A hymn is a song of praise. In ancient Greek culture, a hymnos was musical praise directed to the gods or heroes of the day. In Christianity, hymns are directed to the one true God, of course.
God’s people have sung hymns in honor of the Almighty since the time of Moses and before (Exodus 15:1). David sang the “new song” God gave him and taught others to sing “a hymn of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:3). Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn together at the Last Supper (Mark 14:26). The early church sang hymns as part of their regular gatherings (1 Corinthians 14:26). Paul and Silas, with their feet in stocks in a Philippian jail, were “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
Technically, a hymn is a stanzaic, metrical poem meant to be sung. A traditional meter for hymns in English is 188.8.131.52., called common meter, which corresponds with ballad stanza. The subject matter of a hymn is what distinguishes it from the “psalms” and “spiritual songs” mentioned in Ephesians 5:19 (ESV); a psalm can be thought of as Scripture set to music—usually from the book of Psalms—and a spiritual song can be any song with a spiritual theme, including songs of testimony and admonition. A hymn addresses and celebrates God and has the purpose of praise and adoration.
Ephesians 5:18–19 says there is a direct connection between being filled with the Spirit and singing: “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.” A Spirit-filled Christian is a singing Christian. Music is the natural overflow of a heart in fellowship with the Lord. The songs the church sings are not to be simply a musical exercise; they must be in the heart and not just in the mouth. The hymns the Spirit prompts are a means by which believers edify, encourage, and teach each other (see also Colossians 3:16).
Hymns are a valuable aid to worship because they help to focus our attention on the goodness and glory of the Lord. The hymn “How Great Thou Art,” for example, reminds us of God’s majesty revealed in creation, His perfect sacrifice on the cross, and His coming return for His own—all matters of praise.
The classic hymns of Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Fanny Crosby, Charles Wesley, and many others have blessed millions of Christians through the centuries. Modern hymn writers such as Twila Paris, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Graham Kendrick, and Stuart Townend continue to put biblical truth in poetic form and turn our attention to the Lord who is great and “most worthy of praise” (Psalm 96:4).