Understanding What We Sing

W. Terry Varner
January 21, 2018

An integral part of our worship is singing hymns of praise to God. The Bible instructs us that this be done not for vain glory with the purpose of hearing our voices as participants or praise of the song leader, but each is “to sing with the spirit . . . with the understanding” (1 Cor. 14:15). The English Standard Version translates this text to “sing praise with my spirit . . . [and] with my mind.”

Some hymns we sing include words and phrases with meanings foreign to us; therefore, we cannot sing with the spirit [proper attitude] and understanding. Our lack of understanding often is the result of several matters: failure to recognize some words are figures of speech, some thoughts come from biblical stories of which we are ignorant [we ought to learn these stories as they help both our understanding of the hymn and benefit in our personal life], some words are archaic; i.e. words that cease to be used except in special occasions such as hymns, etc. Consider some of the following words and phrases from hymns we sing. Hopefully, we will sing them with the proper attitude and understanding.

“Jesus, Rose of Sharon.” The hymn is based on a statement in Song of Solomon 2:1, “I am the rose of Sharon.” Sharon” is not a lady holding a thorn-less or thorny-stemmed flower most of us like so well. Sharon was an attractive pastoral plain along the Mediterranean seacoast reaching from Joppa north to Mt. Carmel. It was noted for its fertility and beauty. “Rose of Sharon” is one of the many titles given to Jesus and is suggestive of His attractiveness as He blooms “in radiance in love within my heart.”

“Give Me the Bible. ” contains a phrase that says, “Show me the gloiy gilding Jordan’s wave.” The meaning? Something “gilded” is overlaid with gold. “Jordan’s wave” is a figurative reference describing Israel’s crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land [Canaan] and dying to their long Wilderness Wandering. The Promised Land is a type of heaven. Tne Wilderness Journey was filled with difficulty, death, and fear. The idea is that as Christians we must die in our journey of life with all of its difficulties, death, and fear, except those who are living when Jesus comes to enter heaven. For the Christian, the Bible makes even death attractive as if it was “gilded with gold.” “For me to die is gain” (Philip. 1:21).

“Olive’s Brow.” This great hymn is used, and rightly so, before the Lord’s Supper. It contains at least two phrases that may give some difficulty in understanding. At the very beginning of the first verse is: ‘“Tis midnight; and Olive’s brow” refers to the east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley, to the Garden of Gethsemane. The Garden of Gethsemane was a “brow” or on the side of Mt. Olives (Olivet). Following the instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with His apostles. Here He prayed in great agony before His arrest and illegal trials just prior to His crucifixion (Matt. 26:36-42; John 18:1). The last verse begins with the words: ‘“Tis midnight; and from ether-plains.” The word “ether” [not either] is figurative language referring to Heaven, from which the angels watch.

“Ivory Palaces. ” Another great hymn with a phrase in the second verse reading, “For aloes had a part.” Aloes was a perfume made from the oil or the aloe plant and when added with myrrh was used in Jesus’ time to embalm the dead. When Jesus died, this mixture was provided by Nicodemus for the body of Jesus (John 19:39). Figuratively, it symbolizes the sorrow surrounding the death of Jesus.

It is important that we sing with the proper attitude (spirit) and with proper understanding.