During my recent sabbatical from blog-writing, I started thinking about the hymns that mean the most to me at this point in my spiritual journey. The more I pondered it, the more I realized that certain hymns have become exceedingly precious and important to my soul. What follows is a list of my ten favorite hymns. It is nothing more than that. I simply concluded that these hymns feed my soul and strengthen my faith, and I thought it might be useful to share this list. Perhaps it will spur others to think about the hymns that mean the most to them. Later I plan to do a list of my ten favorite gospel songs and my ten favorite contemporary worship choruses.
1) And Can It Be?
I cannot recall ever hearing this wonderful hymn by Charles Wesley when I was growing up in church. Either it wasn’t in our hymnal or we never sang it. Ian Leitch told me that this hymn didn’t become widely known in America until the 1954 Billy Graham Crusade at Harringay Arena in London. This magnificent God-centered hymn contains the whole gospel. Tonight Marlene and I sang together the verse that begins, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.” Has there ever been a greater verse written to describe how sinners are awakened to God’s saving grace?
2) Holy, Holy, Holy
For years this would have been my number one choice, in part because it was always the first hymn in the hymnal. And I confess that whenever I pick up a new hymnal, I check to see if “Holy, Holy, Holy” is number one. It ought to be because it lifts our hearts to praise our triune God. This is where all worship begins.
3) Crown Him With Many Crowns
I had a hard time not putting this song as my first choice because I find myself singing it when I ride my bike. What a Christ-exalting song this is. When I am in a great congregation filled with people, and the organ and choir lift up this majestic hymn, when we come to the last verse, I want to sing and weep and clap and cheer at the same time:
Crown Him the Lord of years, the Potentate of time,
Creator of the rolling spheres, ineffably sublime.
All hail, Redeemer, hail! For Thou has died for me;
Thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity.
This is the sort of music we will sing in heaven.
4) A Mighty Fortress
Or maybe this should be my number one song. If Martin Luther had done nothing else but give us this wonderful hymn of worship, praise, spiritual conflict and ultimate victory, if he hadn’t nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church and launched the Reformation that changed the world, if all he had done was give us this hymn, we would still sing it and be forever in his debt. Those stirring final words put steel into the soul of every Christian because they remind us of what matters most:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
5) Great Is Thy Faithfulness
I find it hard to speak of this hymn without tears coming to my eyes. As the years roll on, how much I cling to God’s faithfulness. Just three weeks ago yesterday, when Josh and Leah were married in Bennington, Vermont, the two mothers were escorted into the sanctuary while the violinist played this hymn. The wedding program noted that it was being played because it is their favorite hymn. During my years as a pastor, while planning funerals, time and again families requested that their loved ones be sent off into eternity with this song as their theme.
6) Be Thou My Vision
Although first published in 1909, the lyrics date from the eighth century. The traditional tune is actually an ancient Irish melody, and some scholars believe the words were originally written by St. Patrick, the man who brought the gospel to Ireland. The hymn calls us away from the vanishing treasures of the world to the only treasure that really matters, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.
My wife particularly likes John Rutter’s version of this hymn.
7) Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Written by William Williams in 1745 for the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church, the hymn asks God for guidance and protection today as he guided and protected the children of Israel in the wilderness. John Hughes gave us the majestic tune that perfectly fits the lyrics. I love it in part because of the Welsh melody called CWM RHONDDA. I don’t speak a word of Welsh, but most of the Pritchards come originally from Wales, and I always take comfort when I sing this hymn that I am somehow in touch with the faith of my ancestors.
8) Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
Joachim Neander wrote this hymn in 1680 during a time in his when he needed comfort from the Lord. The words contain striking affirmations of God’s providence in all the affairs of life:
Hast thou not seen how thy desires ever have been Granted in what He ordaineth?
These words proclaim trace all our blessings back to the mercy and goodness of our sovereign God:
Praise to the Lord, Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness and mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, If with His love He befriend thee.
9) It Is Well With My Soul
Christians everywhere love this hymn in part because of the tragic circumstances surrounding its composition. In 1873 Horatio Spafford and his family were on their way across the Atlantic Ocean to support the evangelistic efforts of D. L. Moody in England. Detained at the last moment by business concerns, he sent his wife and four daughters ahead. On the night of November 22, 1873, their ship was struck by an English sailing vessel and sank in 12 minutes. Mrs. Spafford was found unconscious, clinging to a piece of wreckage. All four daughters perished. Upon reaching Cardiff, Wales, she wired her husband, “Saved alone.” Grief-stricken, Spafford left immediately to join his wife. After passing over the spot where the ship had gone down, he wrote, “It is well. The will of God be done.” Here is a reproduction of the hymn in his own handwriting. The verses move us from the tragedies of life to the forgiveness that is ours in Christ to the day when our “faith shall be sight.” We love this hymn because it speaks to the sadness and loss we have all experienced and the hope that is ours in Christ.
10) Come, Thou Fount
Finally, there is this wonderful hymn set to an early American folk tune. Verse 1 calls for songs of “loudest praise” for the “streams of mercy” that flow from the “Mount of God’s redeeming love.” Verse 2 raises the Ebenezer to praise the Lord Jesus who “sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God.” Verse 3 is perhaps the most beloved because it speaks to the tendency we all feel “to leave the God I love.»
O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for Thy courts above.
So there you have my ten favorite hymns. As I thought about this list, three things came to my mind. First, I value hymns with God-centered, Christ-exalting theology. I have no interest in going to church and singing man-centered songs. I want to sing songs that lift up the name of our great God. Second, I value hymns where the words and the music fit together so that the tune seems to tattoo the truth on my soul. Not every hymn and every tune make such a perfect combination, but I think it would be hard to improve upon the marriage of word and lyric in these ten hymns. Third, all of these hymns can be sung in a contemporary style. In fact, I’ve heard most of them done very well by worship bands in contemporary services. While I am very grateful for the explosion of new music in our day, I think we must intentionally find ways to bring the old hymns into our modern worship services in ways that the younger generation can understand. It would be a shame to lose our musical heritage (and the truth contained in these hymns) because we mistakenly thought they were traditional and thus could not be used in a contemporary service.