November 20, 2018

To Repeat or Not Repeat. Repeat. Repeat: Repetition in Worship

Danny Brymer

There are a lot of opinions about what content of worship songs should look like. There are opinions and debates such as to what the form looks like, how emotional the language is, how complex or simple the theology is, etc. One that stands out is the use of repetition and the question of how necessary or unnecessary it is. I’ve seen the many blog posts and memes on repetition in worship. One meme shows the repetitive lyrics of a worship song and depicts God saying something like, “yeah, yeah, I heard you twenty times ago.” The type of songs that use that kind of repetition are often referred to as 7/11 songs, singing the same 7 words 11 times. So do we really need bridges or choruses that repeat the same thing over and over again?

Repeat: Yay or Nay?

Repetition in choruses and particularly bridges has become a fairly common songwriting device in recent years in modern worship. It is hard to walk into a worship service and not hear a couple of those types of songs. Critics will often call them shallow, mindless, catering to emotionalism, and demonstrating laziness in songwriting. They often cite it as an example of the use of “vain repetition” as described by Jesus in Matthew 6. Though I cannot judge anyone’s heart, I will admit that I have heard various songs in which it feels like the songwriter ran out of ideas and took one line and repeated it while trying to make it the emotional climax of the song. Sometimes the technique feels forced, as if it is a blatant attempt to get an emotional reaction out of a congregation. Again, I do not know the motives of some of those writers, but that is how some of the songs come across to me. Does that make repetition unnecessary? Lets see how the Bible approaches it.

A Biblical Perspective

If we look through the book of Psalms, we will find a variety of styles of poetry. We have really long and dense ones like Psalm 119, and if you go back two Psalms, you will have the shortest one, which we have been singing recently, as a metered song. In Psalm 117, you will find a lighter case of repetition in that the phrase “praise the Lord” both opens and ends the Psalm. If you go ahead a Psalm, the first four verses repeat “His steadfast love endures forever” four times. There are other repetitive phrases that appear, such as “the Lord is on my side” (2x), “it is better to take refuge in the Lord” (2x), “surrounded me” (3x), “the right hand of the Lord” (3x), and more before repeating “His steadfast love endures forever” a fifth time, which actually repeats the whole first verse one more time. The most famous and pronounced example of repetition in Psalms is in Psalm 136, which repeats the phrase, ”for His steadfast love endures forever” 25 times, used in every other line within the 26 verses. There are other examples in Psalms that we can point out as well.

Letting it Sink In

Apparently, the Psalmists thought it important to repeat lines in their doxology. But why bother with repetition? Isn’t one time enough? Our minds can store many things, the most important thing being God’s Holy Word. The heart on the other hand, is slower to store things, and sometimes repeating important truths can help them make their way into the heart. Nick Roen, the worship pastor at Sojourners Church explains it very well as he says, “the main reason we need to rehearse the love of God again and again is because we don’t believe it; at least not naturally.” He hits the nail right on the head when he says that. Yes, we know that the love of God endures forever, yada yada yada, but how much of our heart is in it when we read it or say it?

We sing a song with a bridge that repeats the phrase “who can stop the Lord Almighty” 8 times. We have NO problem trusting in the Lord and resting in his promises right? That’s one of those things that is second nature to us, isn’t it? We just sit back without a shadow of doubt knowing that God’s got this. Piece of cake right? You get my point. “God’s got this” is not our instinctual, go to response by any means. We struggle so much with relying on our own strength and the strength of the world instead of God’s. It is not a bad thing to meditate on how the Lord is there for us in every circumstance and how no weapon formed against us shall prosper with God on our side.

In the time it takes to sing that bridge, I get reminded of one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Romans 8:38-39. In it, the apostle Paul goes through the list of things that could be thought of as separating us from the love of God, assuring us that none will. Just like any other technique, repetition needs to be done right. I’ve seen dense complex songs or hymns that meander without some type of conclusion to bring it to focus. Repetition often is a great tool to balance with something that is more weighty, reinforcing the main theme or message. Psalm 136 excellently balances weight with repetition. This however, gets more into the art of songwriting and less into actual Biblical perspective.

Out-Bibling the Bible?

We need songs with deep and dense theology and our song selection should not consist of only repetitive songs. I love deep, complex songs. I could sing “Living Hope” or “King Forevermore” every Sunday!  Let’s not however, be so aloof that we quench the Spirit and miss out on what we could see of His glory. Many of the criticisms directed at those songs or parts of songs could be made of a significant portion of Scripture. Are we going to call Psalm 117 a mindless praise chorus or Psalm 136 a monotonous 7/11 song? It is ok to criticize songs and hold them to a high standard, but be careful in how you criticize them. It is one thing to criticize a song based on its artistic quality, poetic structure, or coherence. It is another to criticize it based on simply possessing a quality that also happens to be utilized in Scriptural songs. When we try to be more biblical than the Bible, we don’t end up being Biblical at all. In fact, you might even be criticizing some songs because they actually are being biblical! Let’s instead take what the Bible has shown us, particularly in regards to our doxology and appreciate and model all of what has been given to us. There is more yet to explore! Take a look at the repetition in context and it will very likely make more sense.

Vain Repetition?

What about vain repetition? Does that apply? In Matthew 6, Jesus was talking about the mindless babble and strung together phrases that the Gentiles would use to try to appease the gods and get them to listen. The prophets of Baal come to mind as they were making a big show of their tribute to Baal, desperately hoping he would respond. Jesus was warning against using that practice in praying to God. Have you ever been in a prayer circle and you hear a prayer that sounded like it came from a vacuum cleaner that spit out empty prayer fragments and cliches? I have been there and have even been the person stringing them together, trying to sound spiritual, while hoping it would make my prayers count more. That is not to discount persistent prayer as represented by the widow toward the unjust judge in Luke 18.  Vain repetition comes from the wrong place and is directed in a different direction than repetition in song. When we repeat song lyrics with deep truth, we are singing to ourselves because we know we need it. It is not to try to impress God or get Him to notice us.

Emphasis, Emphasis

We need time to let the truth marinade in our hearts. In the context of singing corporately, we use instrumental breaks within songs, moments of quietness in between songs, and other ways of allowing for reflection and meditation. Repetition is another way that we can draw attention to a certain truth we are trying to communicate and stress it emphatically. Outside of the Psalms, repetition is used as a device for emphasis. We recently went through a sermon series on the use of the repeated name, such as “Abraham, Abraham,” which emphasizes affection for the aforementioned person. In Philippians 4:4, we find the well known admonition, “rejoice in the Lord always and again, I say rejoice.” Paul could have simply said “rejoice in the Lord.” That phrase alone would have been just as inspired by the Holy Spirit. However, he adds “always” (Greek pantote) or “at all times,” which you would think makes it all the more clear cut. Yet he adds “and again” (Greek palin) which means a renewal or repetition of the action. With the challenges the Philippian church was facing, Paul knew it was vital that they be in a continual state of rejoicing in the Lord. The repetition helped cement that message of joy in the church and continues to do that to this day.

Biblical Emotion

Repetition outside of Scripture is not a new thing, even in modern worship. Well known hymns such as “I Surrender All,” “How Great Thou Art,” “There Is A Fountain” and others have used repetition to get us to focus. “I’ll sing thy power to save” is a great line that deserves to be sung with loudness and conviction. We have been singing a song recently with a chorus that repeats “God You’re so good.” We could sing that phrase 1000 times in the song and never begin to thank God enough for His goodness. When I stop to think about the ways He has been good to me, I get emotional and my praise and thanksgiving becomes even more fervent. Do not forget about the never-ending chorus in Revelation 4:8 when the four living creatures sing a a never-ending “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Imagine the intense emotions that are expressed and felt at that moment. That is not emotionalism. Those are the emotions God has imparted to us. They are expressed to Him, flowing from the abundance of the Spirit’s truth in our lives, as we join the heavenly hosts. We are not above repetition. After all, what could we repeat that we can say that we have got all figured out?

Repetition From the Heart

Let me be clear. All Scripture is God breathed, not just the portion that uses repetition. Likewise, we need songs like “In Christ Alone,” “Living Hope,” and “Before the Throne of God Above” as well as songs like “God You’re So Good,” “Lion and the Lamb,” and “I Surrender All.” A balanced diet of a variety of types and depth levels of texts is best. When singing the repetitive songs however, it is good to look at the repetition and see if the Holy Spirit is trying to show us something. Sometimes the most profound depth comes from the simplest phrases.  Next time we sing a song that uses a repeated phrase, don’t tune out. Rather, humbly ask the Holy Spirit to use that to help the truth enter your heart, so you can in turn, respond with the affection that is due Him.