Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Luther on Hymns and Spiritual Songs

From:  Luther's Works Volume 76, pp. 299-302. (American Edition)



"Let the Word of God dwell among you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual, sweet songs in grace."  [Col.3:16]

This properly follows what he said about thankfulness, as if he would say:  See to it that you honor teachers and preachers and are thankful to them, so that they can attend to the Word and offer it to you richly. I think that St. Paul is not talking about how God's Word was given from heaven, for that is not in our hands; rather, God alone must give it so that it dwells in us.  As He has done and still does whenever He has the Gospel preached, He pours it out richly, so that He keeps nothing back which is necessary for us to know.  After He has given it to us, we ought to be thankful and attentive to read, hear, ponder, sings, and speak it day and night, and to procure many teachers who present it to us richly and without ceasing.  That is what it means that God's Word dwells in us richly.

But the satiated, lazy spirits soon become tired and let the preachers go wherever they go.  Then the preachers have to work and support themselves, so that God's Word is neglected and becomes meager and rare.  So Nehemiah complains that the Levites had to leave worship and the temple and live on the land, because they received no support from the people--or they had to set up false worship and fables to mislead the people, because in that way they were not only supported but also became rich.

... I think that the distinction between psalms, hymns, and songs is this:  By "psalms" he means properly the psalms of David and others in the Psalter. By "hymns" he means the other songs here and there in Scripture made by prophets, such as Moses, Deborah, Solomon, Isaiah, Daniel, Habakkuk.  Similar are the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Benedictus (Luke 1:68-79), and the like, which people call "canticles."  By "spiritual songs" he means the songs people sing about God apart from Scripture, which people can make at any time.  He calls these "spiritual" more than the psalms and hymns because he certainly knew that those are already spiritual.  With these songs he restrains us from using worldly, fleshly, and improper songs;  rather, he wants our songs to be about spiritual things which are able to teach and admonish us, as he says here.

What does it mean when he says "in grace" (Col. 3:16)?  Whoever wants can explain that this is said about the grace of God, that is, that such songs should come without coercion and Law, from pure delight and love. It should not be like the hymns now which are extorted by commandments and laws, where no one preaches, sings, or prays because of God's kindness or grace but only because of profit, stipend punishment, injury, and shame. It should not be as the holiest of all do, who out of obedience let themselves be bound and forced to the worship service through which they want to gain heaven, and not at all so that God's Word is understood richly and with all wisdom, as St. Paul wants.  [Italics mine]

But I think that St. Paul is talking about the grace or pleasantness of the hymn and song, just as he says: "Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is useful for building up, where it is needful, that it may have favor and grace among everyone who hears"  (Ephesians 4:29). So also here the songs should be capable of having grace and favor among everyone who hears them, so that there are no worthless, weak, and indecent words or otherwise awkward things which neither taste good nor smell good, which have neither strength nor savor. There should be rich, delightful, and sweet songs which everyone likes to hear.  That is what "sung in grace" really means in Hebrew, as St. Paul says.  That is also the nature of the psalms and hymns in Scripture, which contain good things and are sung with beautiful words.  Some songs have very beautiful words, but they are worldly and fleshly;p on the other hand, some songs contain good things, but in such awkward words that they have neither favor nor grace.

"Singing in your hearts to the Lord." (Col. 3:16)

St. Paul does not mean that the mouth should be silent, but that the words of the mouth should come from wholehearted belief, earnestness, and fervor, and not be hypocrisy, as Isaiah says, "this people praises Me with their mouth, but their heart is far from me" (Isaiah 29:13).  St. Paul wants to have the Word of God dwelling so commonly and richly among Christians that everyone speaks, sings, and meditates on ti everywhere; and yet all fo that should happen with understanding and spiritual fruit, be very dear to everyone, and be sung from the bottom of the heart, to the praise and thanks of the Lord.  he says, "Let it dwell with you", not lodge as a guest for a night or two, but to settle down and never leave.  He is always concerned about human doctrine.

"And what you do in word or deed do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him." (Col. 3:17)

The works of Christians have no names, times, or places, but whatever they do is good.  Whenever they do it, it is right. Wherever they do it, it is well-done.  For that reason St. Paul here names no work and makes no distinction, but grasps all of them together and makes them all good.  Eating, drinking, sleeping, waking, walking, standing, speaking, being quiet, working, or being idle are all precious things, because they all happen in the name of the Lord Jesus, as St. Paul teaches here.  They happen in the name of the Lord Jesus when we believe with firm faith that Christ is in us and we in Him, so that we stop working, and He lives and works in us, as St. Paul says, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).  On the other hand, if we do something as if we had to do it, then it happens in our own name, and there is nothing good in it.

... From this it follows that we should praise and thank God, to whom alone the honor and glory for every good thing belongs, as St. Paul says here.  Also St. Peter, soon after he said that we are to do everything by God's strength, goes on to say, "in order that you all unanimously praise the Father through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 4:11; Rom. 15:6.  But whoever does something by his own strength, even if he thanks God with his mouth, nevertheless lies and is false, like the hypocrite in the gospel (Mark 10:17).  thankfulness is the only sacrifice and work which we should and can do for God, and yet not through ourselves, but through our Mediator, Jesus, without whom no one comes to the Father or can be accepted (John 14:6).  We have often spoken about that.


This Colossians passage is one that I once pulled out of the hat on New Year's Eve, as a young person on retreat, to be a special verse for the year.  I kept it around for a long time and it still resonates.  What I understood only later is the grace in these words, that when done in the Lord, it is all good.  Everything, even the most banal things, or so-called banal, that we do, are good.

There is the reason for gratefulness and singing. He has done it all, and what we do in him, is good because of him.

The other reason I copied out this section is because of the part I indented, some good words about spiritual songs and spiritual song creation and singing.  He speaks about the pleasantness of them.  I wonder what the German is for "pleasant" and "pleasing" here.  Maybe "Gefallen", which would just mean that people like it. This would be in accord with singing from the heart and without coercion.

They should teach and admonish us according to God's word, and should be rich and well done, with strength and savor.

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