A Reply To “The Songs That We Sing”

By Daniel H. King

In the course of our reaction against false doctrine it has often been a temptation to some of us to “go off the deep end” into radicalism. The danger of over-reaction is just as real and just as threatening as that of liberalism at the opposite pole. To avoid either one is not an easy thing to do. Therefore it is not at all surprising to occasionally, or even frequently, meet views in the congregational setting or in the pages of the journals which reflect excessive positions. Now, at times we are moved to let them slip by unnoticed, hoping that they will just go away and recognizing that making an issue of such matters will only serve to give them undue advertisement and publicity. And, while I recognize that there are times when this is actually the best thing to do, especially when the case is an isolated one, there are also occasions when the best remedy is to reply in a public manner and trust the objectivity of fair-minded folk to judge as to where the truth lies. I think that in this particular situation the latter is the fitting answer. I make reference to the article under the heading “The Songs That We Sing” which appeared in the Feb. 17, 1977 issue of Truth Magazine. I invite you to either read it or reread it, as the case may be, in all fairness to Brother Ronny Milliner, its author. For, it is my firm conviction that many of the remarks found in the text of the article are excessive and even unbiblical. I believe that most of those who read the proscription looked at it as I at first did, feeling it to be no real threat to anything, even though I did not agree with it. But the more I thought about it and remembered the several people through the years that I have seen in churches in various parts of the country who sat stone-faced and stone-silent while the people of God praised the Almighty without their help-because they conscientiously felt that the song being sung was unscriptural and so dishonored God-I thought better of it and decided to take the time to publicly reply. So, it is not only to that particular article that I respond, but to the basic misunderstandings that I believe motivated its composition and motivated those good people who refused to obey the command of God to sing (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19). Because, if they are wrong and the songs they demur to sing are proper, then the only conclusion which appears possible .is that they have sinned in abstaining. And that is no trivial matter.

Let me preface my further remarks by saying that since the appearance of Sacred Selections For The Church there have been a number who have registered objection to particular hymns which appear on its pages. I believe for the most part that the objections have been unfounded, unfair, and utterly subjective. But I am not attempting to be the exponent or advocate of that or any other song-book as the one-and-only scriptural and acceptable book to be utilized by the churches. But I must say that I do have a very great personal appreciation for it and have at different times urged churches to use it. I did so not because I would make any profit from their purchase (which I did not do), but because I felt that it offered a broad selection of acceptable and beautiful “songs, hymns, and spiritual songs.” I should perhaps also add that the Hillview church where I preach on a regular basis does use it and considers it to be scripturally sound. In addition, we do sing those songs that Brother Milliner alluded to and consider them to be scriptural and right. Therefore, I feel compelled to reply to our brother’s comments both in general and in specific. For if in singing these songs we articulate words and ideas that are not in keeping with the Bible, then it follows that upon every occasion in which we vocalize them we transgress the will of the Lord. And that is no trivial matter either.

With the substantial gravity of the thing now before us, let us look at a few general factors which will hopefully clarify our position.

“Written By Sectarians”

One of the bases upon which some (including Brother Milliner) object to some of our songs is the fact that they were written by sectarians. Well, sad to say, it is true that many were written by denominational people who in some cases included in the hymns ideas that were foreign to the Bible. Some were changed too, so that they could be scripturally sung. Others, though, needed no such alteration. The way in which many of them were worded allowed for them to be sung even though they had been originally intended to mean something different and unbiblical. Just so long as their wording did not preclude a scriptural interpretation, most compilers have felt that they could still be used. I am inclined to agree with their judgment. I think that Ellis J. Crum was both honest and correct when he wrote in the Forward of Sacred Selections: “Perhaps a few favorites will not be found because of unscripturalness. In the process of editing, not just one false doctrine was sought out, but as attempt was made to remove all false teachings and sectarian ideas. Scriptural sentiment was more desired than poetic excellence. Though far from perfect, it is believed that those who love the Lord and His church, and desire to ‘speak as the oracles of God,’ will find ;his book a step in the direction toward ‘sound speech’ in songs. This is as much needed in singing as in preaching or teaching . . . . It is believed that all Christians can sing these sacred selections without offense of conscience or violation of New Testament teaching.”

To press the point further, however, we would inquire as whether the simple fact of denominational authorship would make a thing unscriptural? The anti-class people have always argued this about the “Sunday-school,” but we have been safe in declaring that the question is not one of authorship but of authority. Does the Bible allow us to use this method as a device for the instruction of the Lord’s people?. The answer to this is “yes.” Again, do we not partake (in most cases) of bread baked and packaged by Jews? Do we not partake of the fruit of the vine, grape juice, which has been squeezed and bottled by atheists, infidels, and who knows what else? Do not most of us study commentaries and other books written by sectarian scholars, gleaning out and using those things of value, while weeding out and refusing the false doctrines usually contained therein? Have not the various compilers done that very thing with our songbooks? I believe so. At times we do not give these men much credit in the intelligence department. I personally feel that most of them deserve a great deal more credit for the knowledge, time, and labor that obviously went into these compilations than some of us are willing to give. Undoubtedly they have worked through a great number of songs and selected out only that very small portion which could be sung by God-fearing and Biblebelieving people. Indeed, here is where the real question lies, that is, “Are these songs scriptural?” This is the real issue. It is not really a question of who wrote them. That is actually an evasion of the real question, i.e. an argument from prejudice. If a song is scriptural, then we can sing it no matter who the writer is or was. So, this is the question which we intend to address ourselves to.

Poetic License and Symbolism

The most remarkable thing about the majority of criticisms which are lodged against modern hymnody is the fact that they-if applied to biblical psalms from the Old Testament-would show them to be unscriptural! Imagine that; we have applied such strict canons of judgment to hymnody as to disqualify hymns which were inspired by God! How could we know so incredibly little about the Bible? Any half-serious student of the Old Testament is aware that the Psalms that Israel sang are found in the book of Psalms and at other places in its pages; and that those songs are literally filled with examples of poetic symbolism is beyond any real dispute. But, since there are those among us who seem not to have studied them, let me point out just a few and direct some questions to those who are so skeptical of our contemporary hymns.

For an instance, in Psalm 18 David, in his Psalm of Deliverance, made use of more symbolic figures than I really care to count. Sometimes they are hard to discern, but in others they are easy. Let me innumerate only a few of the most obvious among them. First, he calls God a “Rock,” a “Fortress,” a “Shield,” and a “High Tower” (vs. 2). Now, did God really turn into a Rock, or a Fortress, or a Shield, or a Tower during the days of David? I should say not. And I would venture to say that Brother Milliner would agree. David here makes use of what students of poetry and literature call “metaphor,” a simple figure of speech in which one thing or person (in this case God) is spoken of as if it were another (in this case Rock, Fortress, etc). When one thing is thus likened to another it does not imply that the two are the same thing, only that there is a correlation in some important aspect (in this case God’s protective care as is illustrated by the power to protect characteristic of a Rock, Fortress, etc). A literalist would disallow this section of David’s song because it is not literally true.

Next, David says that the “cords of death” compassed him and the “floods of ungodliness” made him afraid (vs. 4). Question: Does death have literal “ropes” which literally held David? And, did ungodly waters literally frighten him? Of course not. Once again, the “sweet psalmist of Israel” is employing metaphorical speech and utilizing symbols that are not literally true but are figuratively true. David had been threatened by death and frightened by the course of events which led up to that threat. These truths he dressed in an outer garment of poetic symbolism which is both majestic and instructive.

In verse thirty-three he makes use of a poetic figure called “simile,” whereby the words “like” or “as” are applied in a case of poetic comparison. He says, “He maketh my feet like. hind’s feet.” Were David’s feet literally transformed into the feet of a deer? No, obviously he was only making a simple comparison using poetic symbolism. Usually there is not much difficulty when modern poets use the simile for comparative purposes in our hymns. The metaphors are the ones that get the most of the flack. But be it known that both are made use of innumerable times in the Old Testament Psalms and a simple reading of them will show this to be true. Moreover, one is not any more scriptural than the other, for both are often used.

Additionally, David in this same poem-hymn, and in a multitude of other places as well, uses “poetic imagery.” From verses six through fifteen a section appears which uses heavily symbolic elements throughout. He speaks of God’s “ears,” “mouth,” and “nostrils” (vss. 6, and 8). This is called “anthropomorphic imagery,” since it compares God with man in order to point out his abilities to perceive and communicate. He also sings of how God blew smoke from his nostrils and fire from his mouth, “rode” and “flew” and “soared” upon “cherubs” and the “wings of the wind” (vs. 10). This is “theocratic imagery,” since it displays God’s power in symbolic fashion.

Assuredly, this last type is the hardest of all for the literalist to accept. Yet it appears in a variety of places in the Scriptures and especially in the Psalms, the hymns of Israel’s worship. Through poetic imagery the poet (in this case a biblical writer under the influence of the Spirit of God) contemplates an object or experience perceived in relation to a second object, person, or event. He thus, by means of the figure, transfers from this image certain qualities which are then perceived as attributes of the original object. It is really not all that hard to understand. But we have always had trouble getting the point across to premillennialists when such figures appear in the prophets. They have time and time again in their zeal to sustain their theories turned literal prophecies into figurative ones and figurative prophecies into literal ones. Yet there is really not all that much difficulty to the whole thing, unless one is thus burdened by the weight of a false theory which needs props under it. The problem would be easily solved if the simple rules of contextual Bible study were applied honestly and the remedial principles of literary and poetic style were understood and treated likewise. Indeed, to this writer’s mind the article in question would never have been written if those same rules applied to the songs that we sing in our worship today.

In all of the above discussion, the important thing to understand and remember is that in Bible times the Bible people (Israel) used Bible songs (Psalms) which made use of a Bible stylistic feature which we may call after its common designation: poetic license. These principles of poetic license allow for “a deviation from strict fact, form, or rule . . . on the assumption that it will be permitted for the sake of the advantage or effect gained” (Webster’s Third International Dictionary, p. 1304). So, when I sing “They searched through heaven end found a Savior to save a poor lost soul like me” (one of those songs assailed by Brother Milliner), though I know that heaven was not literally searched in view of finding a Savior to save me-yet for the “effect” of making me realize that Jesus was perfect as a Savior and that none either in the heavens or upon the earth could have filled his place–for that “effect” I am able to “deviate from strict fact, form, or rule,” i.e. from literalism and sing this beautiful hymn. This same point applies to a whole host of songs in every one of our books, not just Sacred Selections.

I remember several years ago a case which fitly illustrates this point. A preacher raised an objection to the song “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” which appears in Great Songs of the Church, on page 330. This hymn-book had often been criticized on account of the fact that E. L. Jorgenson, a premillennialist, had been its compiler. In fact, the publishers had removed his name from the front of the volume on account of the bad sentiment that it arroused. Anyway, the preacher pointed out that when the song said “Bring forth the royal diadem, and crown him Lord of all” it was giving voice to the doctrine of premillenialism. The song-leader, also an elder and a godly man, promptly explained that when he sang the song he was making use of poetic license, in that he daily crowned Jesus as King in his life by obeying his commands. That settled the question. But the question should never have arisen in the first place, especially from the mouth of one who should have been aware of that usage of imagery in the Bible itself. The fact is that we could apply a rigid literalism to any song-book and before long we would disqualify most of the songs contained therein as unscriptural. For instance, in the old Christian Hymns Number Two, a book that held sway in the churches for many years and is still being used in many places, the song “When They Ring the Golden Bells” appears (page 366). Where does the Bible speak of “bells” in heaven? I know not where. Perchance someone could enlighten me? Yet by this very rule the song “Where the Roses Never Fade” from Sacred Selections is pronounced unbiblical by some literalists. Or, what of “Whispering Hope” (page 322), again from Number Two? “Soft as the voice of an angel, Breathing a lesson unheard, Hope with a gentle persuasion, Whispers her comforting word.” Does hope literally come and whisper to us? Does this not sound much like the sectarian “salvation experience”? Why, the Bible uses a comparable figure in the book of Proverbs when referring to Wisdom: “Wisdom crieth aloud in the street, She uttereth her voice in the broad places . . .” (1:20). Yet some of the songs from Sacred Selections have been objected to on these very grounds. The point here is that we could nitpick like nit-wits until we could pick any hymnal apart that anyone had written-even the one God wrote, the book of Psalms. But if we use the good common sense that God supplied us with, then such questions would not even surface. The Bible surely condemns all such “questionings and disputes of words” (1 Tim. 6:4), for “foolish and ignorant questionings . . . gender strifes” (2 Tim. 2:23).“Christ’s Righteousness Alone”

Another song which was attacked in the above-named article is number 120 in Sacred Selections, “The Solid Rock.” Brother Milliner claims that it teaches the false doctrine of imputed righteousness. Now, I dare say that I am just as adamantly opposed to the doctrine of imputed righteousness as it is expostulated by the sectarians as he, but I think that I have kept my head about the matter. The scripture does teach that the righteousness of God and Christ saves us. Let there be no misunderstanding about – that. The Jew tried to deliver himself by his own system and failed (Rom. 10:3), but we, being dependent upon God’s righteous plan as revealed in Christ and his New Testament can succeed where the Jew failed (Rom. 1:17; 3:22; 1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; 2 Pet. 1:1; 1 Jn. 3:7). Pray tell me, what is wrong with singing about it, especially in lieu of language reminiscent of the Bible itself?

“Imminent Return of Christ”

Similarly, our brother brought under question “It Won’t Be Very Long,” page 343. In doing so it appears that he has not read his Bible in preparation for the writing of the essay, for if he had done so he would not have insulted the song on the grounds that it taught the imminent return of Christ. If the apostles were able to say, “The end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7); “The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5); and Jesus could proclaim on several occasions, “Behold, I come quickly” (Rev. 3:11; 22:7, 12, 20), without teaching the imminent return of Christ, then is it not scriptural for us to sing “It Won’t Be Very Long”? Has the sense of urgency and of immediacy disappeared among us to the extent that we have become this sterile and impotent about the return of the Lord? I do not claim to know when Jesus will come back, whether a day or a million years, but I cannot believe that many of us would be forced into an unbiblical position such that we cannot even express in song the very teaching of the Bible in almost the same words that the Bible uses! Truly there are those of us who try so hard to stand up straight that we fall over backwards!

“Child’s Sin”

The only other song that Brother Milliner assaulted was “Jesus Loves Me” (page 274a). He attacked it on the conviction that it teaches inherited sin, which it does not teach. He starts out by assuming that it was written for children, since it is often sung by children. The simple truth is that this is not so. The song was composed by Philip Paul Bliss, an associate of the sectarian evangelist Ira D. Sankey and was utilized by him and others in their evangelistic campaigns. Primarily adults sang the song at first (cf. Ira D. Sankey, My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns, 1906). In time because of the simplicity and intrinsic appeal to little ones it came to be associated more with children than with adults. I do, however, know that it has often been sung in assemblies where both adults and children are present, since I have been there on several of such occasions. As I sing the song, I understand it to be referring to the instruction in Matt. 18:1-4, where Jesus taught that we must “become as little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. I see myself as his “little child,” and recognize the sin that I have. When children sing the song it is certain that we ought to instruct them that they are not sinners as yet, but that they soon will be. But I would suppose that would be necessary in almost all songs that a child would sing or that we would sing, for that matter. The answer to most things of this sort is sound and thorough teaching-not the exclusion of this or any of the other songs or entire hymn-books which I have discussed above. If we do the proper teaching from the Word of God we will not have to be anxious about poetic imagery, hymnic similes or metaphors, or misapprehensions about what is true and what is not in our modern hymns or in ancient Israel’s. I am convinced that this, instead of over-reactions and extreme measures, is the answer. I leave it to the better judgment of honest people to determine whether this is right or not. I think that most will concur.

Truth Magazine XXI: 33, pp. 518-521
August 25, 1977