On Children’s Bible Songs

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My 2 ½ year-old, Dane, got Adele’s “Rumor Has It” stuck in his head the other day. We were jamming to it in the minivan on our way to Aldi, and when we got home, he stood at the coffee table driving his trucks, singing the chorus again and again.

Which, of course, got me thinking about the children’s Bible songs. Because if you grew up in the evangelical world, there’s a good chance you learned to sing evangelical before you ever learned to speak it.

A few particularly absurd but popular ones:

  • Zacchaeus: Zacchaeus was a wee little man/a wee little man was he/he climbed up in a sycamore tree/for the Lord he wanted to see/And when the Lord came walking by, he looked up in that tree/And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down!”/For I’m going to your house today.
    The main takeaway from this song is that Zacchaeus was short and scaled a sycamore. Which is probably not the main point of the story.
  • Father Abraham: Father Abraham had many sons/many sons had Father Abraham/I am one of them, and so are you/So let’s all praise the Lord.
    You sing it over and over again, swinging first your right arm, then your left, marching and then bobbing your head in and out until you finally get to the last verse and sit down. And while it’s true that Christianity sprang from a lineage of faith much longer and older – from Jewish roots, from Father Abraham himself, is that really something a kid can understand? Ancestry? Why not sing about Father God instead? Why not highlight the daughters as well as the sons?
  • Deep and Wide: Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide…And every go-round, you replace one of the words with “Mmmm,” so by the end of the song, the whole room is buzzing like a hive of bees. The song never gets to what the fountain that is so deep and wide is. God’s love? His grace? And don’t fountains spout upwards? Isn’t it rivers that are deep and wide?

I realize that toddler songs, in general, are somewhat nonsensical. It’s not just the Bible songs. Take “The Itty Bitty Spider.” Take “Old McDonald” or “The Farmer in the Dell” or “Hickory Dickory Dock.” I don’t know much about brain development in children, but I’m sure that these songs were created this way specifically, with attention to the budding childhood psyche.

But I want to be careful here, because the music of childhood embeds itself in you in such a profound way. If we sing Zacchaeus in the car together now, will my kids ever be able to separate the story from this silly song? Will Zacchaeus ever be more to them than a little guy in a tree?

At night, we sing, Dane and I.

He is in his Big Boy Bed now, small on the twin mattress, covered in his sports quilt, clutching his bear and his blanky and whatever small toy he has attached himself to that day.

“How bout some Precious?” he asks. This is his favorite song right now: “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” He likes that end part: Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

I’m not sure it’s all that PC to use “red” and “yellow” as skin color descriptors, but what I love about the song is the message. God loves everyone, without exception, without prejudice, without holding back. This is something that I want him to get. This is something I want him to hold on to.

Later, he will learn about war and genocide and abuse and pain. Later he will struggle with the complexities of living life in a broken world. It will be hard for him, like it is hard for all of us, to hold this tension. But I want this to be his baseline: God is love. You are precious.

I want him to be able to filter that which is too awful to understand through that which is too wonderful and mysterious to grasp: the love of God.

What about you? What childhood Bible songs can you live without? Which ones will you hang on to?

17 thoughts on “On Children’s Bible Songs

  1. The B-I-B-L-E. That’s the book for me!
    I am a C! I am a C-H! I am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N!
    I’m in the Lord’s Army! Yes Sir!

    I think you make a wonderful point. The songs themselves may not impart a lot of influential meaning in the life of a child. And that’s okay. It’s far more important to teach truth through our everyday life, rather than rely on sometimes laughable lyrics. 😉

  2. I don’t think my life would have suffered if I’d never heard, sang, and danced around to “I Love Jesus Better Than Ice Cream (and Ice Cream Is Very Good!)”. (But oh was it peppy!)

    I will say that the songs that were strictly Bible verses (thank you Steve Green and G.T. and the Halo Express) were actually quite effective. To this day I can recite a ton of verses (and the books of the Bible in order!) because I learned them as songs. Granted, I have to sing them when I recite them, but still…

  3. Thanks for promoting yourself on SCL’s Shameless Saturday…I’m glad I found your blog!

    Just a comment on “Jesus loves the little children.” I know the non-PC language went completely over my head as a child; I always imagined a rainbow of children (not just red, yellow, black, and white, but also green, blue, purple, etc.) It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized what the song was actually saying!

    1. I just read that the song was written during the Civil War and set to a popular Civil War march. I suppose it become a little less offensive when you put it into historical context. Here was a time when many Christians believed that God loved those of other skin colors differently. Here was a song that taught children differently. Jesus loves all the children. Even the green and purples ones. 🙂

  4. I just found your blog, have read several posts, and am loving it! Our son is 22 months and we are trying to be intentional about the songs we sing with him. Just thought I’d share our version of that part of “Jesus loves the Little Children”. We sing, “every color dark or light!”

  5. Until I read “I’m not sure it’s all that PC to use “red” and “yellow” as skin color descriptors,” I’d never had this thought: Isn’t it kind of odd that we can use both white and black that way (though neither are preferred by all who they describe)…but not red or yellow? Now, each “race”–in quotes becase that is a more a social construct than any other kind–has the right to prefer some terms over others. I’m just noticing the inconsistency. Maybe it doesn’t really “mean” anything.

  6. I’ve grown up singing the last line as “children from every land, Jesus holds them in his hand, Jesus loves the little children of the world”

  7. Addie, I just discovered your blog via chattingatthesky. Thank you for your post-Christmas thoughts.

    I do find myself changing a line or two in Bible songs as I teach them to my kids:
    “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty. There’s nothing my God cannot do through you!” (replacing “…for you”. His plan is to bless the nations through us and bring his kingdom through us, not only do stuff FOR us).

    “The wise man built his house upon the rock…” has a great message about wise and foolish foundations. However, the message of the parable was that you are foolish if you hear Jesus’ words and do not act on them. The message was not that “The blessings will come down as the prayers go up”. I do sing this one with my kids, but I I tend to go with “His kingdom will come down as the prayers go up”. I think the other version is one example of the messages that helped form my sense that “the blessings” were things like ease and comfort and stuff and community, and I could stay comfortable so long as I prayed. Not that kids need to grasp sacrifice and suffering, but his Kingdom is so much more than the “blessings” I had in mind singing this in the past.

  8. I suppose only the author (Sidney E. Cox, 1887-1975) truly knows what the song “Deep and Wide” refers to. But it fits the description of the stream flowing from the temple, during the millennium, which grows deeper and wider as it leaves the temple (Ps 46:4, Ezek 47:1). A stream similarly flows from the throne in the new heavens and earth (Rev 22:1). Believers can expect to see both one day.

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