my ways– I don’t understand judgement and hell, but You do. You are greater than I am.”

    2) Here is a chance to say “I deserve that judgement, yet You will be gracious to save me on that day because of Christ’s work on my behalf.”

    Another thought: I wonder how much the musical context here colors our interpretation of the lyric. My music for this hymn is meant to be sobering and to underline that mystery and the tension in the lyric. I’m not too familiar with other music for this text, but if it is more celebratory or upbeat sounding, it might make that lyric sound like gloating.

  9. Clay December 16, 2006 at 6:09 AM #

    I too have struggled with “Above All” because of the last line. I have, however, changed the “problem” phrase to this:
    Like a rose trampled on the ground
    You took the fall
    We’ll praise your name
    Above all.

    I think this highlights the believers response to Christ’s atonement – praise and adoration.

    My church had sung this song before I became worship pastor. It sings well and has many other wonderful qualities.

  10. Matt March 25, 2008 at 9:03 PM #

    thanks for the post. Interesting discussion. I have to agree that changing the lyrics isn’t the direction to go. We do need to consider the words that we use to lead people into worship very carefully, but I think it’s better to dodge using a particular song rather than change a line. Changing a line or even a word can become a distraction to those in the congregation who are familiar to the song. Just avoid the song if it’s bothering you. As Bob mentioned in the discussion above … there’s lots of songs to choose from!

  11. Ken S. April 15, 2008 at 11:01 PM #

    Bob,

    The very first time I heard “Above All” my spirit was disturbed. The last line “You took the fall and thought of me Above all” made me want to…(I can’t find the words to describe how saddened and disappointed I was). I thought immediately Christ’s death was for God’s glory above all. I think man has exulted himself and more than ever believes that God needs man. God doesn’t need man; He created man for His own glory. And man doesn’t add to God’s glory. Oh how I am grateful that God, in displaying His glory, paid the price for my sin with His own blood. Because of His grace and kindness, I now know my Savior and have hope.

    SG Ministries has blessed me for many years. I utilize many of SG’s resources including the music CDs. SG’s music emphasizes the cross which is what my soul needs on a daily basis. If SG’s music was recorded on LPs, I would have worn out many of record player needles. But, with caution therefore, I have a question about one of SG’s songs. The song “For Me” has a line in it “Every thorn in your crown, ev’ry tear on your back, ev’ry drop of your blood was for me, oh, it was all for me, for me, oh, it was all for me”. Again, when I heard this song my spirit was disturbed. The words, “it was all for me” I feel fall into the same category as “…and thought of me above all”. I sing out loud with all the songs on “Everlasting”, but when it comes to “For Me” I am too distracted to sing “…it was all for me”.

    Will you help me better understand this line in “For Me”? I find your wisdom to be helpful. (I hope this doesn’t offend Mark A. because his service to the Church is appreciated more than he will ever know.)

    Thank you,

    Ken

  12. James Sergent August 23, 2009 at 11:37 PM #

    Appears as if I have run across a pretty old post. Perhaps this will not generate much, if any, response.

    Evaluating lyrics to the truth of the Gospel is a high responsibility and priority of any worship leader. I was very surprised to read the criticism of the song Above All. I have never found that phrase to be “me-centered” in any way.

    The phrase “Above All” not only needs evaluated against scripture, but it also needs evaluated against the context of the song. Also, another consideration is the punctuation used when the song was written. The song does not say he thought of me above all. It says “You took the fall above all. The part of the song that says “and thought of me” is seperated from this phrase by commas. There is a clear distinction being made.

    The verses of this song are a journey of all the other things Christ could have chosen. Instead, He chose the cross. Above all the power and wealth of this world, He chose to die. He took the fall of our sin above any other option. Because of our sin, all of God’s wrath was poured out on Christ on the cross. He chose that above all else.

    A perfect example of this is in John 17. As Jesus is praying to the Father, He prays for all people that they may believe the message of the Gospel. In Luke 22, Jesus is again praying to the Father, “if you are willing, take this cup from me.” It seems Christ was searching for another option, but there was none.

    Jesus chose above all else to follow the will of the Father to the cross. And while doing so, we can see very cleary in scripture that he did think of us as He prayed to the Father in the time leading up to the Crucifixion.

  13. Edson Siwella July 14, 2016 at 8:55 PM #

    Yea the “Above all ” song yea. . .. a few years ago got me a-thinking – worried. A friend of mine (Henry) pointed that the lyrics leave Christ in the grave – no resurrection.

    Just now it occurred to me there is no mention of sin. The song ends on “me” – If “me” is that important. . as the songs seems to indicate, why not be specific and mention the why me ? Sin. nothing about my sin. (One recalls the words “My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought! My sin, not in part but the whole is nailed to the Cross. . .” – Horatio G. Spafford, 1873. Great song that “It is well with my soul.”)

    Then the conclusive focus on “me.” How does the listener get that far? Simply by being carried on a lullaby like soft soporific waves of sound and rhythm!

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