Songwriting is both creative and scientific. It is artistry and accounting. Good songwriting reframes the constraints of rhyme, meter, and structure and turns them into a canvas of opportunity. The great songs can express the most intricate set of thoughts with the most accurate set of phrases. The best songs and song writers, in my opinion, are the ones who can say the most with the least amount of words.
One of the writers I admire most is Matt Redman. From the early days as a kid with a guitar, he seems to have been led to a style of economy. Meaning, he packs so much meaning into so few lines that each song is packed with meaning. Additionally, his melodic style effortlessly holds up what he is trying to say and allows the listener to jump right in to a swift stream of meaning. What is it with English people and their grasp on the language? (See also Shakespeare, My Fair Lady, and James Bond)
Recently, Star and I were asked to dust off an old song made famous by George Beverly Shea to sing at a funeral. While rehearsing it, we realized we’d never given it as much attention as it truly deserves. You know the one I’m talking about most likely. The lyrics are below. If you know it, try to read it as a poem without the familiar tune.
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands,
I’d rather be led by His nail pierced hand.
Than to be a king of a vast domain
Or be held in sin’s dread sway,
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause;
I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause;
I’d rather have Jesus than world-wide fame,
I’d rather be true to His holy name.
He’s fairer than lilies of rarest bloom;
He’s sweeter than honey from out of the comb;
He’s all that my hungering spirit needs,
I’d rather have Jesus and let Him lead.
Notice how “this world affords today” anchors all the thoughts expressed in the verses. The writer (Rhea F. Miller) paints such vivid imagery from nature, riches, and fame and then somehow spikes the football and the end of the chorus with four words. It’s really a thing of beauty! She takes a full palette of comparative imagery, condenses it down, then with just a few brush strokes, she ties the image all together.
There is an obscure proverb that does something very similar.
“One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” Proverbs 27:7
Not only does this proverb mirror the sentiment expressed in “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” it does so with the same kind of precious brevity that makes even more special.
Proverbs 27:7, like the song, deals with our appetite for the things around us in the world. With just a few phrases, the writer expresses that the person who is full or “sated,” as another version calls it, knows how to say “no thanks” when offered something “sweet” or “tempting.” The full person is able to push back from the table and say “I’m good!” This type of full living happens when we are actively enjoying the presence of the Lord. He is the filler. He is the one who offers us good food that satisfies the soul. The person that is living outside his pleasurable presence is constantly in want. He/She will search for filling and satisfaction in anything and anybody. They are so consumed with “false foods” they don’t know the difference between sweet and bitter. In other words, they’ll eat anything.
Have you known someone like this? Have you ever been away from the Lord distracted by silver, gold, houses, loud applause, approval?
Tie up the sentiment expressed in this Proverb and this song and keep them in a place you can easily find them. The next time you are hungry or recognize deep hunger in someone else, remind both of you how preferable Jesus is to anything this world offers. Turn to Him in times of hunger and experience what “full life living” is all about.