At least nine times, Scripture directly refers to a “new song,” via both psalmist (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1) and prophet (Isa 42:10; Rev 5:9; 14:3). In some instances, the reference takes the form of an injunction: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Ps 98:1). However much some may wish it were the case, such imperatives are not warrant to uncritically incorporate the pagan culture’s latest musical fad into the church’s repertoire in the name of relevance. The “newness” of Scripture’s new song has nothing to do with musical style, but everything to do with new responses of praise for God’s ongoing goodness toward us.
David’s Psalm 40 is an outstanding example. Many have used the imagery of his being drawn out of a miry pit and having his feet set upon a rock (v. 2) to describe a conversion experience. Au contraire, David makes it clear at the outset of the psalm that he “waited patiently for the Lord,” indicating his status as a regenerate man. In some unspecified trial of life, the Lord “inclined his ear” and rescued David from his trying circumstances. Resulting from this was David’s “new song” — a musical expression of praise whereby he glorified the God who had rescued him.
I am nothing if not enthusiastic about believers embracing and singing fitting expressions of praise that have stood the test of time in the church. All the same, we ought to be about composing “new songs” — new, biblically grounded expressions of praise to God placed in suitable musical settings which support the weight of the text without musically contradicting it. I will provide some examples of such contemporary hymnody in future posts, but here let me make a plea for a resurgence of hymnwriting in conservative churches, and particularly among ministers of the gospel.
Why is such a revival of hymnwriting a daunting proposition? (1) Our busy schedules tend to crowd out such a time-consuming activity, and it is much easier to continue to exclusively utilize the songs in our hymnals. I face the same pressures, so as a point of accountability, two friends and I have agreed to work together to provide new hymnody for our church. Our plan is that in any given month, one of us will be writing a hymn, one of us will have a hymn finished and under scrutiny by the other two, and one of us will have a hymn being introduced to our congregation. (2) Going about writing a hymn from scratch can be a challenge for one who has never done it. In future posts, I will set forth what wiser voices than my own have given in the way of practical advice. (3) All of us no doubt simply feel inadequate to write a good hymn; we feel our efforts will be sadly lacking. It is true that relatively few hymns stand the test of time, and that some are particularly gifted for the work of writing hymns while others are not. However, to quote Luther, “I . . . in order to make a start and to give an incentive to those who can do better, have with the help of others compiled several hymns, so that the holy gospel which now by the grace of God has risen anew may be noised and spread abroad.”1
I close with John Calvin’s comments on Psalm 40:3: “It is true, that there is no benefit of God so small that it ought not to call forth our highest praises; but the more mightily he stretches forth his hand to help us, the more does it become us to stir up ourselves to fervent zeal in this holy exercise, so that our songs may correspond to the greatness of the favour which has been conferred upon us.”2