"Singing With The Understanding"
In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul indicates that we should sing with both spirit and understanding as we praise God. The context of this statement shows that some in the church at Corinth were singing in a language not understood by others, hence they could not all sing with understanding. Today, many members of the Lord’s church do not fully understand the meaning of some words in the various songs we sing in worship to God. Such misunderstandings are caused by several factors, including:
- Figures of speech.
2) Archaic terms.
3) Words that are very seldom used.
4) Ignorance of Bible teaching that may be alluded to in the song.
In light of the above, let us look at the following hymns and note some of the definitions of words and phrases contained in these hymns:
In this hymn, we sing of “heaven’s table-land,” but to what does this refer? A table-land is a broad, level area, such as a plateau. “Heaven’s table-land” is a poetic way of describing the bliss of Heaven where we will be on a plateau “above” all of the temptations, cares, and trials of this world.
“The Great Physician”
In this marvelous hymn about our Lord, we sing of the “sweetest note in seraph song”. The word, “seraph” is an abbreviated term for seraphim, a word describing angels of high rank (Isaiah 6:2, 6). Thus the name of Jesus is the most precious name even the highest angels can sing.
“Jesus Rose Of Sharon”
The “rose of Sharon” is from a Hebrew word (saron), which means “level place” or “plain.” It is the name of the fertile plain along the Mediterranean seacoast of old Canaan (modern Israel), generally described as stretching southward from Matthew Carmel to Joppa. The rose of Sharon is a reference to a beautiful wild flower that still grows there. “Jesus, Rose of Sharon”, is based on the poetic language found in Song of Solomon 2:1: “I am a rose of Sharon, A lily of the valleys.” It is intended to figuratively convey the beauty and attractiveness of Christ.
“Just Over In The Gloryland”
If we shout and sing glad “hosannas” to Christ, just what are we shouting and singing? The word “Hosanna” is actually a Greek word spelled in English (transliterated), meaning, “Save, we pray!” While originally a plea for help, it evolved into an exclamation of praise. It was the cry of acclamation that went up from the multitudes that thronged the Lord upon His triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before His arrest, trials, and death (Matthew 21:9).
“Mansion Over The Hilltop”
A prophet whose pillow was a stone is mentioned in this beloved hymn. This “prophet” was actually Jacob, who, when fleeing from the wrath of his twin brother, Esau, pillowed his head on a stone at Luz/Bethel, on his way to another land (Genesis 28:10-19). The point of mentioning Jacob’s stone pillow in the song is to remind us that the discomforts of this life should not matter because we are here only a short while before we arrive at our permanent dwelling of comfort and rest.
“Wonderful Love Of Jesus”
Another title for this hymn is, “In Vain in High and Holy Lays”. What is meant by the “lays” we raise to the wonderful love of Jesus? The word “lay” is an archaic term for “song”, thus, this hymn speaks of our feeble attempts to praise adequately and worthily the Christ in spiritual songs.
When we sing “Ivory Palaces”, we sing in the second verse that “aloes had a part”. “Aloes” were provided by Nicodemus to prepare the body of Jesus for burial (John 19:39). It was an expensive product used in first century embalming and was derived from the pulp of the aloe leaf, a member of the lily family. Thus “aloes” was directly related to death. The poetic language of the song reminds us that Jesus’ coming to earth not only meant that he gave up his “ivory palace” of Heaven, but that He gave up His life as well - “aloes had a part”.
“O Thou Fount Of Every Blessing”
If someone told us to raise our “Ebenezer”, what would we raise? The word, Ebenezer means “the stone of help” and it refers to a stone the prophet/priest/judge Samuel erected as a memorial of God’s miraculous help to Israel in routing the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:10-12). When I “raise my Ebenezer”, I am figuratively saying that I acknowledge God’s blessing and care.
“Give Me The Bible”
In this hymn, we sing of “the glory gilding Jordan’s wave”. That which is “gilded” (gilt) is overlaid with gold. “Jordan’s wave” is a figurative expression for death. As Israel of old had to literally cross the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land, so all of God’s spiritual Israel (the church) must die to gain Heaven. Death generally holds men in fear, but the promises and comforts of God’s Word make even death attractive (as though gilded) for the faithful saint (Psalm 116:15; Rev. 14:13).
“Beautiful Isle Of Somewhere”
If we won a “guerdon”, what would we have won? A guerdon is a reward, and it refers to the promise of God to reward His children with Heaven, that poetic “beautiful isle of somewhere”.
“‘Tis Midnight, And On Olive’s Brow”
The words of this hymn contain two expressions that may not be readily understood. Let us look at the phrase, “Olive’s brow”. Just east of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley, is the Mount of Olives or “Olivet”, upon whose side or “brow” is the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus went there with the eleven and prayed His prayers of agony on the eve of the crucifixion (John 18:1; Matthew 26:36). This song is about the events that transpired in Gethsemane before the arrest of Jesus. The second expression that may be misunderstood by some is in the last verse of the song. It speaks of the “ether plains”. This is a figurative reference to the vast regions of space or of Heaven (“ether” refers to upper regions, as opposed to nether, lower regions). This figure calls attention to the comfort and strength the Lord found in His thrice-repeated prayer as He faced the cross.
“Night With Ebon Pinion”
We might ask, what (or who) is “Ebon Pinion”? Ebon refers to the color, black (as related to ebony). A “pinion” is a bird’s wing. The setting of this song, as in the one above, is the Lord’s great agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. This series of events was so dark and somber that it was as though a great black bird, bearing doom, had cast its shadow over the Lord as He knelt to pray in the garden.
Hopefully, the above definitions will allow us to more fully understand some of the words in the hymns that we sing in worship to the Lord. Let us ever strive to learn the meaning of words that may be unfamiliar to us in our psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, that we can more ably “sing with the understanding” (1 Corinthians 14:15).
- Mike Riley