God’s people sing.
They always have.
- On the day of Israel’s great deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea, Moses led God’s people in a song of delight and rejoicing before the God who had delivered them (Ex 15.1ff): “The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea!”
- At the end of his life, Moses composed a song by which Israel could remember God’s words (Dt 32.1ff): “Ascribe greatness to our God!”
- Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, who introduced the monarchy to Israel, wrote a song of thanksgiving for the end of her long period of infertility (1S 2.1ff): “He raises the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap!”
- David, the “sweet psalmist of Israel,” and his son Solomon set up elaborate musical infrastructure for the Temple, including (apparently) hundreds of professional singers to lead the congregation of Israel (1Ch 15.16; 2Ch 5.13).
- Like Moses, David too left behind a song for his people (2S 23.1ff): “The Spirit of the Lord spoke by me, and his word was on my tongue!”
- And like Hannah—with her words deeply embedded in her heart—the Jewish girl Mary composed her “Magnificat” (Lk 1.46-55) in response to the news that she would bear the Messiah: “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior!”
In the church age, the New Testament speaks of God’s people singing, placing great importance on congregational singing as part of regular worship (Ep 5.19; Co 3.16). Paul—who sang with Silas when they were in a Philippian jail (Ac 16.25)—speaks of the importance of our understanding what we’re singing (1Co 14.15). James urges suffering believers to sing (Jam 5.13). And in the ages to come, God’s people will continue to sing in their praise to him (Re 14.3)—including, apparently, that song of Moses from Deuteronomy 32 (Re 15.3).
We all know that Old Testament believers had a hymnbook, called today the Book of Psalms, containing 150 songs written by several authors over many generations, from Moses (Ps 90) to Asaph (Pss 50, 73-83) to the sons of Korah (Pss 42-49, 84, 85, 87, 88) and especially including David, who wrote, among many others, the universally known and loved Psalm 23.
What did the early New Testament churches sing?
There’s no New Testament equivalent to the Book of Psalms. But there are three passages in Luke’s Gospel that are poetic and lyrical—
- Mary’s “Magnificat” (Lk 1.46-55)
- Zechariah’s “Benedictus,” his prophecy at the birth of John the Baptist (Lk 1.68-79)
- Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis” upon seeing the infant Jesus in the temple (Lk 2.29-32)
We can’t know whether the early church sang these as songs in corporate worship, but there are other passages in the New Testament that scholars suspect are taken from hymns sung by the early church.
How do they know that?
Well, they don’t; there’s no reliable record from those days as to what those believers were singing. But students of the Scripture suggest that certain passages sound lyrically like hymns—they evidence certain patterns that are typical of hymns, such as
- A beginning—an “introductory formula”—that sets the passage off from what precedes
- Reference to a “faithful saying”
- A relative pronoun, particularly in reference to God
- Rhythmic structure / patterns
- Repetition, in the fashion of a refrain
- Distinct vocabulary
- Hapaxlegomena (words that occur only once in the New Testament)
- Interruption of the flow of the passage
- Exalted or liturgical language
Since prose can have these elements as well, most of this is subjective, and much of it is just guessing; for a scholarly discussion of its weaknesses, see this article. (And if you want a second rigorous look at the topic, try this.)
That said, there are a few passages in the New Testament that are routinely viewed as reflecting early hymns:
- Ephesians 5.14
- Colossians 1.15-20
- Philippians 2.5-11
- 1 Timothy 3.16
- 1 Timothy 6.15b-16
There are also several benedictions (e.g. Ro 11.33-36), which might have served a similar purpose.
We’ll take a look at these, and perhaps some others, in the posts to come.