A few weeks ago I finished God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs. O’Donnell “draws out the historical, exegetical, and theological significance of the songs of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, David, and Habakkuk. He then shows, in the light of the person and work of Jesus Christ, how the lyrics of God’s Word apply to contemporary congregational singing.” (from the back cover)
In other words, he’s seeking to answer the question, “What can Old Testament songs teach us about the songs we use for corporate worship today?” His answer? A lot.
O’Donnell chose this method for two reasons. First, these songs provide “unique poetic summaries of and reflections upon, many of the key points of Old Testament salvation history.” Second, these songs are valuable “because they underscore important, yet often neglected, theological truths.”
In the past, I’ve studied the Psalms for indicators on themes and proportion in our songs, but haven’t invested much time in looking at other songs in the Old Testament. Reading this book helped me see what I was missing.
O’Donnell devotes the first half of the book to unpacking six songs from the Old Testament. He comments on their similarities, differences, and progression, including the way they point to Christ.
In chapter 6 he specifies four themes found in each of the six songs:
1. The Lord is at the center (God is addressed, adored, and “enlarged”)
2. God’s mighty acts in salvation are recounted
3. God’s acts of judgment are rejoiced in
4. God’s ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged
He spends the rest of the book illustrating those themes from each song and showing how often today’s popular Christian choruses and hymns include the same themes. He uses the top 50 CCLI songs from 2000-2008 and the top 25 contemporary hymns for his research. While not exhaustive, those songs are probably a good indicator of what many churches have been singing in the past decade. The results are not encouraging.
We tend to sing worship songs that focus on the greatness of God and the intensity of our devotion. But few of our songs speak of God judging the wicked and humbling the proud. The repeated emphasis in these Scriptural songs of praise is unmistakeable (Ex. 15:3-4; Deut. 32:43; Judg. 5:31; 1Sam. 2:3-4; Hab. 3:6).
Specifically, O’Donnell argues for more descriptions of the Lord and his greatness (more emphasis on his attributes less on how they affect me), clearer references to and unpacking of God’s salvation in Christ (60% of the top 50 songs say nothing about Jesus’ birth, life, passion, death, burial, or resurrection), more references to God judging the wicked (could this be one way the Spirit convicts unbelievers in our midst of sin, righteousness, and judgment?), and more songs that call us to live righteously.
It’s unfortunate that O’Donnell limited his research to the top 50 CCLI songs, as he didn’t spend much time on many recent song and hymns that are seeking to address these areas of weakness (Stuart Townend, Keith & Kristyn Getty, David Ward, Indelible Grace, and dare I mention Sovereign Grace Music?) While one could disagree with some of his song assessments and the broad brush he uses to critique contemporary music, most of us have a long way to go before our songs reflect some of the Scriptural emphases O’Donnell highlights. A few quotes:
We have a hard time worshipping God as a wrathful warrior who wars against the wicked because we have a hard time viewing ourselves as the man—the one who stands sinful before him, deserving to die. (59)
The problem is not the use of the first person pronoun, as many music critics claim. Rather, it is self-love lyrics! There is a subtle but significant difference between “the Lord exults in my heart” and “My heart exults in the Lord.” (73)
We tend to have an ahistorical understanding of our faith. That is, our faith is based not so much upon God’s work in the past as it is upon God’s work in the present. (93)
Occasionally the author gets a little snarky:
“The way these top choruses radically neuter any and all scriptural negatives—wrath, judgment, etc.—is sickening.” (p. 153)
“God, God, God, It’s all about us—, Me, me, and you; You, you, and me; Oh, me, me, me.” (p. 175)
“There are a lot of silly churches which have a lot of silly pastors who allow a lot of silly worship leaders to selects a lot of silly songs from a lot of silly songwriters.” (p. 173)
“It is time we remove the Twinkies and Ding Dongs, and replace them with the milk and meat of the Word.” (p. 176)
But I don’t believe those occasional outbursts take away from the message O’Donnell is bringing to the contemporary church. It’s a message we need to hear.
Bottom line, do the songs we sing reflect God’s priorities or ours?
In the near future I hope to post songs that fit into the categories mentioned above. In the mean time, you can pick up God’s Lyrics from Amazon.