How to Write a Song from Scripture1
“[T]he duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.” – Jonathan Edwards
“A song is a sermon people remember. People forget a sermon in a couple of weeks. They remember a song forever. That means if we as worship leaders and Christian artists are leading people astray with our lyrics, I believe we’ve got a lot of heavy millstones waiting for us. Songs and art have power, permanence, and influence, especially in the realm of theology. And it probably goes without saying but that which influences theology influences everything.” – Matt Papa
In a previous post, I wrote about the power of music and the power of scripture, and why it is important for songwriters in the Church to write songs that expose God’s people to more and more of His powerful Word. But how exactly should a songwriter go about writing from the Bible? Below, I’ll explore three key concepts we need to keep in mind as we attempt to write songs from the Bible: our responsibility to be faithful to the text, the importance of being creative, and our need to be committed to writing (and writing often!) from scripture.
1. Stay Faithful to the Text. Approach the text like a preaching pastor would. Don’t be afraid to sit down with commentaries and a study Bible and look up what the words meant in the original Greek or Hebrew. Use the inductive study method, making sure to observe a passage or story first before jumping to interpretation or application. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you insight and understanding. And after a song is finished, run it by your pastor and your friends. Remember the warnings the Bible gives to those who would teach, because--whether you like it or not--your song will teach something.
2. Stay Creative. It’s important to remember that we are not talking about scripture memory songs here. There is creative license to change the text a bit, and to use melody that serves the meaning and feeling of the passage. Have fun with literary devices like metaphor, personification, paradox, and even allegory (for a great list of literary devices, take a look at this post from Bobby Gilles). Try out a different point of view. Say it in a different or new way, and consider using modern language or analogies. Examine the “feel” and “mood” of the passage and structure your melody and song dynamics accordingly. When you are “observing” a passage, imagine yourself as part of the scene (what did it smell like, look like, feel like?) and write from that headspace. When you are writing from the Old Testament, creatively allude to how the story or passage finds fulfillment in Christ. When you are writing from the New, tie it back to the Old.
3. Stay Committed. I want to strongly encourage you to make a habit of writing songs from scripture. In 2011, I made a goal to write a song from every book of the Bible in one year, and it was one of the most rewarding and shaping years of my life. Perhaps you could join me and write a song from every book of the Bible in a year or two years. Or, you could make it a goal to write a song from every book of the Pentateuch, or from every minor prophet. Maybe you could spend a month writing one song each week from the gospel of Matthew. The possibilities are truly endless. Perhaps some of you might even be called to lead out in the area of writing from scripture, in the same way that Kevin Twit of Indelible Grace (and many others) have led and continue to catalyze and build up the re-tuned hymns movement. When you really think about it, the Bible is a songwriter’s dream. It is full of amazing stories and rich metaphors and interesting language to get your creative juices flowing. There is action and truth and hope and drama enough for a lifetime of songwriting. All you have to do is just dig in! As you use your gifts in music and songwriting to exposit and teach God’s Word, your heart will be changed, the Church will be encouraged, and God will be glorified.
We’d love to hear from you:
Have you written any songs from scripture? How do you balance staying faithful to the text and allowing yourself to be creative? What goal might you make in order to stay committed to write faithfully and creatively from scripture?
Caroline Cobb (@carocobbmusic) is a singer-songwriter especially interested in telling the stories of scripture through music. Caroline’s latest album, a Home & a Hunger: Songs of Kingdom Hope, traces the biblical themes of Eden and exile, restlessness and rest, and God's "upside-down" kingdom.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.