Series introduction: The title of this series comes from I Corinthians 14:15, where Paul said, ” I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.” I want to help you sing hymns with understanding; that is, to understand what you are singing with your mind, so that you can rejoice in what you are singing with your spirit. If you don’t understand something mentally, you cannot sing it spiritually. Understanding is the kindling that fuels worship, and I want to help pile up kindling in your heart.
Last time, we studied the first stanza of “Come, We That Love the Lord,” and heard the call to sing to the Lord because of the joys of the Christian life. We’ll see a similar theme in the second stanza. Here it is:
The sorrows of the mind
Be banished from the place;
Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less.
I’ve never seen this stanza in a hymnbook! I’m sure this is partly because there are a total of 10 stanzas, and modern hymnbooks usually contain no more than 4, and 5 at the very most. For that reason (sad as it is), I would assume that this stanza is unknown to nearly all Christians, as it was to me until this year.
The first half of the stanza is yet another exhortation. I think that “the place” is likely the gathering of a church, as on a Sunday morning, for Watts has just said, “Come,” and “join in a song with sweet accord.” This usually happens in church. Let me put this exhortation in modern vernacular: “Put away sorrows while in church.”
Now, we have to understand this carefully. Here is what this exhortation does not mean. It does not mean that you should not feel sorrow in church, or even that you should not feel sorrow at all.
First, this is because the Scripture clearly teaches that we ought to “weep with those that weep” (Rom. 12:15), and this is true even when we are gathered together. The Lord Jesus Himself wept and felt grief (John 11:33, 35). Lament is a Christian emotion. (I’ll just add here, as a side note, that I believe we should sing psalms in church, including lament psalms. We harm ourselves by forcing ourselves to look happy in church, and when our musical menu at church is mostly upbeat, bouncy, and exuberant – think “What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought.” This is an imbalanced diet. By only singing happy songs, we also preach false doctrine about the Christian life – that we should always be happy, happy, happy all the day.)
Second, this is because we ought to feel grief for our sins when the Holy Spirit brings us under conviction through the preached word, or even through a hymn. There is such a thing as “godly sorrow” which is good for us (II Cor. 7:9-11).
So what does it mean to banish sorrows “from the place”? Philippians 4:4 should help us here. In that verse we are told to “rejoice in the Lord,” and that we should do this always (Phil. 4:4). Although we may weep with those who are suffering, weep in our own pain, and weep over our sins, yet there should be a constant undercurrent of joy in the Lord – sometimes deep under the surface, yet other times bubbling up in heartfelt praise and exuberant singing. Even though we may be “sorrowful,” we should be “always rejoicing” (II Cor. 6:10).
The last half of the stanza provides the ground for the exhortation. (This seems clear, even though the two halves aren’t joined together by a conjunction like “for” or “because”). These two lines pack a powerful punch. God never gave us religion so we could have less pleasure. The unspoken counterpoint here is that God gave us religion so we could have more pleasure! Here is the context of the exhortation to banish sorrow.
God did not give us “religion” to lessen our pleasures, Watts says. I would define “religion” here as the practice of godliness – living the Christian life, in modern language (see definitions 2 and 3 of Webster’s 1828 dictionary). These include Bible reading and meditation, prayer, evangelism, church attendance, acts of charity, and so on. If these duties lessen rather than increase our joy, something is wrong in our hearts. God is pleased when our obedience is not a duty but a delight. He loves a “cheerful giver” (II Cor. 9:7); the Macedonians gave joyfully in their poverty (II Cor. 8:2); only the one who is truly holy can be truly happy (Psalm 45:7).
So, in summary, this stanza tells us, “Put away sorrows while in church, for God wants to fill your heart with joy as you worship Him.” Watts saw that this exhortation was needed, for he observed and criticized the lack of joy and zeal in congregational singers of his day.
“To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” (Christianity Today article on Watts)
May this never be said of us! Rather, may we daily focus on the Lord Himself, in whose presence are eternal, boundless pleasures (Psalm 16:11); may we serve Him “with gladness” and enter His presence in worship and song this Sunday with “thanksgiving” and “praise” (Psalm 100:2, 4).