Mixed, Misplaced, and Reappropriated Metaphors

Paul said, “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Corinthians 14:15). This article is part of a series examining some commonly sung hymns with the aim of ensuring that like Paul we can sing with understanding when we sing them. Use the tag "Song Studies" to find more.
Paul commands us to “be filled with the Spirit” by, among other things, “speaking to one another in psalms hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18-19). Choosing to be filled with the Spirit seems to be about yielding to His influence; it is contrasted in Ephesians 5:18 with choosing to drink alcohol and coming under its influence. So how does singing help you come under the influence of the Holy Spirit? In a parallel command, Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom,” by, among other things, “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16). Together, Ephesians 5:18-19 and Colossians 3:16 tell us that singing is an act of teaching that was designed by God to bring us closer to the Holy Spirit by filling us with the Spirit’s inspired message about Jesus Christ.

Given that teaching God’s word is at the heart of God’s design for singing, we should give diligence to 1) understanding the words of the songs we sing (hence this series of articles!), 2) ensuring that the songs that we sing are actually in line with the teachings of the Bible, and 3) ensuring that songs are purposefully instructive. In my experience, I’ve discovered hymns that conflict with the latter two of these goals in every song book I’ve used. Some hymns are just not spiritually instructive or worshipful at all (I’m looking at you, “Precious Memories”), and others are simply not consistent with biblical teaching in one or several points.

Some songs though present a unique challenge in that they appropriate Biblical events and/or language and use it/them in ways that differ from the Bible’s usage. When this happens, song leaders and singers have to consider 1) how the hymn is using the Biblical words or concept and 2) whether or not this usage is consistent with what is taught in Scripture. Let’s consider some of the kinds of things that happen in hymnody and reflect upon some examples.

Mixed Metaphors
– I’m convinced that some hymn authors over the years have composed lyrics without carefully checking their memory against the Bible. This at times has brought about some interesting results. One such result is a mixed metaphor, where comparative language is combined in a way not found in the Bible.  

Take for example Eliza Hewitt’s hymn, “Will There Be Any Stars?”, which centers around Hewitt’s desire to know whether she will have any stars in her crown in heaven. Daniel says of the wise that “those who turn many to righteousness” will shine “like the stars forever and ever,” (Daniel 12:3), and the New Testament frequently references an “imperishable crown” that Christians will receive (1 Corinthians 9:25; cf. 2 Timothy 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11; 4:4, 10). However, these two thoughts are never combined in Scripture. The author seems simply to have mixed the two metaphors together of her own accord.  

Misplaced Metaphors – Another result yielded by a perhaps less than careful reflection upon the Biblical text is a misplaced metaphor. This is where comparative language is applied to something in a way that’s not really consistent with its use in Scripture.

For example, for hundreds of years, theologians have seen a picture of Jesus and the church as they reflect upon the words of Song of Solomon. Marriage does in some way picture the relationship between Jesus and His followers (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33), but Song of Solomon resists being pressed too hard to do so. God’s purpose in giving the book is likely more about teaching us about marriage than about Jesus. Still, because of this historical association, hymn writers have borrowed from the book’s words to poetically describe Jesus.

The problem in borrowing from the Song of Solomon to describe Jesus is that there are a few different voices in the book. Newer Bible translations add notes like “He,” “She,” and “Others” to identify these speakers for readers. They almost certainly have it right when they record the Shulamite woman, Solomon’s love interest in the book, as saying “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys,” as the very next line appears to be Solomon saying, “Like a lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (Song of Solomon 2:1-2). However, you probably recognize both “rose of Sharon” and “lily of the valleys” as metaphors that hymnists have applied to Jesus. If they were using these metaphors in a way that agreed with the marriage metaphor for the church, these words would describe the beauty of the church rather than Jesus. In fact, elsewhere, God promises that He will make His people “grow like the lily” rather than be a lily to them (Hosea 14:5).    

Reappropriated Metaphors
– Though hymnists can be guilty of mixing or misplacing metaphors, they can also take Biblical pictures and reappropriate them in ways consistent with Bible usage. For example, several hymns poetically picture death as a crossing of the Jordan river. Crossing the Jordan in Scripture was how God’s people entered into the land He had promised them. Though this event is not used metaphorically in the New Testament, hymns frequently borrow that picture to help God’s people understand that death is not something to be feared but merely a passage to what God has promised for us. Another image that has been reappropriated is of Moses climbing Mount Pisgah at the end of his life, enabling him to see the promised land (Deuteronomy 34:1). This image is used in hymns to speak of reaching life’s heights and/or feeling so close to Heaven that, through faith, you can see it. Again, this metaphor is not found in Scripture, but this usage is pretty consistent with the event recorded in Deuteronomy. Many other examples could be cited.

As we reflect upon the above, we should realize that the use of metaphors, like any language in hymns, can yield good, bad, or indifferent results. As relates to our examples, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to ask the question Hewitt does about stars or to compare Jesus to flowers even though the Bible doesn’t do so. However, whenever we sing, we should take care to consider what the words mean and what we are attempting to communicate in singing them. Given the aims of singing we discussed in our introduction, some hymns might fall by the wayside because of their use of metaphors; others might be sung but might from time to time warrant an explanation from a song leader so that the right message is taught.  
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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