The Marriage of Text and Tune

Today is going to be a little different.  After a brief “how to worship God with our writing” exercise (song lyrics), I will be mainly exploring a way to take that writing a step further (setting it to pre-existing music).

In the last three posts, I introduced three different ideas to explore for possible song lyrics.  Today, I challenge you to implement one of these and write a song, but first it would be a good idea to brush up on meter.

For those of you who have never written lyrics before (and especially for those of you who don’t know anything about music theory), I would suggest sticking to an iambic (common meter), iambic (long meter), or iambic (short meter).

Once you are satisfied with your lyrics, choose a tune from a hymnal you have lying around for the tune.  You don’t have a hymnal?  Go ask your pastor or music minister, chances are you will walk away with 3 or 4 different hymnals from the boxes and boxes of them your church has in storage.

In the back of the hymnal are several indexes listed the hymns by author, title, tune title, and tune meter (plus or minus one or two other criteria depending on the hymnal).  When you finish your lyrics, start looking through the tune meter index to find all of the tunes listed with the meter you chose.  Try singing your song to a few familiar and a few unfamiliar tunes (if you can’t read music, type in the hymn name into to listen to a midi version).

It is very important to find a tune that matches the lyrics well.  You have a specific feel in mind when writing the lyrics, so you should find a tune that best gets that feel across.  One example I like use a lot is Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.  This link takes you to see the lyrics and hear my favorite tune for it: EBENEZER.  In 1991, however, the Baptist hymnal decided to change the tune from EBENEZER to HARRIS.  In 2008, the Baptist hymnal kept the HARRIS tune.

In my opinion, switching from EBENEZER to HARRIS was a huge travesty.  First of all, the lyrics to the song are filled with water imagery, and the rhythm of the tune EBENEZER feels like waves crashing on the shore.  The HARRIS tune, however, feels like a pub song.  It seems to me that the editors of the 1991 Baptist hymnal wanted to shy away from tunes in minor keys, so this song was given a tune that made it feel more upbeat and “happy”.  What it loses, though, with this is change is a proper marriage of tune and text.

When you are selecting your tune, do not think about which tune makes you feel happiest.  Think about which tune carries the same message that your lyrics carry.  Only then will a song truly work to speak the message it was meant to speak.

31  Days

Connecting Multiple Passages

While taking a single passage of Scripture and meditating on it (as we do when Christianizing the Old Testament and paraphrasing) is an excellent spiritual discipline, we can really learn how the Bible connects as a single work when we seek out connecting multiple passages together.

It has been said that the best way to begin interpreting Scripture is to take a look other passages of Scripture.  This can be seen most commonly by Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (a great place to start studying these is in the first few chapters of Matthew) and in Paul’s letters to the various first century churches.

One of the fundamental Christian beliefs is that all Scripture is divinely inspired and without error; that God wrote the entire work through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by the hands of His chosen instruments.  If, then, the whole cannon has one author, it is only logical to believe that the best person to ask any questions about a particular passage would be that same author.

downloadWhen we seek to study the Word, then, we must look for these connections.  In my first post on defining worship, I used Romans 12:1 and John 4:23 to reiterate Deuteronomy 6:5.  This is but one example of how all Scripture fits together.  The more we study and the more content of Scripture we know, the easier we can make these connections.

This practice is one of my favorite inspirations for songwriting.  One of these song, Into The Water (actually written by Renee and me) takes the story of Peter getting his feet washed by Christ from John 13 and compares it to the walking on water from Matthew 14.  The connection we ran with was the fact that Peter’s feet got wet in both passages.

While this may seem too simple a connection to work with, we feel that it really brings out the main message of the John passage: “The maker of the water, the one who walks on the waves made himself into a servant and rescued me, a simple fisherman”.

 Peter’s objection to Christ washing his feet becomes more justified to us when we remember all that Peter had seen Christ do.  Christ, who had mastery of the laws of physics, had “no right” to wash Peter’s feet, but that act of washing shows us such a strong picture of grace.

I personally find that the more connections I see like the one above, the more beautiful God’s grace appears to me.

31  Days


Five Minute Free-Write: what connections do you find in scripture that you may want to write about one day?


Scripture Paraphrase

by Bryan Emerson

Scripture paraphrase is a longstanding church tradition, especially considering the Psalms.  The Jewish church sang the Psalter regularly in their worship practices, so it was only natural for the Christian church to desire to carry on the tradition.

During the Reformation, John Calvin had a nearly completed Psalter translated and paraphrased into meter.  It was immensely important to Calvin to sing only Scripture during worship, but he considered a good paraphrase to be quite edifying.

There are a few things to take into account when paraphrasing Scripture, though:

  1. A paraphrase is not authoritative.  Only the original manuscripts are without error, and while we trust that God has kept His word safe through the translation processes, all paraphrases are skewed toward the beliefs of the paraphraser, no matter how sound those beliefs may be
  1. A good paraphrase will always focus on the main idea of the passage.  Each Biblical passage has a primary message, and many will often have secondary and tertiary messages as well.  These secondary and tertiary messages may sometimes be used to help back up theological ideas, but they should never be used to base a theological argument.  In the same way, a paraphrase should never be built on the secondary or tertiary messages of a passage.
  1. Paraphrases may be strict or loose, so long as they do not stretch into heresy.  When trying to put Scripture into meter, you may go line by line and try to keep as much of the original text as you can; but you may also take the main ideas and details from the passage and make it more personal or poetic as you wish, as long as the main ideas are kept intact and still reflect good theology.

These are not the only things to take into account when paraphrasing, but these three will take you a long way.  Here are some of my favorite examples of Scripture paraphrases, in songwriting:

Jon Foreman – Equally SkilledMicah 7

Matt Redman – 10000 ReasonsPsalm 103

Martin Luther – A Mighty FortressPsalm 46

31  DaysFive Minute Free-Write: Have you ever paraphrased scripture in song-writing? What are the difficulties you found, when attempting to paraphrase?

Christianizing the Old Testament

by Bryan Emerson


A good writing practice to cultivate is to write as a direct response to Scripture.  This can be done by taking multiple passages and explicating theological connections, by taking long passages and paraphrasing them, or by Old Testament passages and re-telling them through the lense of Christ and the New Testament (to name a few).  All three of these ways are also commonly used when writing songs.

The latter may possibly be the oldest recorded form of writing responsively as a Christian worship practice, as we have several examples recorded in the New Testament epistles.  One of my favorite instances is the Church’s response to Isaiah 60 through the lense of Christ found in Ephesians 5.

Isaiah heard from the Lord and wrote in chapter 60:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,

   and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,

   and thick darkness the peoples;

but the Lord will arise upon you,

   and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,

   and kings to the brightness of your rising.


After witnessing this light through Christ, and with an intimate knowledge of this passage, the first century church wrote a hymn which was recorded by Paul in Ephesians 5:

Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the

And Paul, who knew this hymn as well as the Isaiah passage, wrote in response (also in Ephesians 5):

For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light.

As a response to this passage, there have been hundreds if not thousands of songs written as worship.  A quick YouTube search found these (plus several very loosely inspired songs I did not include):

J.S. Bach – Sleepers, Awake!

Jason Crabb & Third Day – Wake Up Oh Sleeper

Gungor – Wake Up Sleeper

Graham Kendrick- Wake Up, O Sleeper (HeartCry)

As well as my own song: Bryan J Emerson – Wake Up! Sleeper!
For more examples of First Century hymns, look up 1 Timothy 3:16, Philippians 2:5-11, and Colossians 1:15-20.


31  DaysFive Minute Free-Write: What are your favorite scripture response songs/hymns?

Writing Exercise: A Mile in Someone Else’s … Sandals?

To put what we learned yesterday in practice, today we will be working with persona.

Step 1. Choose a biblical character. Some suggestions: Esther, Job, Hosea, Paul/Saul, Peter, Noah.

Step 2. Read their story in the bible, jotting down specific details from the story, such as the setting, what God told the character to do (if applicable), the character’s response to God, others interactions with the character.

Step 3. Choose some of the details that you noted about the story, and expand them. For example, if you chose Samson, what was it like being chained between the columns, blind? What could he have heard, smelled, tasted, felt? The heavy chains on his wrists, the wind through the pillars. Be creative—remember, you are making art.

Step 4. Now write either a poem or a story from your character’s perspective in first person, incorporating as many of the sensory details as possible. Do not focus on telling the character’s entire story—maybe just part of it. Again, if you were writing on Samson, you might want to write a poem or story that just explores his love for Delilah rather than trying to fit in everything about him.

Here’s an example poem from my book, Keeping Me Still:

Jacob Takes Both

I am not sure which cup
on the counter is mine; I drank
from each, so I suppose
the answer is “both”.

This annoys you, my half-empty
water glasses here and there
in the house. Small oasis or reminder
that people live here, after all.

Your mother says you should have seen them
as a sign of character—that I am a person
who never finishes a thing.

Our house is full of reminders—the children’s
toys, unwashed dishes, rumpled beds.
Your work at all of this I’ve never
understood—I step over the mess with ease.
You tend it like a garden with no harvest.

They say people marry those who are
like their parents, but mother never kept
her hair pulled up every day, like you
can’t be bothered to be a woman,

and the only thing your father and I share
is that we both know the key to deceiving
a person is to undermine the messenger.

So the children pull it? The baby clings to you,
the knots of his fists tied to the loose strands
of your hair. Don’t let him; as simple as that.

Rain for a week, and you say it becomes
difficult to keep our children content indoors.
Here is my advice: another name for mother
diversion. Maybe for wife too.


The point of this exercise is to help clarify and bring to life characters in the scripture. It is easy to just note what happened to a person in the bible without thinking much about what the character must have felt, what it must have really been like.

Think of Noah, as those who were close out of the ark begged to be let in, drowned begging him. Think of Esau, as he meets Jacob again after many years apart, forgiving him and welcoming him. Ruth, picking up the scraps of grain left behind. Mary, a young girl, told she’ll carry a baby, and that the baby will be the Son of God.

31  Days

Feel free to post your stories or poems in the comments—who are you going to write about?

Biblical Persona

Persona is writing a mile in another person’s shoes—the “I” is not you, but someone else. Persona can be used in fiction or in poetry, though, as a poet, I’ve primarily used it in poetry. I’ve found in my beginning creative writing classes that my students tend to take to this form, since it allows them to write from a wealth of diverse experience and material to explore.

A section of my book, Keeping Me Still, is made up of persona poems, poems in the voice of Jacob, Rachel, and Leah from Genesis. Writing those poems helped me to think further on the types of emotions those biblical characters must have gone through in their complicated and difficult relationship—and further still what it must have meant for God to choose Leah, the undesirable sister, the mistake, to be part of the line of Jesus.

Sometimes in the flannel graphs and good intentions of Sunday school, the true character of a biblical “hero” can become muddled.

If you grew up in church, think about how you were taught the cute, baby-animal-print story of Jonah, and who Jonah truly was—someone who wanted to see an entire people killed off, even ran from God so that it would happen. When you go read the text for yourself, the characters are oftentimes a little less rosy and sweet—and a lot more in need of God’s grace.

31  Days

Five Minute Free-Write: Take a moment to list some biblical characters who you’ve always found fascinating, maybe some that you know little about. Then look up their stories in the bible—take note of what you felt about the character before and after reading their story.

Writing Exercise: The Sky Above Proclaims

Grab a pen, a notebook, and get outside.

It’s best to complete this assignment alone, but, if you are like me and taking care of your little ones most of the time, maybe find an area that you can let them roam free while you write—or try to do this early in the morning, before they wake.

Write for five minutes straight, descriptions of everything in nature around you. With your descriptions, try to get past the obvious—the leaves are red—and incorporate metaphor. What kind of “red”? Red as stop-signs, as lip-sticked lips, as candy-wrappers?

Try also to be specific—not just a tree, what kind of tree?

At the end of five minutes, choose five descriptions from your free write and incorporate them into a ten-line poem. The poem must include three proper nouns (like Nashville or September), four people (like Bob or Ted), a memory and a declarative statement (like “I am not tired” or “I never tried.”).

Here’s a poem for inspiration, by one of the best living nature-poets, Mary Oliver:

by Mary Oliver

All night my heart makes its way
however it can over the rough ground
of uncertainties, but only until night
meets and then is overwhelmed by
morning, the light deepening, the
wind easing and just waiting, as I
too wait (and when have I ever been
disappointed?) for redbird to sing.


the light deepening, thewind easing and




31  Days

Feel free to share your poem in the comments below!