What is a Hymn?

A hymn is an expression of worship—our glad and grateful acknowledgement of the "worth-ship" of Almighty God, our confession of our own creatureliness before our Creator, our bowing before his transcendence. Hymns are a celebration of who and what God is and of what he has done— songs of praise, thanksgiving, and joy in God. Christians sing hymns because our God is worthy to be praised.

It follows, then, that the words of a hymn are of the utmost importance. Good music must accompany them, but its highest office is to strengthen and enhance the message of the words. The best tunes are those that best help worshipers experience the text of the hymn; for it is the words, not the music, that decide the worth of a hymn.

What, then, constitutes a good hymn text? Watts and Wesley set the norm long ago, and their standards have never been surpassed. Today's hymns must be in our own language, idiom, and metaphor, but our main thrust will not be substantially different from theirs. I suggest that good hymns have six general characteristics.

  1. Good hymns are God-centered, not man-centered—-looking upwards, not inwards. They have loftiness of concept, and dignity and reverence of language. They adore the eternal Godhead for who and what he is, worshiping him for his holiness, wisdom, power, justice, goodness, mercy, and truth. They praise him for his mighty acts—for creation, preservation, redemption; for guidance, protection, provision; for the means of grace and the hope of glory. They offer petition suitable to their theme; they praise, worship, nourish, encourage, teach, exhort, inspire, and rejoice in Christian community. Good hymns are not subjective; they are free from introspection. When man enters the the picture, it is to acknowledge the darkness of his own sinful nature in the presence of such a God, to seek his mercy, and to grasp more closely his redeeming grace.

  2. Good hymns are doctrinal in content and theologically sound, rooted solidly in the Word of God. Christian leaders should be more aware of the doctrinal content of the hymns they choose than many of them are, for many hymns in common use today contain theological errors or untruths. All too often attractive or well-known tunes are allowed to take precedence over truly biblical texts, and our congregations absorb false doctrines unwittingly. For as Erik Routley has written, "A congregation's disposition towards right belief or away from it is subtly influenced by the habitual use of hymns… The singing congregation is uncritical; but it matters very much what it sings, for it comes to believe its hymns. Wrong doctrine in preaching would be noticed; in hymns, it may come to be believed" (Erik Routley, Hymns Today and Tomorrow, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964). The worshiping congregation with a good and wisely used hymnbook, however, is constantly instructed and blessed as the great doctrines of the faith are brought before it in review: so truth is kept vernal. The doctrine of good hymns is neither myopic nor overblown, but true to the Word of God and to the experience of the average believer. It is practical in nature, designed to help worshipers respond to God's truth and so to live better Christian lives.
  3. Good hymns have words of beauty, dignity, reverence, and simplicity. Whether their theme is one of lofty exultation or a simple expression of trust, good hymns are chaste, precise, and lovely in their utterance. Their language is clear and concise. They are never glib, never pat, never extravagant, never trite; they are always true. Emotionally warm and fervent, they are never sentimental. They speak beautifully, feelingly, compellingly, and with restraint of the things of God. They do not transgress the limits of good taste in concept, word, or setting. They cannot give offense.
  4. Good hymns are adult in word and tone. They do not insult intelligence by requiring us to sing immortal truths in childish or unsuitable modes of expression, or to sloppy, sentimental tunes. While remaining true to the Gospel, they contain nothing to embarrass or bewilder outsiders, but rather will speak to them of a deep, sincere, vital experience of God. Their figures of speech will be in keeping with the worth-ship of God and will have meaning for the contemporary Christian.
  5. Good hymns display precision and finesse of poetic technique and expression. They will have a single theme and organic unity. They move from a bold and arresting attack in the opening line, through a definite progression of thought, to a clear and decisive climax. No extraneous throught may intrude for the sake of a rhyme or rhythmic pattern. Rhymes and rhythms are interesting, original, and correct. The declamation (union of words with music) is accurate. Meters may be varied but will be conservative enough that good tunes, capable of being well sung by average congregations, may be written for them. Good hymns should be short enough to be sung in their entirety, in order that the full impact of their sequence may be experienced. They should be free of irrelevant refrains which detract from the main thought.
  6. Good hymns turn the heart heavenward. They rejoice in the unity of believers and the communion of saints. The best hymnists have recognized more clearly than most of us that the people of God are one. They take their place with the warring, suffering, and triumphing church universal, identifying with the saints of long ago as readily as with those of today. The hymns of such writers sing often, and with deep delight and longing, of the soul's true home.

What constitutes a good hymn? Good hymns are not the result of desire or ambition, but are an outgrowth of spiritual life. They are not based on feeling but on eternal verities, not centered on man but on God.

Writing a hymn is more than using certain techniques correctly. It is a matter of looking on the face of God, of worshiping in his presence, of embracing his will, of accepting his cross and living under its daily obedience; then, having learned the disciplines of good writing, of singing his grace. True hymnwriters have not sought primarily to write hymns, but to know God: knowing him, they could not help but sing. Theirs are the hymns that have lived through the ages and will live far into the future. It is this kind of hymnwriting we need today if our generation is to contribute anything of real worth to the church's treasury of worship and praise.

In the third issue of Reformed Worship we featured Clarkson's hymn "For Your Gift of God the Spirit," along with an alternative accompaniment and descant to the tune BLAENWERN. Below we have printed another of her hyms, one that is finding its way into many contemporary hymnals. "This hymn served as both the opening song and the title for the recording of new hymns sung by the Dordt College Concert Choir, produced by CRC Publications.


1 We come, O Christ, to you,
true Son of God and man,
by whom all things consist,
in whom all life began.
In you alone we live and move
and have our being in your love.

2 You are the way to God,
your blood our ransom paid;
in you we face our Judge
and Maker unafraid.
Before the throne absolved we stand;
your love has met your law's demand.

3 You are the living truth;
all wisdom dwells in you,
the source of every skill,
the one eternal True!
O great I AM! In you we rest,
sure answer to our every quest.

4 You only are true life—
to know you is to live
the more abundant life
that earth can never give.
O risen Lord! we live in you:
in us each day your life renew!

5 We worship you, Lord Christ,
our Savior and our King;
to you our youth and strength
adoringly we bring:
so fill ur hearts that all may view
your life in us and turn to you!

Margaret Clarkson is a well-known and widely published hymn writer who lives in Toronto, Ontario. This article is an excerpt from A Singing Heart, The Collected Hymns of Margaret Clarkson, copyright 1987, Hope Publishing Co. Used by permission.


Reformed Worship 4 © June 1987 Worship Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church. Used by permission.