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Jewish Hymns – Not Like Ours

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This paper is written for only one reason – charismatics and other cultists are returning to Judaistic practices, feasts and rites, claiming they are essential to modern ‘Christians’. The hymns we have today came about by tradition, not by necessity. But to insist on Judaism as our source of what churches must do is very dubious, if not very wrong. Jesus Christ abolished the physical priesthood, the whole Jewish set-up and Judaistic means of salvation. So why go back to what was made redundant by the Lord? Jewish hymns are not like ours and their purposes can often be different.

I will not be looking at Christian hymns here, but will note that many hymns sung by ‘Reformed’ Christians are inconsistent with their beliefs! Also, when Christians sing hymns how many both understand and remember what they are singing? It is true to say that when singing hymns Christians can often be on ‘auto-pilot’ repeating oft-sung words but never taking them to heart or considering their meanings.

Ancient Hebrew hymn were songs sung spontaneously, rather like David’s spontaneous dancing. They arose in response to an event or God-given situation. Thus, they were more like genuine prayers, very unlike the prayers uttered today, and the motives behind them!

Apart from these spontaneous activities, there were no recorded ‘hymns’ in Jewish life. Of course, this does not mean they did not exist, only that the early writers did not consider music or songs important enough to be included in their documentation. Later, however, Jews began to formalise music and song, though song was not instituted by Moses.

Much later, when Jesus and the apostles met in the upper room, they finished their Passover meal with a ‘hymn’. Though the word used is ‘sung’, but it may well have meant ‘chanted’, when they repeated one of the ‘paschal psalms’. These were formal songs and followed great events, victory in war, important feasts, and so on. Today, several hymns are sung at one meeting, but few really take notice of them, because, like their ‘prayers’, they are not spontaneous.

In many cases in Hebrew worship, prayers and hymns were the same thing. Though most songs were spontaneous (and therefore unrecorded or not written beforehand), there were a few formal examples, such as the ‘confessions’ spoken by the priest, when bringing in the first fruits and the tithe. The high priest would also pray’ recite a hymn, but this was not formal or pre-written. Most prayers/hymns were offered by the priests whilst the congregation lay before them, prostrate. They may, or may not, have given verbal responses to those hymns/prayers, much like the responses heard in high-Anglican or Roman Catholic services.

Eventually, prayer-hymns and responses became formalised and thus legalistic in content and motive. By the time of Jesus, in Ashkenazi usage, the ‘table’ hymns sing at special occasions such as Sabbath (and possibly Passover) were thought to carry merit with God, so we see here the idea of works bolstering faith. It is possible that this was the kind ‘sung’ or recited by Jesus and the apostles. Different kinds of hymns, or zemirots, were used for different occasions. There were eight zemirots for a Friday evening meal, eight for the Sabbath noon meal, and nine for the end of the Sabbath! However, these zemirot or zemer were not obligatory.

So, overall, Jewish songs or hymns were firstly spontaneous responses to wonderful events, godly interventions, war victors, and so on. Then certain words were formalised by priests for some rites, though prayers/hymns by the high priest were spontaneous. In all these the congregation remained silent and may, or may not, have given a formal response, probably spoken. None of these were commanded by Moses, so grew up like many other traditions, accepted because of use, rather than because they were God-given.

What, then, are hymns today? We no longer have an earthly priesthood, so why have hymns? Hymns are sometimes things to sing, though many sound more like dirges than beautiful sounds! Some are merely repetitious nonsense evoking emotions rather than genuine spiritual responses. It seems very likely that the reason for singing hymns is either because people like music, or simply to divide-up patches of Bible reading, ‘prayers’ and teaching, so that people may sit down, stand up, and variously not become too bored!

I say this because most of us have stood obediently to thumb through a hymn book, sing the hymn and then sit down again, mainly without checking the viability or theological orthodoxy of the words sung. For example, it is not unusual for reformed men to sing Arminian renditions! Or for hymns to be more philosophical statements than Biblical arguments.

The current ‘twee’ fashion, of copying all things Jewish is nonsense, and can even be blasphemous, for repeating things already disbanded by Christ is to disobey and dishonour His name and work. Every aspect of corporate life MUST be examined carefully, so as to avoid repeating what is dead, or doing what no longer applies.

© July 2010

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