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God's Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs Paperback – May 4, 2010
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"Doug O'Donnell has carefully and caringly unpacked the treasury of Scripture's songs and provided a rich resource." --Niel Nielson, President, Covenant College
"This book is unique: it combines the careful exposition of God's Word with creative work in hymnody. It will be appreciated by pastors, musicians, and everyone else who loves to worship God in the biblical way." --Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College
"God's Lyrics is a bracing challenge for both classic and contemporary Christian lyricists . . . pointing the way forward toward a revival of song texts that are both biblically true and balanced." --Randall Gruendyke, Chaplain of Taylor University, Upland, Indiana
About the Author
Douglas Sean O'Donnell is Senior Pastor of New Covenant Church (PCA) in Naperville, IL. M.A. Wheaton College Graduate School, M.A. Trinity Evangelical Div. School
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"Gordon Fee once said, 'Show me a church's songs and I'll show you their theology.' Today's most popular songs...show a theology that is un-Christian at worst and biblically unbalanced at best. Not only the texts, but also the themes of the songs of Moses, Deborah, Hannah, David, and Habakkuk are too often neglected. And such neglect has had its effect. By turning from substantive songs that well reflect these texts and themes to what Carl Schalk calls 'Twinkie Tunes with a Ding-Dong Theology,' a generation has gotten theologically fat and forgetful." (pp.176).
Pastor O'Donnell goes beyond merely criticism, but attempts to offer a positive remedy as well. For the final section, he takes each of the six OT songs, and has written original lyrics to them, set to some familiar hymn tunes. This I thought was a perfect conclusion to the book. Rather than merely showing how many of our hymns and praise songs were Biblical deficient, he offers a path for how to move forward and gives tangible, singable examples of what he hopes that God's people will do to improve and re-energize our musical canon. Here's hoping that this book is widely read, discussed, and applied in our churches!
As John Macarthur says in his introduction to the CD Exalted Worship; "So often today we hear worship music that may be catchy, but it lacks a certain theological depth. Unfortunately, what it lacks in loftiness it makes up for with mind numbing repetition."
I was drawn to this book upon coming to much the same conclusion. This book, though a criticism, is not about any new technique in worship. In fact it's not about anything new at all; it's all based on Old Testament texts. What the author is calling us to is not only to preach from the bible as the ultimate authority, but also not to neglect the whole character of God in our worship. Is God's justice any less an admirable attribute then His love? Or are we ashamed that our God is a God of wrath? As Paul said in Acts 20:26-27: "...I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not neglected to declare to you the whole counsel of God." Are we learning from the songs that we sing? Are we worshiping the True and Living God? These are all questions the author attempts to answer using the Old Testament songs.
Whether O'Donnell has ever kissed the Blarney Stone I don't know, but he has an extraordinary gift of communication, turning phrases and employing metaphors with great effect. This is especially apparent when he describes the importance of God-centered worship, which he does with pastoral insight and sensitivity, buttressing his analysis and applying it with contemporary relevance. Here is a little taste:
Now, how big do you think we look to the God who created this immense and awesome universe--the heavens (all that is up there and out there) and the earth (all that is down here)? Like ants? No, we're not that big. Like a speck of dust in an ant's eye? No, we're not even that big. Like nothing? No, we're not that small. We are something to God, but so often not what we think (7).
With attention consistently focused upon the splendor of God, O'Donnell sets the stage in his introduction, explaining that "many contemporary and some classic lyrics have blurred our perception of God and his work. By showing characteristics of these `sacred songs' (1 Chron. 16:42) within the sacred writings--such as their God-centered yet personal nature, their emphasis on the works of God in salvation history, and especially their joy in judgment--we will offer both a corrective and a call: a corrective to sing lyrics that will not only make us `wise for salvation,' but will also be profitable for `training in righteousness' (2 Tim. 3:14-16), as well as a call to return to the Word of God (the very words of God!) in our worship of him."
In the first of three overall sections, O'Donnell explores a handful of Old Testament songs of praise (i.e., The Song of Moses, Ex. 15:1-21; The Song of Yahweh, Deut. 32:1-43; The Song of Deborah, Judg. 5:2- 31; The Songs in Samuel, 1 Sam. 2:1-10; 2 Sam 22:2-51; The Song of Habakkuk, Hab. 3:1-19). These texts have been carefully chosen on the basis of their redemptive historical significance, connecting the dots of Hebrew promise and fulfillment in the forward-moving direction of salvation. The result is a biblical theology of divine praise that is as relevant today as it was for ancient Israel.
From his investigation, O'Donnell elucidates four characteristics that recur in biblical song. In the book's foreword, T. David Gordon summarizes these points (ix):
· The Lord is at the center; that is, our God is addressed, adored, and "enlarged."
· His mighty acts in salvation history (not merely or primarily our personal experience of redemption) are recounted.
· His acts of judgments are rejoiced in.
· His ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged.
Part two, titled "Applications for Christian Worship" explores the meaning and significance of the Old Testament theme of praise. Here is a wealth of practical wisdom as O'Donnell uses the four above-mentioned characteristics of biblical song to evaluate classical hymns and contemporary worship music. As O'Donnell waxes eloquent about the kingdom directed nature of praise, one quickly recognizes a disconnection between a biblically principled approach and the self-centered emphasis of many churches today. This may be the most provocative part of the book. Thankfully however, where many such critiques tend to sound crotchety and irritable, O'Donnell is refreshingly constructive.
Although section two is limited to the content of songs, that is, the lyrics we sing, without comment on Christian music styles and musicians, it nonetheless offers a great deal to think about. In a nutshell it is about "calling Christians out of the realm of the duped and simpleminded when it comes to the lyrical content of our songs" (159).
An incisive quote from New Testament scholar Gordon Fee at the start of part three drives home O'Donnell's point, "Show me a church's songs and I'll show you their theology." In an attempt to steer Christians in the proper direction, away from "Twinkie Tunes and Ding-Dong Theology," O'Donnell invites readers to compose their own songs to reflect biblical priorities. Titled "New Hymns and Old Texts" this third section presents several such songs which O'Donnell himself has written, new lyrics put to old tunes.
Full scripture, subject, and name indices in the appendix enable readers to access information with ease. The appendix also contains a fascinating study evaluating the top songs that have been sung in American churches from 2000 to 2008 (189).
In addition to reading God's Lyrics, pastors and church leaders will want to employ it as a basis for discussion in their churches. The important questions that it raises are indispensible to the ongoing conversation about worship, and its quality of writing makes it not only accessible but enjoyable. Most importantly, it raises our sights above the horizon of self-centered singing by encouraging us to use lyrics that are far better suited to the majestic God whom we address.