Having This Ministry
A Digital Newsletter from Living Stream Ministry

What Makes a Good Hymn?

In the previous two issues of “Having This Ministry...,” we have presented a brief history of the hymnal (February 2023, Issue No. 17) and an article encouraging us not only to sing but also to study the hymns (March 2023, Issue No. 18). In this issue we will look at the qualities that make a good hymn and highlight a few examples of outstanding hymns that Brother Nee and Brother Lee commended in their ministry.


We all have our favorite hymns that have touched us personally, perhaps by stirring up our love for the Lord, uplifting our view of the church, or calling us to deeper experiences of life. Some hymns are enjoyed often in our corporate meetings and are immediately recognizable as beloved selections among us. As we have sung and studied the hymns, we probably have had a sense that certain ones are higher or more profound than others. This should not bother us, since different hymns meet different needs, but it is helpful to recognize that there are different standards of hymns in our hymnal. For example, Brother Lee noted that “Oh, how I love Jesus” (Hymns, #70) is of a very low standard, while “It passeth knowledge, that dear love of Thine” (Hymns, #154) is of a much higher standard, and “O how deep and how far-reaching / Is Thy love, dear Lord, to me!” (Hymns, #152) is of the highest standard (CWWL, 1988, vol. 1, “Speaking Christ for the Building Up of the Body of Christ,” p. 212). This is not to say that those hymns of a lower standard in our hymnal are not good hymns; it simply affirms what we know intuitively, that is, that some hymns take us further in our understanding, appreciation, and experience of Christ than do others. What then are the characteristics of a good hymn, and what are some of the hymns among us that are of an exceptionally high standard? Brother Nee identified three requirements of a good hymn (see CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” ch. 15), and he and Brother Lee give examples of hymns that are particularly outstanding.

According to Brother Nee, the first requirement of a good hymn is that it must be based on the truth. This may seem like an obvious requirement, but there are Christian hymns that contain doctrinal errors, even though they may stir the heart or touch the emotion. As Brother Nee points out, some Christian hymns express a desire for salvation or a hope of salvation but do not give any assurance of salvation. As believers in Christ, we must have the assurance that we are truly saved so that we can have the proper base for the further experiences of life. Any hymn that causes us to question that assurance is not a proper hymn and can frustrate our subsequent enjoyment of Christ for the growth in life unto maturity. A hymn that is wrong in the truth, then, can rob us of proper experience, as Brother Nee helps us to see:

When God’s children sing hymns, their feelings are directed toward God. If the hymns have wrong doctrines, they will be cheated in their feelings and will not touch reality. God does not meet us according to the poetic sentiment of the hymn; He meets us according to the truth conveyed in the hymn. We can only come before God in truth. If we do not come to God in truth, we are in error and will not touch reality. (CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” pp. 228-229)

The second requirement for a proper hymn is that it must be poetic in its form and structure. Hymns, as we see in the book of Psalms, are poetry. If the words of a hymn lack appropriate rhymes, do not fit the poetic meter, or are merely doctrinal and not poetic in the sentiment they intend to convey, then the hymn may not be easily singable and may fail to touch the singer’s inner being. Therefore, even if the doctrine is right, doctrine alone is not sufficient to constitute a worthy and appropriate hymn. A good hymn must rise to the level of poetry.

The third requirement for a proper hymn is that it must provide spiritual impact and help the singer to touch spiritual reality. The psalms in the Bible are full of spiritual impact and bring us into the spiritual reality of the psalmists’ genuine sentiments of joy, grief, or repentance. A good hymn on consecration, for example, will bring us into a feeling of consecration and touch us to consecrate ourselves anew. “If a hymn cannot give us an accurate feeling on a subject,” Brother Nee says, “it is not a good hymn. The feeling of a hymn must be genuine, and it must touch spiritual reality” (CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” p. 231).

Brother Nee pointed to a few examples that embody all three of the characteristics of good hymns, and to stunning effect. He reserved particular praise for Hymns, #127 (“Hark! ten thousand voices crying”), written by John Nelson Darby, saying, “It is rare for us to come across a hymn as great as this one” (CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” p. 232). This hymn brings us into an awe-inspiring, poetic rendering of the scene of universal praise to the ascended Christ, the slain Lamb of God, in Revelation 4 and 5. In this majestic gathering, every mouth is confessing Jesus as Lord, and every knee is bowed to Him. As the universal praise resounds, the writer is enraptured at what he witnesses: “Joyful now the new creation / Rests in undisturbed repose, / Blest in Jesus’ full salvation, / Sorrow now nor thraldom knows.” It is a grand hymn, one worthy of close study for its truth, its poetic form and structure, and the spiritual reality it brings us into as we are transported to join the universal chorus in adoration of our beloved Savior.

Two other hymns that Brother Nee greatly appreciated are Hymns, #578 (“My will is weak, my strength is frail”) and #377 (“If the path I travel / Lead me to the cross”), both of which touch the individual believer’s experience of learning submission to the Lord through suffering and loss. In hymn 578 the writer has lost all hope in himself and is brought to the point where he relies only on the Lord’s grace to go on. Of this hymn Brother Nee says, “If our feelings are tested and refined, every time we come to God and touch such a divinely tested and refined hymn, our feeling cannot help but be caught up in it” (CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” p. 237). In hymn 377, written by Sister M. E. Barber, the writer seeks not the joys of earth but perfect fellowship with the Lord. Though her heart is broken, her spirit still praises the Lord. Her consecration issues in complete submission, and the hymn consummates in a prayer that she would be one through whom the Lord’s life can freely flow: “Selfless may I live, Lord, / By Thy grace to be / Just a cleansèd channel / For Thy life through me.” Of this hymn Brother Nee says, “It is rare for a hymn on fellowship to reach such a standard” (CWWN, vol. 48, “Messages for Building Up New Believers (1),” p. 238).

According to Brother Lee, the hymns on identification with Christ written by A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, “are of the highest standard” (CWWL, 1988, vol. 1, “Speaking Christ for the Building Up of the Body of Christ,” p. 212), and he pointed to Hymns, #481 (“Crucified with Christ my Savior”) and #482 (“I am crucified with Christ”) as examples of these. In hymn 481 A. B. Simpson writes, “’Tis not hard to die with Christ / When His risen life we know; / ’Tis not hard to share His suff’rings / When our hearts with joy o’erflow.” We may feel that it is hard to die with Christ, but this hymn recognizes that, according to Philippians 3:10, we are already identified with Christ’s death and resurrection as an experiential reality; thus, it is not difficult to die with Him. Hymn 482 expresses this same identification in wonderfully poetic language; the following stanza highlights the productivity and richness of resurrection life: “This the secret nature hideth, / Harvest grows from buried grain; / A poor tree with better grafted, / Richer, sweeter life doth gain.” Through their poetry, these hymns usher us into a heightened appreciation for the wonder of Christ’s death and resurrection as a reality that we can and must experience day by day.

As we learn to study the hymns and perhaps try our own hand at writing hymns, we can bear in mind the characteristics of a good hymn and dive more deeply into the hymns that so inspired Brother Nee and Brother Lee, and of course, we can take as a main focus of our study the many hymns that Brother Nee and Brother Lee wrote, which, we believe, have elevated the art of hymn writing to new heights. May the Lord bless our endeavoring to know the hymns and, through them, to advance in our appreciation and experience of Him.