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God’s Lyrics by Douglas Sean O’Donnell

Alan D. Strange

God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Songs, by Douglas Sean O’Donnell. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2010, xxiii + 210, $15.99, paper.

Great music has the power to move our whole being. This is undoubtedly why some of the most memorable and magnificent moments in my life have occurred in the concert hall or the opera house. I have marveled at Pierre Boulez conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony and Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s Third. Luciano Pavarotti has thrilled me in Il Trovatore as has Anna Netrebko in La Boheme. And then there are the countless performances on radio and recordings (one calls to mind Joan Sutherland singing Norma—or anything, for that matter—Birgit Nilsson in Der Ring and Franco Corelli in Tosca). As great an impact as these have had on me, however, they cannot compare with the times that sacred music, live or on recording, has moved me: Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Creation, Mendelsohn’s Elijah, Brahms’s German Requiem and many others.

Great music is indeed moving, and when wedded to sacred text, is unparalleled in its evocative power. The hymns of the church (which term I use comprehensively, to include the Psalms) are also great music, though more widely singable than what is often called classical or sacred music would be. The great hymns of the church, whether taking the words of Scripture directly or impliedly (as expressed in great Christian poetry), manifest clearly the ancient dictum “cantat bis orat”—“he who sings prays twice.” The singer prays in both the words that he sings and the music that he employs to sing it, both serving as an out-breathing of the pious soul to God.

In arguing here for great music and biblical words, I make no argument that either the music or the words must be of a certain age or complexity. Contemporary words and music, if well-rendered and composed, can both be simple (note, not simplistic) and altogether lovely, even as can contemporary music on the radio and in the concert hall and opera house. The illustrations I gave were of classics because they are better known than most contemporary examples would be. Music that is fitting for worship can be of a variety of origins and styles, but needs to be always reverent, whether joyful or mournful, depending on the character of the text, to which affect it ought to correspond. Certainly the worship of our triune God, a God of infinite majesty and holiness, should never be shallow but always appropriately full of depth and meaning.

Sadly, much of what passes for music in worship these days lacks profundity, a strange trait given the character of the God whom we worship. Douglas Sean O’Donnell, in his volume God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship through Old Testament Songs, has given us a much-needed work, for a church that has succumbed in its worship, particularly in its worship music, to shallow sentimentalism. This sentimentalism dictates that worship should be comforting and never convicting. In the support of such sentiments, music in worship must be sweet and positive.

While such positive themes pass muster in our sentimentalized worship services, themes like God’s wrath against sin and God being a warrior who conquers his and our enemies are rarely heard in such circles. O’Donnell’s book is a call to recover a better, deeper, richer, pattern of worship, to rediscover a more thoroughly biblical worship through Old Testament songs given proper reflection in the context of New Testament worship.

O’Donnell, Senior Pastor of New Covenant Church (Naperville, Illinois), divides his book into three main parts. Part one consists of sermons on the six Old Testament songs that are his focus. The first is the “Song of Moses” from Exodus 15, in which Yahweh’s triumph over Pharaoh is celebrated. The second is from Deuteronomy 32 and O’Donnell calls it the “Song of Yahweh”: An Exodus from Israel’s Apostasy. The third is the “Song of Deborah” from Judges 5, celebrating the Lord’s victory over Israel’s enemies. The fourth is in Samuel, consisting of two songs, the “Song of the Barren Woman” (1 Samuel 2) and the “Song of the Fertile King” (2 Samuel 22). And the fifth is the “Song of Habakkuk” (from chapter 3), expressing faith in God even in the midst of judgment. The five sermons exposit these texts, showing their place in redemptive history—of God delivering his people from his and their enemies, especially pointing in all of them to the ultimate deliverance which we enjoy in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Part two, chapters 6–10, following the five chapters of part one, continues to focus on the six aforementioned Old Testament songs. In part two, entitled “Applications for Christian Worship,” O’Donnell argues the ongoing fitness of these Old Testament songs and their themes for worship in the New Covenant church. In chapter 6, O’Donnell notes that the six songs have four themes:

  1. The Lord is at the center; that is, our God is addressed, adored and “enlarged.”
  2. His mighty acts in salvation history are recounted.
  3. His acts of judgment are rejoiced in.
  4. His ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged (113).

In chapters 7–10, O’Donnell “illustrate[s] how the six scriptural songs sing of these themes.” He compares these themes “with the most popular contemporary Christian choruses, as well as the most popular classic hymns sung in today’s churches” (113–14).

The purpose of O’Donnell’s comparative exercise is “to show some strengths and weaknesses of our favorite lyrics, and to suggest compensating for those weaknesses by using the six scriptural songs” (114). In short, the best of the hymns and songs of the church teach and preach Christ. These six songs support that and serve additionally as a corrective for the places in which the church’s hymnody and choruses fall short. O’Donnell notes that even the best of our ecclesiastical music tends to fail with respect to rejoicing in God’s acts of judgment. The worst of our choruses and hymns (as O’Donnell surveys particularly the top fifty contemporary Christian choruses and the top twenty-five hymns) woefully lack in the four themes, and even the best do not tend to contain all that these six scriptural songs do.

All of Scripture has as its theme the person and work of Christ, as do these six songs. O’Donnell wants us to see how each part of the Hebrew Scriptures—not just the Psalms, but the Torah, Prophets, and all the Writings—points to and sets forth Christ. His concern in this book is to highlight that we can, and ought, by the use of the Scripture’s own songs, come to enjoy this Christological richness, which many contemporary churches leave untapped and by which neglect they are spiritually impoverished. Especially helpful in this volume is O’Donnell’s extensive interaction with what the church is actually singing. The appendices contain lists of both the choruses and hymns most used by the churches, and he interacts with them extensively in this work. He offers these neglected songs of Scripture (at least neglected in more recent times) as part of the cure that ails us in our sentimentalized church culture.

Part three of this book contains O’Donnell’s own versions (text with music) of five of the six Old Testament songs (excluding the second one from II Samuel), along with a sixth song from Rev. 5:9–11. Whether or not one finds O’Donnell’s poetic skills adequate—and the affect of the tunes appropriate for the words he selects—his attempt is an admirable one. This reviewer agrees that the church would do well to sing more of Scripture, both the Psalms and other Scriptures of the sort that O’Donnell furnishes us, and in so doing enjoy a more robust view of God and his work.

We need more of what O’Donnell is here endeavoring to do in this helpful volume. Surely the church needs to recover its best hymnody, to employ its richest psalmody, and to sing the songs of Scripture themselves. So many evangelical churches have fallen prey to theologically, poetically, and musically impoverished worship that O’Donnell’s call to embrace the richness of the whole counsel of God in worship, and especially in our singing of sacred songs, is quite welcome. One hopes that O’Donnell’s sounding of the alarm will, along with other such efforts, have a salutary effect on the church.

Alan D. Strange is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as associate professor of church history and theological librarian at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana, and is associate pastor of New Covenant Community Church (OPC) in New Lenox, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, February 2014.

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