Songs for Crisis

Here are the ten most popular songs among Christians during COVID-19:

It should come as no surprise that the classic hymn, written during a time of personal crisis, continues to encourage Christians to find comfort in Christ. Despite its enduring status, it grew even more popular, with a 68% jump in usage from February to the months of the coronavirus.

Another classic hymn became even more special to churches in recent months. Use of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” grew 64%.

The 2015 worship song grew in usage by 23% during the pandemic.

Released in 2019, “Raise a Hallelujah” brought comfort to churches and grew by 15%.

Another 2019 song that grew in 2020, “See a Victory” jumped 30%.

Many churches have been turning to old truths contained in timeless hymns like this one, which grew in usage by 49%.

Matt Redmon’s 2006 worship song saw a 102% jump in popularity during the pandemic.

The 2018 song from Vertical Worship grew in popularity by 21%.

Hillsong’s 2012 song builds on the classic hymn already on the list, “Solid Rock,” and grew 11% in popularity.

The modern hymn released by Keith and Kristyn Getty in 2016 saw a 46% jump in usage in recent months.

Here’s one that pairs well with both pandemic and protest, a metrical version of Psalm 17:

1Lord, hear my plea, attend my cry; unto my prayer give heed.
My righteous plea does not from false, deceitful lips proceed.

2Let vindication of my cause proceed, O Lord, from You;
Your eyes see what is right, so give my vindication due.

3Though You may probe my heart at night, or test me deep within;
You will find nothing, for I vowed my mouth would never sin.

4As for men’s deeds, I’ve kept myself from all their violent ways;
It’s by the word of Your own lips I’ve stayed within Your ways.

5My steps have held fast to Your path; I’ve walked within Your way;
And my feet have not slipped, for on Your path I vowed to stay.

6I call on You, and trust, O God, that You will answer me;
Give ear to me and hear my prayer, incline Your ear to me.

7Show me Your wondrous steadfast love: You save by Your right hand
all those who take refuge in You from foes that ’gainst them stand.

8Keep me as safe as You would keep the apple of Your eye;
And in the shadow of Your wings, allow me safe to hide,

9From wicked ones who trouble me, who do my soul surround,
From all my mortal enemies who compass me around.

10They close their callous hearts, and speak with arrogance profound;
11They track me down with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.

12They’re like a lion prowling ‘round, and hungry for his prey—
A lion who lies crouching under cover all the day.

13Rise up and come confront my foes, and bring them down, O Lord,
Come rescue me from wicked ones by power of Your sword.

14Stretch out Your hand to save me from such worldly ones, O Lord,
Who only in this present life do gather their reward.

You still the hunger of the ones You cherish, and provide
so they’ll not want; their children with great wealth will be supplied.

15But as for me, in righteousness, Your face I know I’ll see;
When I awake, Your likeness will be fullest joy to me.

Imagine that, a feisty song from the Bible, of all places.

If Not Imprecatory Psalms, What About the Lord’s Prayer?

Even Psalms that don’t register on the list of imprecatory ones can be a challenge to use if only because of their depiction of the death of God’s enemies. Some advise against their use and this was one of the reasons for not producing, as the OPC and URC did, a complete Psalter:

The psalmist was praying against those who persecuted him. The theocracy, God’s reign in Israel from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, was a shadow of future events (Heb. 10:1). One of those events is the final judgment of God. The destruction of the Canaanites in the days of Joshua was a shadow of the final judgment and not, therefore, normative for how we are to deal with our neighbors who do not believe in Jesus. The imprecations against the wicked in the book of Psalms were also shadows of the final judgment—appropriate for the era of the theocracy, but not for this present age. The gospel era is one of kindness, tolerance, and patience—intended to bring people to repentance and faith (Rom. 2:4). This is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2). And this is why Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to pray for them, not against them. This is why Paul taught us to pray that God would bless our enemies (Rom. 12:14; 1 Cor. 4:12). Like the psalmist we leave vengeance to God, but unlike the psalmist we pray that God would bless those who bring pain into our lives. (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Psalms and Proverbs, pp. 348–49)

Others, though, notice that Christians still pray for God’s judgment upon his enemies even in the New Testament:

We need to be very conscious of trying—that part of what we’re called to be as the light of the world is people who love our enemies. Paul talks about how loving your enemies will further increase their punishment. So setting love of enemy radically over against judgment is not biblical.

I think it is not illegitimate to use the imprecations of the psalter to pray for judgment on God’s enemies. Every time we pray, “Come quickly Lord Jesus,” we’re praying an imprecation on God’s enemies. When Jesus comes again, there will be judgment for God’s enemies.

In other words, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he included the petition, “Thy kingdom come,” which as the Larger Catechism explains involves praying for the “hastening” of the kingdom of glory:

that Christ would rule in our hearts here, and hasten the time of his second coming, and our reigning with him forever

Not to be missed is the nature of the office that Christ executes as king:

Christ executeth the office of a king, in calling out of the world a people to himself, … restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God, and obey not the gospel.

In which case, the anti-imprecatory Psalm position implies editing the Lord’s Prayer.

That does not mean that prayers for judgment day are easy to pray. The image of that great separation of the saved and the lost is haunting. At the same time, the thought of the end of the world is never absent from Christian devotion and worship.

On the upside, at least Protestants debate something that Roman Catholics don’t anymore thanks to an effort to manage less than good acts and desires with procedural standards and practices.

If You Don’t Like Cats, You Have a Problem with the Lord

Keep in mind:

He set the earth on its foundations,
so that it should never be moved.
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight.
The mountains rose, the valleys sank down
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.

The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
In them the birds build their nests;
the stork has her home in the fir trees.
The high mountains are for the wild goats;
the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.

He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night,
when all the beasts of the forest creep about.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:5-24 ESV)

This is not a cats versus dogs thing. Like Chortles says of himself, God loves all his critters, every square inch (and all) of fur.

How Far Is the Sidestream from the Main One?

Travels to Hungary earlier this week and a pleasant conversation with a young woman training to be a pastor in the Hungarian Reformed Church got me thinking about women, gender, and how important male clergy is to “the gospel.” This woman could not quite wrap her mind around the idea that a church still places restrictions on ordination. The argument that Paul taught that elders and pastors should be male, since they should be married to only one wife (and Paul wasn’t thinking of Ellen DeGeneres), didn’t seem to be sufficient.

So I started to think, thoughts that took me back to CRC days, what is such a big deal about ordaining women? It is an error and violates God’s word, which is synonymous with sin (“any want of conformity unto or transgression of”). But Covenanters can fellowship with hymn singers which for some exclusive psalm folks is a violation of God’s word. Which means we all look the other way at least ecumenically when it comes to interpreting God’s word.

The experience of conservative Reformed boomers, however, was that the hermeneutic that allowed the ordination of women was one that would lead to cutting and pasting the rest of God’s word and church order. As a boomer this argument — the slippery slope one that almost sent me to Vietnam — makes some sense. But what if a communion decided simply to draw the line at women’s ordination? We will go this far, the women’s ordinationists might say, but no farther. Isn’t that what some communions have done with hymns? We will sing them but not P&W Praise Songs? In which case, what is the threshold that women’s ordination crosses by itself? Or is it simply a case of knowing what history teaches — when women ascend the pulpit doctrine slips.

Along with this set of thoughts went the one about women and head coverings. Should a communion like the OPC be consistent and encourage (maybe discipline) women to cover their heads in worship, with some preference given to those with long hair? Is this another one of those hermeneutical instances where we look the other way? At the same time, doesn’t the reality of women not wearing scarves in OPC churches, along with our hip and up-to-date revision of the Confession of Faith on the civil magistrate — doesn’t this make the OPC mainstream?

Oh yeah. What Christian women today would wear a head scarf? That’s Islam.

When Praise Songs Defeated Psalms

1789 in Philadelphia (all about me, I was there this week):

For many years, only Psalms were sung throughout the Presbyterian Churches and the old “Rouse” versions were the standard. The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States convened at the Second Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia in 1789. One of the Presbyterian ministers of the time, a man by the name of Rev. Adam Rankin, rode horseback from his Kentucky parish to Philadelphia to plead with his fellow Presbyterians to reject the use of Watts ‘ hymns. He cautioned the Assembly Commissioners “to refuse to allow the great and pernicious error of adoption of the use of Watt’s hymns in public worship in preference to Rouse’s versifications of the Psalms of David.”

Rankin’s protests have fallen to the wayside, and Watts ‘ famous tunes live on.

(By the way, the image here includes the house — far right — where Charles Hodge lived as a boy.)

Where to Put What We Sing

Hymnals are something that Presbyterians take for granted. Rare is the lay person who picks up the book to examine it like any other, looking say at the table of contents, then at some of the indexes, and then at one or two hymns to see which tune the compilers used for a certain text. Instead, most church members look at the bulletin at the specific time for singing in the service, find the number in the hymnal, stand, and sing the chosen hymn.

Perhaps just as rare is a church member who reflects on a hymn in relation to what goes before and after it in the service. Does it follow a prayer, a Bible reading, the sermon? Did the pastor choose the hymn for a specific reason? Was it to reinforce the theme of the biblical passage, to resonate with the sermon topic, or as is often the case for hymns before the sermon, just a way to let people stand and stretch?

And most important, did the pastor choose the hymn to function as a prayer in response to what just transpired in divine worship?

This is the most important question if the dialogical principle guides the way that we order a service. If God speaks and we respond, then the way God speaks is through word (read and preached) and sacraments, and we respond by prayer (and offering). This means that congregational singing needs to fit the category of prayer, which is exactly what Calvin considered worship songs to be, and which is also why he only sang psalms. The psalter is the Bible’s prayer book.

So what then should we do with hymns like “How Firm a Foundation”? Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful hymn and testifies to God’s faithfulness. And as the years pass it is very hard not to be moved by the line, “And when hoary hairs shall their temple to adorn, Like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.” It is a great hymn but it is not much of a prayer since almost all of the stanzas are in quotation marks, indicating that God is speaking to those who are supposed to be lifting up their voices to him. In which case, if we are responding to God in song, and if our response is actually words that God speaks to his people, then we are singing in a manner so that God is speaking to himself.

This dilemma may explain why Presbyterians are prone to regard hymns not according to their type of prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition – but according to the doctrine they teach. The Trinity Hymnal of the OPC puts “How Firm a Foundation” in the section dealing with “The Glory of God: His Faithfulness.” The old PCUS hymnal from 1955 put this hymn in the section, “Life in Christ, Faith and Assurance.” Neither are bad calls. But both hymnals are arranged, as reflected in their table of contents, according to doctrinal categories rather than forms of prayer for different parts of the service as part of the congregation’s response to God. In fact, the Trinity Hymnal goes so far in the direction of doctrine that it arranges the hymnal according to the chapters of the Westminster Confession.

This decision to arrange hymns according to doctrine makes sense if you buy the adage that more people learn their theology from hymns than from systematic theology. I for one do not buy this adage because of the way that most people use hymnals (mentioned above) they sing on command with little attention to the point of the song. I am also suspicious of the assumption contained in the adage because I am not convinced that the theology contained in hymns is all that clear. Granted, the answer from the catechism about saving faith may not rhyme, but it is clear.

But this begs the question of what songs are supposed to do in worship. If they are a form of prayer, then why do we have so many songs that are mini-sermons?

The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns IV

(Reprinted from NTJ, April 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To:T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/4/96 10:46am
Subject: Re: Psalmody -Reply -Reply -Reply

Wow, such a sensitive guy to issue such a long and personal response. I must have struck a nerve or you must be convicted by the power of the word. (Or could it be that I am just brilliant?)

Please be advised, however, that I did not say that you were guilty of not taking the other side seriously. I actually complimented you as one of the few hymn-singers who could make an intelligent argument and also respect the motives of the other side, while also recognizing the position psalmody has had in the tradition. But chances are you didn’t read my exemption of you because of the medium. Unless something is on the page we don’t read it as carefully. The tv screen and the never-never land of the Net must explain your taking offense. I am sorry if I gave any. But don’t be so sensitive. Continue reading “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns IV”

The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III

(From NTJ Jan 1997 and April 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To: T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/3/96 3:21pm
Subject: Psalmody -Reply -Reply


Are you a ninny or what? How can you say that Reformed worship is not centered on the Word and then in the next sentence write, “God speaks to us and we speak to him.” That sounds to me like words are pretty central, and that it is God’s word at the center, both in calling us to his presence, and in guiding what words we say to him. Just a nitpick.

The example of preaching does not entirely settle the issue of non-inspired words in worship. If the Second Helvetic confession is right and the sermon, even from an unregenerate man, is the word of God, then there is something going on in preaching that is different from the words that non-ordained people speak. It certainly is not inspired in the sense of canonical revelation. But it is more on that order than the poem some proto-Unitarian wrote in the 18th century. Preaching and praying, then, are of a different order than poetry. Granted they are all words. But preaching and praying done by one of God’s appointed undershepherds causes something different to happen. God has promised to bless them in a way that he has also promised to bless his inspired word. But I don’t see any promise attached to the hymns the church may produce. Continue reading “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns III”

The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns II

(From the NTJ, Jan. 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To: T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/3/96 11:10am
Subject: Psalmody -Reply

Thanks for the response. This is surely better, but I am still uneasy about the compositions of men. Which means I think the inspired words of God are a pretty good way of singing praise to him. Is there any better?

Now of course, versifications are not inspired, which might be an argument for chanting psalms or any other hymn that is part of the canon, like the Magnificat, Nunc Dimitis, i.e. those NT hymns Calvin included in worship. But neither are translations of the Bible inspired and we don’t seem to object to their use in public worship. We wouldn’t read Chuck Colson’s thoughts about Eph. 1 instead of reading the Word. We probably wouldn’t read Colson at all. And in my book, his writings are no better or worse than Isaac Watts’.

In sum, I find it a very different thing to sing the composition of an author who has sat down and composed five verses based on a passage of Scripture or a particular doctrine, than to sing words that closely parallel the words of Scripture and use them as forms of prayer and praise. And this, I believe fits with Terry Johnson’s argument in his new book. If the Reformed tradition has made the Word central to worship, why not make it central to our singing as well?

So I guess I am not an exclusive psalmodist and, therefore, able to take the Lord’s Supper at your church (since I am not advancing sin). But I think exclusive psalmodists’ instincts to be on the whole admirable.

And what do you do with our standards? Don’t they need to be revised and don’t we need to say that the early Reformers were wrong and show why?

Unpersuadedly yours,


From: T. Glen Livet
To: Glenn Morangie
Date: 9/3/96 1:36pm
Subject: Psalmody -Reply

Our Reformed worship is not in fact centered on the Word. Reformed worship is dialogical; God speaks to us and we speak to him. In Word and Sacrament, God speaks to us; in prayer and praise, we speak to him. Thus, the rules governing the singing of praise are essentially the same as those governing prayer; the words should be faithful to the scriptures, according with biblical truth (including emphasizing what scripture emphasizes), but they need not be restricted to inspired words. For instance, how could we ever pray for Mrs. Jones, dying of cancer, using the language of scripture?

Indeed, as regards the sermon, the matter becomes even more pointed, doesn’t it? In preaching, God speaks to his people. Yet, we do not limit the sermon to a reading of canonical scripture, but we entrust this grave responsibility to men who are orthodox and of good judgment. If we entrust uninspired men to speak God’s Word to us, we can as easily trust uninspired men to speak our words to God.

I agree with you that the instincts of the exclusive psalmist position are largely admirable, especially in light of the poor quality of much hymnody. On the other hand, an instinct that denigrates praise being offered explicitly to the Second Person of the Trinity is not entirely noble.


The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns

Before blogs existed, email did.

(From the NTJ, Jan. 1997)

From: Glenn Morangie
To: T. Glen Livet
Date: 9/3/96 9:28am
Subject: Hymns

The word here in Green Bay is that I am not impressed by arguments against exclusive psalmody. Mr. Mears gave one in Sunday School this week.

Here are my reasons: 1) that we may sing hymns is not very Reformed even though it may work for Lutherans; 2) if we believe that Col. 3 commands the singing of hymns, why hasn’t our denomination commissioned capable people to write hymns reflecting NT revelation? 3) why also do we sing prayers written by men, namely Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts in the “golden age” of hymnody, who couldn’t pass licensure or ordination exams (and so wouldn’t be allowed to lead prayer in public worship)? 4) is any hymn as good as a good metrical psalm? 5) why does our denomination rely so heavily on John Murray on Gen. 2:7 but when it comes to Eph. 5 or Col. 3 finds him to be quite human? and 6) don’t we need to revise our standards since the divines were exclusive psalmodists (and isn’t our fudging here the tip of the iceberg when it comes to other worship novelties)? Continue reading “The Great Debate: Psalms vs. Hymns”