What’s the best way to end a worship song? What should we say or sing in those last lines? We know endings are important. That final statement that punctuates our prayer or praise in singing should be thoughtful and purposeful. So what is the expected end—joy, glory, heaven, hope?
And what about sad and solemn songs? How should they end? As Christians we can certainly sing in a minor key. We live in a fallen word. Our songs not only express the joy and delight of knowing Christ, they also sound the more somber tones of sin and suffering. We sing in minor, but we don’t like to end in minor. We like our songs to end on high notes with positive lyrics and major chords. You can even find in music history a technique used by songwriters to strengthen the harmonic resolution of the final chord and create a happier ending. The Picardy Third is the use or substitution of a major chord, especially at the end of a piece of music, where a minor chord would be expected.
On the one hand it make sense to end with the brighter sounds of major. As followers of Christ, we see past the crumbling and broken promises of this fallen world to the sure and certain promises of God in His Word. We look beyond the strife and struggles of this life and rest in the joy and hope of knowing Christ. We have been rescued from sin and despair. Because we have a Savior we are bound for glory and destined for praise.
Many of the psalms highlight this upward trajectory. They orient us to look away from our own distress and sorrows and up to the glory and joys of belonging to God. Though they begin with pleading and lamentation, they end with hope and praise. For example, David opens Psalm 16 with a prayer: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.” But he ends rejoicing in verse 11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” The book of Psalms as a whole crescendos and culminates in praise. We reach the pinnacle with the command in the final verse of the Psalms:
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Yet not all of the psalms follow this anticipated climb. Some make unpredicted turns and go down unforeseen paths. When you survey the 150 psalms, though blessing and praise predominate, you find a variety of endings:
- 43 psalms end with praise and thanksgiving to God
- 31 psalms end with God’s blessings for His people (salvation, peace, unity, goodness, mercy, joy…)
- 11 psalms end by telling or declaring who God is
- 9 psalms end with an exhortation (be strong, wait for the Lord, hope in the Lord) or a commitment (to seek the good of God’s people)
- 24 psalms end with prayer or pleading (for justice, deliverance, salvation, strength, peace, blessing…)
- 12 psalms end with words of warning about judgment on the wicked
- 9 psalms end by contrasting judgment on the wicked with blessings for the righteous
- 7 psalms end with triumph over evil and enemies
- 4 psalms end with lament or complaint
Songwriters can learn much from a study of the psalms. The psalms are Scripture’s songbook for worship. They instruct us how to pray and praise God through music. They teach us how to craft and use lyrics in creative and intentional ways to communicate truth.
Sometimes the psalmist may take a surprising turn in order to make a profound point. A good example of this is Psalm 12. David begins with a prayer: “Save, O LORD, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man” (Psalms 12:1). He cries out in the midst of crisis for the Lord to save. In verse 5 the Lord answers saying, “I will now arise” and “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” In verses 6–7 we see that place of safety:
The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
You will guard us from this generation forever.
The place of safety is the Word of God. David can rest in knowing that all God has promised is certain and true. Though the day seems dark, God will fulfill His Word.
The psalm then ends in 12:8 with a final verse. So how would you expect this psalm to end? What would you sing in those last lines? You might choose words that exhort God’s people to believe and trust in God’s Word. Or perhaps you would conclude with praise and thanksgiving to God for His Word or for salvation. These types of endings are certainly found in the psalms. But David does something different, something not expected. He ends the psalm with sober, even distressing words:
On every side the wicked prowl,
as vileness is exalted among the children of men.
C. H. Spurgeon refers to this verse as a “return to the fount of bitterness, which first made the Psalmist run to the wells of salvation.” The ending is unexpected, but David crafts his words intentionally to underscore an important truth. The overwhelming circumstances that grieved him at the beginning of the psalm have not changed. The trouble still exists. But what has changed is David’s outlook. He has been brought back to the Word of God. God does not always deliver us from our suffering. Our circumstances may not change. Troubles may still arise and threaten us. Yet God Word always remains true. It is our place of safety.
Read a full exposition here of Psalm 12: A Place of Safety
So what is the best way for a worship song to end? The psalms demonstrate that we need not always end with upbeat praise and soaring sounds. There are many possibilities and there are times when the unexpected ending may be the better choice. So learn from the psalms. Aim for praise; it is after all the ultimate finale of our songs and our lives. But give thought to your options. Don’t forget final words of pleading, warning and rebuke. Don’t neglect last lines that express godly fear, repentance and awe. And don’t avoid the inevitable cadences of lament and grief. For our music to ring true to God’s Word and to our experience as we walk in the light of His Word, we need the joys and the sorrows. We are pressing on to glory and praise, but there are most certainly times along the way when it is fitting to sing and even end with somber tones and sober thoughts.