Songwriting Part 2.5: Words

I recently responded to a blog comment and so many people told me to post it as an actual blog that I’ve decided to do just that. If you want the total context of the response check it out here but you don’t necessarily need it. I’ve edited/expanded it slightly to help it make more sense on its own.


Also I’d like to say that the person I responded to seems to be a very intelligent person and had several interesting points. I don’t want anyone to think that this is knock against him in any way. His comment just got me thinking about what makes me so passionate about this subject.

Words:

God didn’t choose these words. Men did. The Bible wasn’t even written in English. So someone else had to choose the way these words would be translated. There are actually 7 different words in the old testament that someone decided to translate as the single english word “praise” and several other words that someone decided to translate into the single word “worship”. My personal favorite means “to kiss, like a dog licking it’s master”. Look it up.

There is nothing “holy” about the letters “h” “o” “l” “y”. Words are just letters and sounds that represent meaning. And when we use the same phrases they lose their association with the powerful meanings behind them. The truth has not lost power, just the words we use to tell it. That’s why we need new words. If we never changed the way we say things we would only be able to worship in Hebrew and Greek, which would mean nothing to us.

These words must mean something to us otherwise worship is little more than a base ritual, not unlike any other religion, sect, or cult.

As far as singing “about” God as apposed to singing “to” him (of which I like to do both), one way to show affection to someone is to speak or sing about them in their presence. It’s the same thing as speaking or singing to them, only sometimes it’s even more meaningful. Besides this, they do it in the Psalms and even the angels in revelation sang “about” him, not to him. “Holy is” not “Holy you are”.

Final thoughts:

I think we need to repent for making the beautiful expression of this divinely mysterious romance, that we so crudely have interpreted “worship”, into some dead ritualistic obligation. God is a real person, not some brain in the sky, not letters on a page, not a fairy tale.

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15 comments
  1. I like this. Its interesting to think about the fact that God didn't come up with the english language, although he did give the gifts and ideas to us in order to come up with it. I have to say though that while English words cannot convey the real meaning of the seven different Hebrew words for praise, there really is no way in any language to express the kind of praise that the Lord deserves. I also think that the fault is not in the words that are used, but rather in the hearts of the worshipers. Obviously it gets old singing basically the same words just with a different melody, but those words never lose their meaning. I often find myself thinking about what "holy" really means and what his "grace" really looks like. I don't mean to say that you are wrong in what you say about finding new words and new ways to describe Him because it is very refreshing to see people writing in ways that are less cliche. But the old songs and the old words are just as incredible. I love this though, wonderful ideas!

  2. Nanette said:

    If I could give you a standing ovation for this, I would.

  3. I like this. Its interesting to think about the fact that God didn't come up with the english language, although he did give the gifts and ideas to us. I have to say though that while English words cannot convey the real meaning of the seven different Hebrew words for praise, there really is no way in any language to express the kind of praise that the Lord deserves. I also think that the fault is not in the words that are used, but rather in the hearts of the worshipers. Obviously it gets old singing basically the same words just with a different melody, but those words never lose their meaning. I often find myself thinking about what "holy" really means and what his "grace" really looks like. I don't mean to say that you are wrong in what you say about finding new words and new ways to describe Him because it is very refreshing to see people writing in ways that are less cliche. But the old songs and the old words are just as incredible. I love this though, wonderful ideas!

  4. wow,I would like to intelligently express my appreciation of this post, but instead, I will just say YEAH!!!1!11oneone

  5. lar said:

    how do you say, "this rocks" in hebrew?

  6. very nice jm. its a challenge to find new ways to put it, but one we must rise to.jason watson, that is the loudest i have laughed all day.

  7. JMM,Interestingly, you used words to portray words as being less significant than action. Yet if it were not for words the actions of the past would be unknown to us.I understand that the hip thing to do now-a-days is kind of be aloof intellectually when it comes to The Bible. While I think at times it is idolized, and the reliance upon the Holy Spirit is forsaken we cannot forget that men were martyred to bring us those words in English. And while holy is indeed just a word it does help us to understand the "set apartness" of God, the unapproachableness of the sinner without the propitiation provided by Christ.So, while I hear ya, you'd never been given the chance to give the criticism if not for a few brave men. Be careful that the words that you choose in your critique doesn't neglect the fact that having the privilege to do so was provided by said men.Otherwise, we'd most likely be having this conversation in Latin. :)

  8. I'm not trying to disrespect those who died for this message. I'm trying to honor their memory by encouraging people to communicate the same message in terms that will mean something to people who are alive today.Why do we have to see everything so one dimensionally? I'm not criticizing their words at all. I'm saying we owe it to them to take the foundation they laid for us and run with it. Build a house and a roof on it then and hand it over to the next who would use our ceiling as their floor. How often do we cling to the foundation instead of building upon it? And specifically my point by showing how they translated "praise" was not to criticize their work but to show that God himself was not specifically partial to the word itself. This whole series is just me begging people to write songs that they actually mean and not just what they feel like their supposed to say. I'll take a sincere expression above a correct one any day.

  9. @Robert Glenn Smith, I think you missed JMM's point, as he reiterated in the next comment.Well put.

  10. @these critics…..When you guys write a song that makes me cry for three hours the first time I hear it. Then maybe I'll listen to your criticism.

  11. I appreciate the reply John Mark. And I was not trying to condemn or even convict you of disrespect. While I've never met you, seen you, or talked to you I find your heart in your art to be transparent and thus I feel like I know what you are saying. Nor do I believe that you may have been going in a direction that I necessarily was trying to head off. I just think that we can take the argument that "they are just words" to a level that borders on the ridiculous, almost existential.Words are very dangerous, powerful, penetrating sounds when they come out of our mouths or are understood in the ear of our mind as we read or hear them. I've done far more damage with my mouth and with a pen then I ever will with the rest of my body. I can damage my children for a lifetime with a word, especially when repeated.So, while praise and holy should have contemporary interpretations we should not neglect the use of either or criticize those that do. Whatever the language that God inspired people to use in order to tell His Story they still had to use words. It is only by the Grace of God that we have those words carefully interpreted for us in so many English translations. We're quite spoiled really, and I think that you appreciate the abundance. However, our triune God by nature loves to create and I believe we have to continue to be creative in the words we use to tell His Story and not lazily use what we read on a page reciting in order to indoctrinate ourselves with some gnostical power. When we are able to interpret what we have read and experienced in our own words then I think real transformation happens in us, and can happen in those we touch. And far be it from me to oppress anyone from doing that.

  12. @Robert Glenn Smith:I understand, absolutely, the point you are making regarding the power of words and how they can absolutely mutilate and/or change a life forever. The mouth is a dangerous place, instrument and weapon. I've learned this on many occasions, in both positive and negative ways.But I think that we are being slightly pessimistic. I think we are regarding JMM's post as an open door or a 'slippery sloap'. If someone decided to say things that were not edifying and/or glorifying, regardless if it was in a worship song or not, I'm sure JMM would not agree with such words. The point is not necessarily, 'Say whatever you want because they're just words anyways,' but rather, express how you SPECIFICALLY, not someone who died hundreds of years ago, feel about the Lord. Of course, there are those who would misuse this idea; there are some too immature to handle it, as well as those who simply despise the Lord. But we're speaking of worship. We're speaking of words that come from a pure heart, one that is after the very life, heart and intentions of Christ. One that is trying desperately to become a 'little Christ', as the word 'Christian' means. I was once under the leadership of a missionary who claimed that if a song didn't say 'holy' or say 'God', 'Lord' or 'Jesus' directly, it wasn't glorifying or 'Christian music.' I think this is ridiculous. Describing something that is holy is far more powerful than simply saying it is holy. It begs the question, 'What exactly is holy?' and 'What does it look like to be holy?' God's holiness is unlimited. It can be seen in a million, unrelated events that can all be described with a million, unrelated words. If we simply describe Him as holy forever, we begin to lose sight of Him and His roles in our every day lives. We should spend more time describing exactly what He has done in us and around us than simply slapping 'Holy' on it and calling it praise. Regard Him for all that He has done, not simply the adjective that describes Him. I know that freedom with words seems like a slippery slope. But I don't think that this can be applied to those who would misuse it. Of course there will always be those in and out of the church who will take advantage of this. But if you are sincerely seeking to glorify God with the things that you say, do you honestly think that something horrible would come to mind? If you are centered on the Creator God and are seeking Him and Him alone, I hardly think that disgusting things would come out. I recognize that we are human, but as it is said, the mouth is the outpour of the heart. If the desire of your heart is genuine, then things that come out of it won't be questionable. Your intentions dictate your mouth.God is far to creative and broad to be boxed in by a few words that only 'generally' describe Him. Of course there will be those who will misuse the idea, but that is to be expected. If the intentions are right, the words will be glorifying whether they sound church-like or not.

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