Not long ago, I attended a service at a different church and the hymns were all shortened – that is, we only sang random verses of each hymn rather than all of them. It was especially odd given that for one hymn, we sang verses 1 and 4, but verse 3 ended with a comma and verse 4 was a continuation of the thought from verse 3.

I’m occasionally asked why we have to sing all of the verses for all of the hymns. Well, first, we don’t have to sing everything. At our 8:00 a.m. Eucharist, I often shorten the hymns for brevity so that we can be sure that the service is over in time for everyone to attend one of our faith formation offerings at 9:00 a.m. But, I do always make sure that the verses we sing are related to one another and that we are not leaving out any important theological ideas in the skipped verses.

Many of the texts we sing come from lengthy poems that editors of our hymnal (and some of its predecessors) have already shortened. Some of the verses left out of the hymnal might include outdated language (“They wet their couch with tears” being one example), or complicated imagery which might change the focus of the hymn. Other excised verses might be troublesome theologically or perhaps it just repeats an idea already present in another verse. Some of the hymns had a tendency to be very long (Hymn 414 originally had 14 verses, and there are others which were twice that length if not more.) Regardless, I’m thankful to hymnal editors who took the time to do all of this difficult work rather than having to do it myself!

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The verses of any particular hymn tend to flow together in language, ideas, and narrative. One would not think to read the first chapter of a book and then skip to the last chapter – it likely would not make much sense and certainly would not be an accurate representation of the author’s work. This same principle holds true for hymns as well. On some of the hymns, you might see an asterisk in front of a verse. This is an indicator that that particular verse may be omitted without altering the flow of the text. 

So, yes, it might make our services a minute or two longer because we sing all of the verses of the hymns, but remember that these are musical prayers we are singing. As I have stated many times, other than Holy Scripture itself, we don’t have a more rich source for inspirational poetry than our hymnals. So cherish each verse!