Back in 1970, folk singer Melanie Safka charmed the music world with What Have They Done to My Song, Ma? I have no idea what she was singing about, but it was a lot of fun listening to her plaintive voice.
As I listen to contemporary Christian music, however, and try to sing along to new versions of old hymns, I can imagine hymn writers like Isaac Watts, William Williams, Frances Havergal, Charles Wesley, and Robert Robinson asking, “What have they done to my hymn, Lord?”
The revisers of modern hymnals have taken such liberties with the original texts that the deep scriptural truth and the author’s basic meaning are often lost. Most disconcerting is when the redactors deem it necessary to “correct” the theology of the original author, an author usually more steeped in biblical theology that the corrector!
One category of revisions is the editing of biblical imagery. When Robert Robinson wrote “Here I raise mine Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come,” in his great hymn “Come, Thou Fount,” he could be confident that his congregation and others in America and England would know the reference was from 1 Samuel 7:12 –
“Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us.’
The word Ebenezer has been eliminated in many hymnals and the entire phrase re-worded. Did the revisionists fear that today’s worshipers would confuse the reference with Ebenezer Scrooge? Shouldn’t we, then, be elevating the biblical knowledge of those who attend our services?
Another example is the elimination of biblical imagery that just seems too harsh for our modern ears. In Isaac Watts’ moving hymn, “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed?” ( or “At the Cross,” the later version with chorus), the original version has these words: “Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?” Worm! Well, that was just too much for our healthy self-esteem to tolerate! So revisionists changed it to “sinners such as I” or “such a one as I”. But “worm” was not too strong for King David when he wrote Psalm 22, a Messianic psalm, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach and despised by the people” (v.6). Neither did Job shy away from even stronger language:
How then can man be righteous before God? Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman? If even the moon does not shine, And the stars are not pure in His sight, How much less man, who is a maggot, And a son of man, who is a worm?" (Job 25:4-6 NKJV)
Hymns from what is known as The Golden Age of Christian Hymnody (1700 to mid-1800s) were rich in Bible references and biblical theology, as well as biblical psychology. Biblical thinking gave birth to biblical poetry.
Another issue in the revised hymns is the name of God. The traditional English rendering of God’s covenant name, Jehovah, is an irresistible target for revision. I can hear the argument: “We don’t really know how the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) was pronounced, but it was probably something like “Yahweh” or “Yahwah.” The English Jehovah was a mistaken incorporation of the Masoretic vowel points for Adonai, put there so that Jewish worshipers would know to say “Adonai” when they came to that Name. Well, this is all very interesting from an intellectual perspective, but to many generations of English-speaking Christians, the name Jehovah does mean something, something precious. When I sing or hear Frances Havergal’s rousing paean to our loving, sovereign Lord, my faith takes flight: “Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blessed, finding as He promised perfect peace and rest.” I haven’t seen any revisions of that hymn, and I hope no one tampers with it.
One of the greatest hymns to come out of Wales, that land of song, is William Williams’ “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” A scene from the 1941 film How Green Was My Valley, showed Welsh coal miners returning home with blackened faces and clothes, filing past picket fences, and singing that powerful hymn as only a Welsh male choir can. How it stirs the soul! Yet some revisionist couldn’t let “Jehovah” stand! The hymn title and the lyrics were changed to Guide Me, O My Great Redeemer. (It seems the hymn suffered not only from the name Jehovah, but from the archaic “thou”!)
Names vary in pronunciation from one language to another; witness the Spanish pronunciation of the popular Latin American name “Jesus”. To quibble over pronunciations is absurd. Shakespeare’s Juliet had it right: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” And I will still sing, as a prayer, “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.”
It comes down to this: If someone wants to do a remake of a popular song, have at it. I may like it or dislike it. But when we’re dealing with the expression of our worship, our sacred hymnody, we should approach it with reverence, and only with great reluctance and with solid biblical reason make alterations.
True, our hymns do not have the status of Scripture, but they are meant to reinforce our understanding of Scripture and express our biblical worship. That is a high and noble task, and the godly men and women of that Golden Age did it well.
Let the beauty and truth of their hymns keep on singing!