Songwriting and Old Testament Illiteracy

It is well-nigh impossible to master the craft of writing a Christian song without studying the works of the great hymnwriters of the past—Watts, Newton, Wesley, Crosby, Bliss, and their peers. An essay I recently read, Wesley’s Hymns Reconsidered by Bernard Manning, had this thought-provoking passage:

One part of the attractiveness of the older hymn–writers is their frequent use of proper names. They inherited this habit from their predecessors, who had simply paraphrased Holy Scripture. Paraphrasers, it is clear, had no choice. They had to take the rough with the smooth. They had to boil down the weirdest geographical and personal names into rigid metre. Dexterity in the art, once acquired, persisted; and it was bequeathed to hymn-writers.

It is by no means only in his paraphrases that Wesley uses proper names. He knew what our psychologists are now giving one another Ph.D.s for discovering by research in dark rooms with coloured slips of paper. He knew that the use of a proper name with associations may start or clinch a train of thought more effectively than a flood of colourless words will start or clinch it. To you and to me, with our beggarly knowledge of Holy Scripture, this magic is less potent than it was to Wesley. What was once moving may seem to us only quaint. Even you and I, it is true, can pick up a reference to the Church as Sion or Jerusalem, a reference to death as Jordan, a reference to heaven as Canaan. But how much farther can we go? What does a modern congregation make of

None is like Jeshurun’s God?

We may not have got to the pass of the undergraduate who politely enquired, ‘Yes, but who was Jehovah?’ but, if we are honest, many of us might ask, ‘Who was Jeshurun?’ In the hymn beginning

O Great Mountain, who art thou,
Immense, immovable?

how many will catch the reference in the line

My Zerubbabel is near?

More easy are the allusions in the following:

In soft Laodicean ease
We sleep our useless lives away


Less grievous will the judgment–day
To Sodom and Gomorrah prove.

and (as we used to be allowed to sing in ‘O for a thousand tongues’)

Cast all your sins into the deep,
And wash the Aethiop white.

But this is more difficult:

Take when Thou wilt into Thy hands,
And as Thou wilt require;
Resume by the Chaldean bands,
Or the devouring fire.

This essay was delivered in 1939, more than seventy years ago, and it is safe to aver that the situation has not improved since.

One point worth noting, clearly evident from the citations and from similar but rare instances in Southern Gospel songwriting (such as the Lo Debar reference in Ricky Atkinson’s “Feasting at the Table of the King”), is that most of the obscure references and allusions are to the Old Testament. Many New Testament allusions, no matter how obscure, are familiar to church audiences today, but Old Testament references can be another story.

Should Southern Gospel songwriters—and more widely, any Christian songwriter of this generation—only use references that will be widely understood? Or should the songwriter attempt to do what the preacher sometimes does not, and use a song to build Biblical literacy?

Furthermore, while a singer/songwriter can explain a song before each performance, any song with lasting value will ultimately be sung by someone other than its writer. So writers cannot count on there always being someone to explain every reference. So should Old Testament references and allusions that may not be all that widely known only be used when there is sufficient space in the song to provide context?