On Songs That Quote Scripture
I grew up on Steve Green’s “Hide ‘Em in Your Heart” series. These songs were formative for my sisters and me; we memorized Scripture without trying. I recall literally holding my tongue while learning to keep it from evil. I was exhorted by a swirling melody to obey my parents in the Lord. But for some reason, the song I remember the most--particularly the final descending line sung by some cute young voice: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
The verse, of course, is Philippians 4:13. Infamously taken out of context, it has been used erroneously to suggest that the believer can achieve his or her personal goals because Jesus affords his strength to believers. From dunked basketballs to weight loss to CEO positions, Philippians 4:13 has been wrongly applied as a “be all you can be” message. The problem, of course, with this application is that it ignores the biblical context of that single verse.
Paul was speaking not of superpowers, but of being content in all things. In the preceding verse, Paul wrote, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” With this clarity, the meaning of Philippians 4:13 is clear: Christ enabled Paul to be content in all situations, even as he wrote the letter, imprisoned for sharing the gospel.
I was so very grateful to re-discover that Steve Green’s simple song included a spoken introduction, explaining the context of Philippians 4:13. However, not all songs that quote Scripture are as responsible.
Some songs quote passages without their context, leaving the exegetical work to the listener--which isn’t inherently wrong but also isn’t helpful. Other songs distorts the true intent of the text by putting verses a new context, which does a tremendous disservice to the church and dishonor to God.
I hope this article will challenge songwriters to write, pastors to select, and Christians to champion songs that treat passages in their original context with a renewed commitment to clarifying the biblical author’s intended meaning of a passage.
When we preach, we sense the immense care needed to handle God’s word with accuracy and integrity. Songs often function as memorable sermons, serving the word of Christ in order that it might dwell richly in us. The memorable quality of good music underscores the need to apply the same care to our songwriting that we afford our sermons. Here are a few thoughts on how you can include Scripture quotations with exegetical responsibility:
1. Take great care to study passages of Scripture before incorporating them into song lyrics. Read whole chapters--or, better yet, whole books of the Bible--before quoting Scripture in a song you’re writing. Work hard to arrive at the biblical author’s intended meaning in the passage you’re studying. Labor to arrive at a simple sentence which summarizes the main idea of your text’s passage, then see how the Scripture you intend to quote relates to that theme. Afterward, read some reliable commentaries on your passage to check your work. Take the same care when evaluating song lyrics that contain Scripture references. Yes, it’s hard work. Embrace the journey and be willing for your perception of a passage to be changed before you put pen to paper.
2. Involve pastors and other trusted Christians in reviewing both your exegetical work and drafts of your lyrics. Those who preach and teach spend valuable time studying the Bible: their perspective is an indispensable help for us. Share your songs with an open hand and a willingness to revise, refine, and clarify. Try not to get too attached to your work in any form. After all, we are writing to serve the Lord and His church, not ourselves.
3. Consider using large sections of Scripture rather than taking a short verse for inspiration. Too often, our personal Bible study habits lead us to reflect on a single verse or phrase, and so we naturally turn to elaborate on small sections of Scripture in our songwriting. This narrow focus can produce some wonderful songs but is, in many ways, harder to do with excellence. Widening our gaze of a passage--including surrounding verses and concepts--helps us frame our Scripture quotations in the appropriate biblical context.
4. Try setting and singing psalms in their entirety, or at least large sections of single psalms. We often isolate the “positive” sections of psalms for various reasons, losing indispensable biblical context. Our church music repertoire sometimes unwittingly does the same to the book of Psalms when we gravitate toward those sections we find encouraging. The Psalms are complete songs; the lyrics have already been written for us!
The Words of Christ
I am grateful for a resurging emphasis on quoting Scripture in song lyrics. I fear, however, that if songwriters and song-leaders are not careful, we may be doing quite the disservice to Scripture, and thus to the God who breathed out the words we quote.
As songwriters, we shouldn’t employ single lines of Scripture without first understanding the passage from which they come, and treating them responsibly, in their proper context.
As song-selectors, we are not simply checking a box to see that the words or phrases can be found in the Bible; we must take great care that those words are used in a way that is consistent with the original meaning of the text.
As Christians who sing together when we gather, let us celebrate songs that do this well. Encourage your leaders when they select rich songs, emphasizing your appreciation for the ministry of the word through singing. After all, when we sing, the very word of Christ should dwell richly in us--not merely a group of words that Christ also happened to employ.
Andrew Pressley serves as Associate Pastor at First Baptist Church of Lindale, Texas, where he leads music. He also teaches music and worship courses at East Texas Baptist University.