The topic of song lyrics came up during a recent rehearsal as we were preparing for Sundays services. One of the songs that was scheduled for that service was the hymn, Jesus, What a Friend of Sinners. A great hymn that reminds us that the Lord is with us as the billows over me roll, and that He has granted me forgiveness, I am His and He is mine. What great truths of the Lord’s love towards us! However, one of the words in the song is one that I have always questioned while singing, so I made the decision to change that one particular word. A couple of our team members questioned that decision (in a good way), since the song was written with the other word and had been sung that way since its creation (1910). That particular word is lover, which is in the phrase, Jesus, lover of my soul. I will write on my reason more below, but at this point, I will say that the topic of song lyrics is no new discussion. In fact, it is one that has been brought up with some songs that were written recently as well.
Is it important for us to think about song lyrics this deeply?
During my time at seminary, one of the phrases that worship students heard often from one of our professors was, “You put words in people’s mouths that they will use to worship the Lord.” That is a heavy responsibility and one that should be taken seriously! This challenge helped shape and form my understanding of worship planning and leading, and it is something that I remind myself of often. When we engage in corporate worship, we are collectively saying and singing things about the Almighty. It is important that these words are theologically sound. We should do our best to make sure that our people are not confused about what they are singing. The song text should be clear about its meaning and intent.
Should we ascribe words to the Lord that are nowhere in scripture?
The song Jesus, What a Friend of Sinners is a great hymn, but what about the word lover? This word has a couple different meanings, and the meaning that is surely used is of someone who loves something specific. I do not doubt the authors intent, but could another word have been used that would have a clearer definition? Jesus loves us, yes, but to call him a lover of souls is questionable. Especially since nowhere in Scripture is Christ defined as a lover of souls. That raises another question. Should we ascribe words to the Lord that are nowhere in scripture?
Let’s look at another song.
Topping the contemporary Christian music charts and receiving multiple awards in 2018 was the song Reckless Love, written by Cory Asbury. The song spread like wildfire among churches as a new anthem proclaiming the Lord’s love for us. Much of the inspiration of the song was the parable of the lost sheep, and how a good shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to find and rescue the lost one. What a great truth and promise! The questionable lyric is found in the title and chorus of the song, oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God. Is God’s love overwhelming? Yes. Never-ending? Absolutely. Reckless? Pump the brakes. We need to think about this one. If you research the author’s intent of the lyric, he says that he used the word reckless to show that God would stop at nothing to rescue His lost sheep. That’s a great thought, but that’s not what reckless means. The definition of the word is “marked by lack of proper caution: careless of consequences” I do believe that the writer had very good intention behind using a word like that, but in reality, we have to work really hard to fit that word into a positive meaning. People who drive their cars wildly get reckless driving tickets. Misbehavior can lead to a reckless endangerment charge. When we hear the word reckless, our first thought is negative. So, good intent? I believe so. But even with good intent, the reality is that the song lyric is adjectively poor and it leads us to sing something incorrect about the Lord. As worship leaders, we should pay careful attention to words and their intent as we choose songs for corporate worship.
Back to the question. Is it important for us to think about song lyrics this deeply? I believe it is. The songs and words that we use as we worship the Lord are important and should be carefully considered. We should always use songs that are theologically sound and affirm the truths of Scripture. Let’s exercise caution in using words to describe the Lord that are not found in Scripture. The careful selection of songs that proclaim truth will serve our congregations well as we worship the Lord together.