This post is adapted from Praising God in Song by Carl Schalk.
The New Testament reflects in various ways both the content and vigor of the worship life of the early Christians. Among the excerpts from creeds, prayers, doxologies, and benedictions to be found in the New Testament are a variety of references to “hymns,” “psalms,” and “odes,” or “songs.” The very variety of terms suggests that no one “hymn form” was used exclusively.
The Lukan Psalms
Perhaps the most widely known and recognized examples of New Testament hymns are those three great lyric portions connected with the story of Christ’s nativity. The first is Mary’s song from Luke. Its similarity in many ways to the Old Testament Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10) is clear. It has become known as the “Magnificat” from the first words of the Latin translation:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant. (Luke 1:46–48)
This great song has found regular use in Christian communities in the order of Vespers and Evening Prayer.
The second of these great songs from Luke is the song sung by Zechariah following the birth of his son John:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David. (Luke 1:68–69)
Known as the “Benedictus,” this song has long been associated with the orders of Matins and Morning Prayer.
The third of the great songs from Luke is the “Song of Simeon” sung by this faithful servant when Jesus was brought by His parents to the temple for the rite of purification.
Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel. (Luke 2:29–32)
Known as the “Nunc Dimittis,” it has long been used in the office of Compline and, in Lutheran usage, in connection with Holy Communion.
One must also include here the Song of the Angels (Luke 2:14) sung at the birth of Christ, the “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” Expanded in later times and known as the “Gloria in Excelsis,” it is found in most hymnals.
Each of these great songs appears with musical settings in most hymnals, and in later times poets have made a variety of metrical paraphrases of some of these texts.
Singing in the New Testament
The practice of Christian song is well documented in the New Testament. The account of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas says that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25), and from the writings of Paul there is more evidence of the significant role of Christian song as both an instrument of praise and as a tool for teaching:
Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart. (Ephesians 5:18–19)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:16)
Other Hymnody in the New Testament
In many places in the New Testament, the hymn-like structure of the writing suggests that certain passages were actual hymns or fragments of hymns that have largely been lost. Consider the following passages that many scholars believe to be just such hymns:
Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you. (Ephesians 5:14)
To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:17)
He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
Among other passages that have been suggested by some scholars as hymns or containing hymn fragments are such passages as 1 Peter 2:4–10.
Among the hymn fragments recorded in the Revelation of John are such passages as 4:11; 5:9–10, which is specifically called a “new ode” or “song”; 5:12–13; 11:17–18; 15:3–4, called the “ode of the Lamb”; 18:1–19:4; and 19:6–8, a hymn for the wedding of the Lamb.
New Testament Christians, as those of any time, expressed their praise and prayer in songs of faith. Their songs of thanksgiving took many and varied forms, but their chief inspiration and model as they raised new songs of praise and thanksgiving seems to have been the psalter of the Old Testament. That these songs did not follow a later idea of what “hymns” should be—that is, regularly poetic forms recurring from stanza to stanza with rhyming in a predetermined pattern—should help us realize and marvel at the richness and variety of Christian praise in New Testament times.
In the theme of New Testament music, check out “The Seventh Trumpet,” an apocalyptic organ piece inspired by the dramatic text of Revelation 11:15–19.
Taken from Praising God in Song, pages 12–15 © 1993 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.