One of the books that has shaped how I think and write is God’s Lyrics: Rediscovering Worship Through Old Testament Songs by Douglas Sean O’Donnell.
O’Donnell’s helpful work examines 6 songs in the Old Testament:
- Two Songs of Moses (Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32)
- Song of Deborah (Judges 5)
- Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2)
- Song of David (2 Samuel 22)
- Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3)
He then gives us four major themes found in each:
- The Lord is at the center; that is, our God is addressed, adored, and “enlarged.”
- His mighty acts in salvation history are recounted.
- His acts of judgment are rejoiced in.
- His ways of living (practical wisdom) are encouraged.
O’Donnell does a great job of reminding worship songwriters of where the focus of our songs should be. Is the song centered on God or man? Can we sing the song before Him? Who are we worshiping?
This doesn’t mean we can’t write and sing songs about our lives and what God has done in and through our lives. We shouldn’t ignore the human element and how we relate to God and each other. For instance, many of the Psalms were written about man’s struggles. Our songs can use first person pronouns. As O’Donnell points out:
“The problem is not the use of the first person pronoun, as many music critics claim. Rather, it is self-love lyrics! There is a subtle but significant difference between “The LORD exults in my heart” and “My heart exults in the LORD.” The latter perfectly balances personal references with praise for God.”
O’Donnell makes the case that the songwriting pendulum has swung heavily toward man centered lyrics (but not all). He compares the most popular Christian songs and hymns with these 6 songs from the Old Testament and it’s an eye-opening read.
The biggest impact this book has had on my writing is the simple reminder to keep the focus on God and the Lord Jesus Christ. The words we choose to use can make all the difference. My goal is to swing the pendulum back a bit, but I’m sure I have written (and will write) lyrics that need improvement in this area.
The next time you’re writing a song, poem, prayer, or devotion, check to see if it passes the God centered test (you could also say the gospel centered test).