Thursday, January 29, 2009

All People that on Earth do Dwell

Praise for the Lord #17

Words: William Kethe, 1560
Music: Louis Bourgeois's Genevan Psalter, 1551

Here is one of the fine old landmarks of Christian song. For some history of Calvin and the Geneva Psalm-singing tradition, click here. Louis Bourgeois (c.1510-c.1561) was the man behind the scenes who carried out the practical musical application of Calvin's ideas, and unless there is evidence to the contrary, he is generally credited with the music supplied for the Geneva Psalters. Though this tune was originally written for Psalm 134, the texts and tunes were deliberately interchangeable, and thus several different texts have been partnered with this melody.(Psalm 100) In Praise for the Lord, the OLD 100TH tune also appears with "Praise God from Whom all blessings flow"(#528) and "Before Jehovah's awful throne"(#64).

The Psalm 100 adaptation that caused English-speakers to give this tune the name "Old 100th" was written by William Kethe, a Scot who sought asylum in Geneva during the reign of Mary Tudor.(Authors) Kethe left only a few known works, and of these, only his adaptation of the 100th Psalm has seen much use. But if you have to be a "one-hit wonder", what a hit! His version was so popular that it was retained in the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter and the Scottish Psalter, two of the most influential English-language psalters of all time. It would be hard to overstate the success of this text; it is in a league with hymns such as "Amazing grace", and a very few others, that are sung by practically all English-speaking people, of every religious persuasion, around the world.

Stanza 1:
All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.
Him serve with fear, His praise forth tell;
Come ye before Him and rejoice.

Psalm 100:1-2 says, "Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into His presence with singing!" This is one of those telling passages in the Old Testament that reveals the universality of God's love and grace, as it calls on "all people" to praise Him. Psalm 113:3 likewise says, "From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!" How wonderful to think that, at any time of the day or night, there are faithful brothers and sisters around the world calling on the name of the Lord and praising His name!

This psalm calls upon us specifically to sing. Did God ask us to do something we cannot? It is puzzling that nearly every child can and does sing (just go on a bus trip with them!), but many adults insist they cannot. What happens to them between those two points is self-consciousness, and it is a tough thing to shake. Remember that Paul said "I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also."(1 Corinthians 14:15) He never said whether he sang in tune. He may have been so off-key he made the dogs howl. But we know that he sang along with Silas in the jail at Philippi,(Acts 16:25) and that the prisoners were listening, and that the jailer was baptized later that night. So sing! Mouth the words, or sing under your breath, or "make a joyful noise" if need be.

Finally, this stanza emphasizes the joy of praising God. We are not all equally joyful by nature or by circumstances, and we do not all express our emotions in the same manner, so I want to be careful not to be judgmental here. A person who is naturally bubbly and extroverted, in the prime of life and without a care, should not look down on the more reserved, introverted person, or on those who are struggling with pain, depression, or tragedy, if they do not express Christian joy in the same manner. There can be a deep, solemn joy, as well as a happy, giddy joy. But we should find joy in worship. Paul, a man in prison and in danger of his life, underscored his letter to the Philippians with the words "joy" and "rejoice". If you have the forgiveness of your sins, the assurance of heaven, and the encouragement of fellow saints, you can find something to rejoice about.

Stanza 2:
The Lord, ye know, is God indeed;
Without our aid He did us make;
We are His flock, He doth us feed,
And for His sheep He doth us take.

Psalm 100:3 says, "Know that the Lord, He is God! It is He who made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture." The anonymous author of this psalm lived in a time when many gods were worshipped, and he is quick to establish that he is not talking about just another local deity--he is talking about the "I AM". What depth of meaning is packed into that expression! Compared to all the expressions of might and power that human imagination could come up with, the "otherness" of this simple designation is far more awe-inspiring. He is eternally in the present tense, because our designations of time have no relevance to Him. He is at all places and all times.

Certainly He did not need us present at the creation! In Job 38:4, the Lord begins asking Job a series of questions around the general theme of "Where were you, Job, when...?" Job, being wiser than the modern skeptic, declines to answer and replies "I will put my hand over my mouth."(Job 40:4) Psalm 100 carries this another logical step--if God, and not we ourselves, is responsible for our being here, then we belong to Him. He could, if He wished, destroy us at a whim as a child wrecks a sand castle; but His love for us means that He cares for us as a shepherd does his sheep. "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me."(John 10:14)

Stanza 3:
O enter then His gates with praise;
Approach with joy His courts unto;
Praise, laud, and bless His Name always,
For it is seemly so to do.

Psalm 100:4 reads, "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name!" Praise is the proper response to the majestic God we serve. If we knew nothing else about Him other than the creation we see around us, we would have to bow the knee in praise to Him. "For what can be known about God is plain... For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made."(Romans 1:19-20) Mankind at different times and places has seen the truth of this; the Yakima Indians of Northwest America, for example, told stories of Whee-me-me-ow-ah ("Great Sky Chief") who was alone from the beginning and who created the world and all life in it.(Cosmogonies) When we consider the works He has created, yes, it is "seemly" to praise His name.

But there is even more reason when we learn to know Him through His revelation, as is taught in the following stanza:

Stanza 4:
For why? the Lord our God is good;
His mercy is for ever sure;
His truth at all times firmly stood,
And shall from age to age endure.

Psalm 100:5 says, "For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations." I have to credit one of my fine Bible professors from Oklahoma Christian, brother Johnny Pennisi, with first raising the following question in my hearing: What if God were not good? What if He were all-powerful (as He obviously is) and yet totally unsympathetic to His creation? What if He were irrational and inconsistent in His dealings? It might be argued that this is impossible--that to be the Creator of the universe, He must be rational and consistent, and therefore could not be one of the capricious, selfish, petty sort of gods we see, for example, in Greek mythology.

But what if He were just and not merciful? We know that "all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God,"(Romans 3:23) and "we know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things."(Romans 2:2) He could, in perfect justice and consistency, leave us in our sins--but He didn't. In fact, He offered us a way back to Him, at unspeakable cost to Himself, and none to us.

We also need have no concern that God's mercy will change. The phrase "His steadfast love endures forever" occurs some forty-plus times in the Old Testament (many of them in Psalm 136, where it occurs as a refrain). If there is one quality of God's character that is hammered home throughout the Old Testament, it is that He means what He says, and He will stick to it. Numbers 23:19 says, "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?" Even our close friends and family will sometimes disappoint or fail us, but God will not.

One the most provocative testimonials to this fact, in my mind, comes from Joshua's farewell speech to the people of Israel. He is speaking at a dramatic moment in their history: under his leadership they had finally ended their wilderness wandering; under his leadership they had conquered Canaan and made a national home for themselves; under his leadership God's land promise going back to Abraham had been fulfilled. Joshua said in summary,

And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.(Joshua 23:14)

His record is still unbroken!

About the music: The OLD 100TH tune is a great example of rugged simplicity, expanding on just a few simple, folk-like ideas. Its singability is guaranteed by the fact that it moves by steps of the scale more than three-fourths of the time, and that the leaps occur in logical, predictable places. The harmonization is strong and simple, with a good solid bass line. Sing it loud!

The rhythm of this tune in the Geneva Psalter was more animated than in our current version, as is often true of the old Psalm tunes and of the Lutheran chorales. Click here to see a transcription of the original; you can also listen to a MIDI file here.


Psalm 100. Music for the Church of God, 2001.

Authors of the early English and Scottish psalters. Music for the Church of God, 2001.

Cosmogonies. Accepting diversity: an interactive handbook in progress. Academie Universelle des Cultures. Chapter 2, page 2.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All Creatures of Our God and King

Praise for the Lord #16

Words: Francis of Assisi, c. 1225; trans. William H. Draper, c. 1911
Music: Brachel's Geistliche Kirchengesang, 1623; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906

Some of these posts are difficult to write because, deep down, I just don't think the hymn I'm discussing is all that good. Here is the opposite problem--I don't think I can possibly do this hymn justice.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was the son of a wealthy merchant, and spent his young manhood in the pursuit of education, adventure, and the high life, not necessarily in that order. After a period of illness and detention as a prisoner of war, he increasingly turned toward spiritual things. In an era when some orders of monks were notorious for their acquisition of worldly goods, he started an order that vowed first to live the life of poverty, by choice, that Francis saw many of his fellow creatures living by necessity. Rejected by his family and the authorities, he lived much of the time in the country or on the road, and his legendary childlike love of nature and of all living things is obvious in this hymn.(Catholic Encyclopedia) Our English text is adapted from Francis's original poem Canticum creaturarum "Song of the creatures". A more literal translation is available here.(Barrett) It is likely that Francis worked on the poem over many years, adding the unusual final verse about death shortly before his own demise.(Catholic Encyclopedia)

The most obvious inspiration for this text is Psalm 148:

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise Him in the heights!
Praise Him, all His angels;
praise Him, all His hosts!
Praise Him, sun and moon,
praise Him, all you shining stars!
Praise Him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For He commanded and they were created.
And He established them forever and ever;
He gave a decree, and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling His word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together,
old men and children!
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for His name alone is exalted;
His majesty is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for His people,
praise for all His saints,
for the people of Israel who are near to Him.
Praise the Lord!

Here we have the basic elements of Francis’s text (as we have received it in English), and in many of the same associations in which he used them: sun and moon (v. 3), winds (v. 8), waters (v. 4), fire (v. 8), and humanity of all stations in life (v. 11-12).

Stanza 1:
All creatures of our God and King
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!

O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

The author calls on all creation to praise God, not just creatures but even inanimate creation. Francis’s original text even refers to the sun and moon as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon”, which they are, in the sense that they are fellow creations of our heavenly Father. Do inanimate objects praise God? Jesus said on His approach to Jerusalem that “the very stones would cry out” in His praise if need be,(Luke 19:40) and Romans 1:19-20 explains that the creation itself gives sufficient witness to God to condemn those who ignore its testimony. Psalm 19 speaks the most eloquently on this subject, however:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.(v. 1-2)

This text was perhaps in Francis’s mind, as it was obviously in the mind of Joseph Addison half a millennium later when he penned “The spacious firmament on high” (PFTL #666).

Stanza 2:
Thou rushing wind that art so strong
Ye clouds that sail in Heaven along,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
Ye lights of evening, find a voice!

This stanza, which is omitted in some hymnals, continues to call upon the phenomena of the heavens to praise God—the winds, clouds, and the stars. Wind and storm, for all their power, are servants to God’s will; it was from the whirlwind that God spoke to Job,(Job 38:1) and Jesus showed His mastery over these forces on the sea of Galilee in such a way that His disciples said “He commands even the winds and waters!” (Luke 8:25)

The stars are such a fascinating part of God’s creation—they are by far so much more numerous, and massive, than this earth and its system of sun, planets, and moons, and yet God tells us so little about them. Even with the best of our technology, we have discovered only a little more on our own. But the one thing we can be sure of is that God knows their purposes. He “determines their number”(Psalm 147:4) and they “sang together” in His praise at the very beginning of time.(Job 38:7)

Stanza 3:
Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
Make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
That givest man both warmth and light.

In our third stanza Francis presents another pair of opposites, water and fire. Though these are both mentioned in Psalm 148, they are not in an immediate context with each other as were the sun and moon, so the association is Francis’s device. Fire and water are natural opposites, and in the Medieval conception of physics, were two of the four elements of the physical creation (the other two being earth and air). “Waters” in Biblical imagery are often a dramatic element, inspiring fear (as in the “floods” of Psalms 46:3, 124:4, etc.) or awe (as in Psalm 93:3, “the floods lifted up their voice”).

Francis, however, is describing the pleasant, babbling brook that provides refreshment and pleasure, more akin to the Biblical picture of a “fountain” or “spring”. In the arid land of Palestine, of course, springs and fountains were treasured blessings. Often in the Bible they are mentioned in association with God's providential care: "He will guide them to springs of living water."(Revelation 7:17, cf. Isaiah 49:10) Most famously, of course, Jesus promised the fountain of "living water", "a spring of water welling up to eternal life."(John 4:10,14)

The following stanza from Draper's translation is omitted in Praise for the Lord:

Dear mother earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them His glory also show.

Perhaps the "Mother Earth" expression was too much for the editors, especially in our present culture that has increasingly embraced pantheistic nature-worship even as it attempts to drive Christianity from public view. In Francis's original text he speaks anthropomorphically of "Brother Sun", "Sister Moon", etc., as fellow creations of God; in the full context, "Mother Earth" is an innocent enough expression. But the Bible is clear about who is the supplier of the blessings enumerated in this stanza: it is God who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the grass of the field,(Luke 12:24-28) it is God who owns "the cattle on a thousand hills,"(Psalm 50:10) it is God of whom David said in Psalm 65:9-13,

You visit the earth and water it;
You greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
You provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

In our admiration and concern for this earth, let us never forget Who its Creator and Sustainer is!

Stanza 4:
And all ye men of tender heart,
Forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye! Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
Praise God and on Him cast your care!

After calling to mind the ceaseless praises that flow to God from the rest of His creation, Francis turns now to the world of humanity--alone in creation, for being in rebellion against its Creator! But even here there are those of "tender heart" who seek God. 1 Peter 3:8 calls on all Christians to "have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind." The tender heart is open to hearing and receiving the faith, and to submitting to God's will; the hardened heart is associated with unreceptiveness,(Ephesians 4:18) unbelief,(Mark 3:5,16:14) and arrogant self-serving.(Exodus 4,Daniel 5:20) The hardened heart is "storing up wrath",(Romans 2:5) but the tender heart can be shaped into the image of Christ.

The tender-hearted Christian will conform to the image of the Christ who forgave even His torturers, the One who taught us to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors,"(Matthew 6:12) "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."(Matthew 6:14-15)

The one who embraces Christ's teachings will also learn to depend upon Him, just as does the rest of creation, "casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you."(1 Peter 5:7) Even those who "long pain and sorrow bear" can take heart in Christ, for He is the One who promised that, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."(Matthew 5:3-4) Paul came to understand this with his thorn in the flesh, when God told him, "My power is made perfect in weakness." Paul could then say, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."(2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The following stanza is also omitted in many hymnals, for obvious reasons:

And thou most kind and gentle Death,
Waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
And Christ our Lord the way hath trod.

It is a thought-provoking statement, and in context reminds us that death is an unavoidable part of the world in which we live; but it is problematic to represent death as a part of God's plan and thus joining in the chorus of praise. Death entered the world, not through God's creation, which is "very good,"(Genesis 1:31) but "through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned."(Romans 5:12) Immortality was God's original plan; death could only be described as good in the sense that it is better than immortality in rebellion to God.(Genesis 3:22) Death is represented in the New Testament as "the last enemy that is to be destroyed"(1 Corinthians 15:26) at the return of our Lord. Francis's frank acceptance of the common fate of us all is to be commended; but all in all, this stanza is probably better left out.

Stanza 5:
Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!

The final stanza is a summary call to join all creation in humble worship before our Creator. The childlike simplicity of this hymn has worn well down through the centuries--when you feel overwhelmed by the busyness of worldly affairs, the self-importance of worldly powers, and the littleness and pettiness of day-to-day life, step outdoors! Take a look at the moon, or (carefully, of course) at the sun; they have been shining down on this world, fulfilling their God-given duties of providing light and warmth, telling the seasons and creating the tides, long before any of us were thought of. They will still be doing so, if the Lord delays His return, long after we are forgotten. Look up at the stars.

The great astronomer Edwin Hubble said, "With increasing distance, our knowledge fades, and fades rapidly."(Hubblesite) The orbital telescope which is his namesake has looked deeper into the universe than mankind has ever done before, and we essentially have learned that we know even less than we thought we did about what is out there. But God knows. Look at the blade of grass, pushing up through concrete--the works of God, versus the works of man! And consider the sparrows, as Jesus said, who despite their weakness are still all around us. God still knows their number.(Luke 12:6) All around us, even in the modern city, we can see the works of God. Join them in praising Him!

About the music: In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit up front that Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of my favorite composers. He soaked up English folk song and Tudor-era church music, then reinvented it in a modern style that is innovative and yet easily accessible. The amazing (and sad) thing about his church music composition is that he remained, at least publicly, a lifelong confirmed agnostic. Nonetheless he was a leading light in the post-Romantic generation of church musicians; the 1906 English Hymnal (of which he was music editor) may never have eclipsed Hymns Ancient & Modern in the Church of England, but it showed an alternative to the sometimes gushy musical style of the Victorian era.

This arrangement of "All creatures" is not my favorite for congregational singing, though. To begin with, it was never intended for a cappella singing; Vaughan Williams conceived this to be sung with the congregation on the melody, a choir on the parts, and an organ backing up them all. It is a grand, symphonic sound, and needs to move a little slowly in order to bring out the rich, flowing texture. (Check out the basses' octave-and-a-half scale passage from the words "with softer gleam" to the second "O praise Him"!) For a cappella congregational singing, I actually prefer Jack Boyd's arrangement from the supplement to Great Songs of the Church (ACU Press, 1974). Boyd writes in only two parts (women's voices and men's voices) and has them sing the melody in a round, coming together at the ends of the phrases; only the final "Alleluias" are sung in four-part harmony. It is a very practical arrangement, musically interesting, and shows off the beauty and gracefulness of this old melody.


Catholic Encyclopedia. Saint Francis of Assisi.

Cyberhymnal. All creatures of our God and King.

Barrett, Bill. Translation of "Canticum creaturarum".

Hubblesite. Hubble Deep Field.

Monday, January 26, 2009

All for Jesus

Praise for the Lord #15

Words: Mary Dagworthy James, 1871
Music: From McDonald's Songs of Joy & Gladness, 1885

Mary D. James (1810-1883) grew up Methodist and became a leading figure in New Jersey in the "Holiness" revival of the 1800s. The Holiness emphasis on a fervent committment of one's total life to God is reflected in this hymn's theme. The Internet Archive has an online copy of the 1886 book The Life of Mrs. Mary D. James written by her son. She was not a prolific hymnwriter, and this text is by far her claim to fame in that arena.

We are not certain of the authorship of the music; as is often the case, the text appeared set to music without attribution of the composer. With some hymnals, we are fairly certain that these unattributed musical settings are the product of the editor, and over time that assumption comes to be accepted. William McDonald (1820-1901) is likely the composer.

Stanza 1:
All for Jesus, all for Jesus!
All my being’s ransomed powers:
All my thoughts and words and doings,
All my days and all my hours.

All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
All my days and all my hours;
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
All my days and all my hours.

Just as Christ "emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,"(Philippians 2:7, RSV) we must in turn empty ourselves of both our worldly habits and our proud determination to run things according to our own desires. The key word in Mrs. James's text is "ransomed". Peter reminds us that "you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot."(1 Peter 1:18-19) 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 makes the consequence clear: "You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body."

Christ's lordship over our total being begins, logically, with our "thoughts", then our "words and doings". Jesus explained in Matthew 15:19 that "out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander." Therefore we being by "taking every thought captive"(2 Corinthians 10:5), because "As he thinks in his heart, so is he."(Proverbs 23:7)

But a heart and mind devoted to Christ must be evidenced in words and deeds devoted to Christ. In a very real sense, our words and our deeds are "who we are" to the rest of the world; thus the importance of Christ-centered action following Christ-centered thought. "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless,"(James 1:26) and, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."(James 2:18)

Stanza 2:
Let my hands perform His bidding,
Let my feet run in His ways;
Let my eyes see Jesus only,
Let my lips speak forth His praise.

All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Let my lips speak forth His praise.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Let my lips speak forth His praise.

The second stanza details the total dedication of different parts of our mortal bodies to the service of Christ, a poetic device seen also in "Take my life, and let it be" (PFTL #612, #613). Our hands do Christ's will when we use them to make an honest living,(Ephesians 4:28) and when we use them to bless others.(Acts 13:3) Likewise our feet do Christ's will when they take us to carry the gospel to others.(Ephesians 6:15, Romans 10:15) Our lips do His will when they offer a "sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name."(Hebrews 13:15)

In the third line, Mrs. James may be referencing the Transfiguration of Christ. Peter, James, and John had been somewhat distracted by the grand scene of Moses, Elijah, and Christ speaking together; God then warned them, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him!"(Matthew 17:5) After this rebuke, "when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only."(Matthew 17:8)

Praise for the Lord omits the following verse:

Worldlings prize their gems of beauty,
Cling to gilded toys of dust,
Boast of wealth and fame and pleasure;
Only Jesus will I trust.

Perhaps the omission is justified because of the dated poetic term "worldlings" and the odd turn of phrase "gilded toys of dust", which seem a bit out of place in the otherwise simple language of this hymn.

Stanza 3:
Since my eyes were fixed on Jesus,
I’ve lost sight of all beside;
So enchained my spirit’s vision,
Looking at the Crucified.

All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Looking at the Crucified.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Looking at the Crucified.

In this stanza Mrs. James plays out the idea of the third line of the second stanza, a fixed gaze upon Christ. Peter understood this when he walked to Jesus on the waters of Galilee; when he kept his eyes on his goal, he was able to do all that Jesus promised, but when he let his eyes drift to the wind and the waves, he lost faith and sank.(Matthew 14:28-31) Paul understood this, and made it plain in his preaching: he told the Corinthians, "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,"(1 Corinthians 2:2) and to the Galatians he could say "It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified."(Galatians 3:1) Christ crucified is the central reality that we need to keep front and center in our minds.

Stanza 4:
Oh, what wonder! how amazing!
Jesus, glorious King of kings,
Deigns to call me His belovèd,
Bids me rest beneath His wings.

All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Resting now beneath His wings.
All for Jesus! All for Jesus!
Resting now beneath His wings.

Now we see the reward--a relationship with Christ who, despite our sins, despite our imperfections, redeemed us and calls us "beloved by the Lord".(2 Thessalonians 2:13) Being sheltered in the shadow of God's wings is a common poetic figure in the Psalms, perhaps most beautifully phrased in Psalm 17:8, "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings."

The connection of the two expressions may also draw on the image of Christ and the church as a Bridegroom and bride.(Ephesians 5:31-32) The expression "beloved", of course, occurs frequently in the Song of Solomon, perhaps most famously in chapter 2 verse 16, "My beloved is mine, and I am his." Being sheltered under the "wings" of another may also refer to a marriage relationship, as in Ruth 3:9, when Ruth says to Boaz, "Spread your wings [or "corner of your garment"] over your servant, for you are a redeemer."

About the music: The rhythm of this song is interesting for the gospel style; McDonald (or whoever) chose to find a rhythm that flowed naturally from the text, rather than imposing a rhythmic style upon it. There is also an extreme degree of repetitiveness in the structure of the melody:

  • The first two phrases of the stanza ("All for Jesus, all for Jesus" and "All my being's ransomed powers") are identical until the last two notes.
  • The first and third phrases ("All for Jesus, all for Jesus" and "All my thoughts and words and doings") actually are identical
  • The fourth phrase ("All my days and all my hours") differs from the second phrase ("All my being's ransomed powers") only at the ending, which is just enough stronger to make it feel as though the music is done.

The music of the refrain follows the same plan, and even uses the same rhythm and shape of phrases. The tune is interesting enough, however, that it avoids the monotony that one would think would ensue.

The text of the refrain is almost certainly the construction of the composer, not of Mrs. James. Repeating the tagline "All for Jesus!" in the first and third lines, the second and fourth lines of the refrain are copied from the final line of the preceding stanza. Sometimes this doesn't quite work, as in the refrain of the third stanza ("All for Jesus! All for Jesus! / Looking at the Crucified"), where the fragmentary nature of the resultant sentence structure is more jarring for some reason.


Cyberhymnal. Mary Dagworthy James.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ah, Holy Jesus!

Praise for the Lord #14

Words: Johann Heermann, 1630 (trans. Robert Bridges, 1899)
Music: Johann Crüger, 1640

Heermann (1585-1647) is regarded as one of the best Lutheran hymnwriters of the 17th century, and one of the better German poets of his era in general. His was a difficult life, plagued by weak health and the ravages of the Thirty Years' War, in which his little town of Köben was practically a football kicked back and forth between the Protestants and Catholics. Despite that Heermann lost his home and possessions no fewer than four times during this period, in 1630 he brought out Devoti musica cordis ("Musical devotions of the heart"), a collection of hymns that made a lasting impact on the Lutheran chorale tradition.(Winkworth)

Stanza 1:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Even Pontius Pilate, known as a heartless man (cf. Luke 13:1), said "I find no fault in this man."(Luke 23:4) Not only had He committed no crime, but He had gone about His ministry in a quiet, humble way; "He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench..."(Matthew 12:19-20) When He caused a scene, it was only because the truth He stood for provoked the ungodly, through no fault of His own.

Perhaps we sometimes overlook, in our focus on His physical suffering, the incredible indignity of what His creation did to their Creator. He is the One who will judge the nations (1 Peter 4:5), and here He stood a mockery of a trial before the Sanhedrin; was mocked and dismissed by the godless Herod; and finally, before Pilate, refused the justice that even that so-called authority admitted He deserved. He was abandoned by all but a few of His friends; He was surrounded by a crowd who hurled abuse at the One before whom they will someday stand in judgment. Psalm 22:708 says prophetically, "All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; 'He trusts in the Lord; let Him deliver him; let him rescue him, for He delights in him!'"(Psalm 22:7-8) Did it cross Jesus' mind, as He heard those words, how easily He could have left that cross, and brought those mockers to meet their Maker sooner rather than later? We will never know.

Stanza 2:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

"For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God."(Romans 3:23) My sins may not make the evening news, but they were enough. Those who return to sin "they crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame."(Hebrews 6:6) We cannot put a better face on this. I can make excuses when I compare myself to my fellow sinners--I can always find someone worse, who makes me look better--but the reality is written in the blood of an innocent Man who died for me.

Stanza 3:
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

The law of the Old Testament had taught substitutionary sacrifice in which the lesser was offered in place of the greater--for the sins of a man, the life of an sheep. It could never pay the moral debt of guilt, and was never meant to: "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins."(Hebrews 10:4) Jesus brought the account into balance, forevermore, saying, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep."(John 10:11) The Shepherd died for the sheep; the Master died for His servants; the Creator died for His creation. And more than this, He did it without our appreciation, as Heerman notes in the third line, "For man's atonement, while he nothing heedeth." The pronoun is a bit unclear until the uncomfortable realization that the "heedless" ones are us. Jesus died for me, and for you, long before we ever chose to submit to Him. He died for me, and for you, regardless of whether we would ever submit to Him. "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8)

Stanza 4:
For me, kind Jesus, was Thy incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

That the Creator of this world was born as a helpless human baby and lived as a mortal man is a wonder beyond our grasping. "Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh..."(1 Timothy 3:16) God, "by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh."(Romans 8:3) Ephesians 2:14-16 teaches that His incarnation was no mere whim, but was instead a way to redeem us, flesh, spirit, and all:

For He himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.

Even after His resurrection, He was "flesh and bone"(Luke 24:39). We see no indication that He ever did, or ever will, give up the humanity He took upon Himself to save us.

Stanza 5:
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

When we examine ourselves spiritually, as 1 Corinthians 11:28 commands, what do we see? We have to do this, of course, not by comparing ourselves to others (we could always find someone worse than ourselves!), but by looking into the "perfect law of liberty"(James 1:25) revealed by God. If we are honest, we will realize that we certainly don't want to stand before God and try to defend or rationalize our conduct. But "blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!"(Psalm 32:1, Romans 4:7)

About the music: This tune is one of several introduced by Johann Crüger (1598-1662) in his 1640 hymnal Newes volk­köm­lich­es Ge­sang­buch, better known under its later title Praxis pietatis melica.(Cyberhymnal) Though Heermann and Crüger predate the era usually identified as Lutheran "Pietism", the soul-searching, confessional earnestness of this chorale is well in keeping with the nature of that movement, which sought for greater personal holiness and a more heartfelt individual relationship with God. Click here to listen to this tune.

Johann Sebastian Bach quoted this chorale (among others) in his choral masterpiece, the St. Matthew's Passion. The first verse appears as Part 1, No. 3, immediately after Christ has announced to the disciples that He must be crucified.(Matthew 26:2); the second verse (in the English version) as No. 19, while Jesus prays in Gethsemane; and the third verse as No. 46, after Pilate pronounces sentence.


Winkworth, Catherine. Johann Heerman. The Christian Singers of Germany. London, 1884.

Cyberhymnal. Johann Crüger.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Calvin, so far as I know, didn't write a single hymn or tune, but his influence on Christian hymnody was so profound that I had to include a post on him as a counterpart to Luther.

Luther's reforms of worship restored the Biblical principle of the "priesthood of believers", and thus moved in the direction of a more scriptural approach to church music by making it once again the province of the congregation, not just the priest or choir. Luther also rejected the idea that a central authority (other than the divine) should regulate the services of the church, and thus opened the door for a conscientious examination of the scriptures on the subject of worship.

Calvin, on the other hand, was far more actively anti-Roman in his views; no gradual reform would do. He was far more likely to reject the Roman Catholic position a priori, and as a strict logician, to drive the "sola scriptura" ("scripture only") principle to its necessary conclusion in every instance. In this sense his reasoning was more that of the "restorationist" than the "reformer", and will sound more familiar to us in the Churches of Christ than does the language of Luther. Take, for example, the statement in his 1544 treatise "The Necessity of Reforming the Church":

I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honour of God. But since God not only regards as fruitless, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct: “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain to they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” (1 Sam. xv. 22; Matth. xv. 9.) Every addition to His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreskeia) is vanity. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate....(Schwertley, app. A)

Sound familiar? Calvin's "regulative principle", as it is discussed in Schwertley's excellent review of the subject, simply means that if God has spoken on a subject, we are bound to do what He has said, no more, no less. On the use of musical instruments in Christian worship, for example, Calvin said in his commentary on Psalm 81:

With respect to the tabret, harp, and psaltery, we have formerly observed, and will find it necessary afterwards to repeat the same remark, that the Levites, under the law, were justified in using instrumental music in the worship of God; it having been his will to train his people, while they were as yet tender and like children, by such rudiments, until the coming of Christ. But now when the clear light of the gospel has dissipated the shadows of the law, and taught us that God is to be served in a simpler form, it would be to act a foolish and mistaken part to imitate that which the prophet enjoined only upon those of his own time.(Psalms, III, 222)

In his pursuit of New Testament simplicity, Calvin likewise rejected choirs except as a means of teaching the congregation new songs, and encouraged a style of songwriting that was accessible to the entire congregation. Under his influence, the composer Louis Bourgeois (among others) wrote in a simple, chordal style that would come to define the Protestant psalm- and hymn-singing style (e.g. OLD 100TH, "All people that on earth do dwell", PFTL#17).

Calvin went a step further, however, in his pursuit of purely scriptural worship. He posited that only the words of God (primarily the Psalms) are suitable for the worship of God; in other words, he rejected the singing of any hymn not taken directly from Scripture. For hundreds of years the denominations that descended from the Calvinist movement--the Presbyterians and Reformed Churches--sang nothing but a cappella Psalms. (Some in fact still do, such as the Reformed Presbyterian Church.) What of Paul's authorization of "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" in Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19? These are said to be three different designations for Psalms, as occasionally used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. (But if one accepts the assumption that these terms must only be interpreted by their usage in the Septuagint to refer to the Psalms, then one is caught in a tautology--of course they refer to "inspired songs", because they are in the Bible!) There is no question that the Greek words "hymn" or "song" could be used to refer to a Psalm (as in Josephus), but there is no reason to suppose that they necessarily must refer to Psalms, especially to the Greek Christians of Ephesus or Colossae, who were familiar with these terms from the music of their own culture. The existence of Christian hymns from as early as the 2nd century(MacMillan) is additional evidence that no such exclusivity was understood by the early Christians.

This being said, it is refreshing to see worship debated on the basis of what the Bible authorizes. Though I strongly disagree with Calvin on the far more important issue of free will, he deserves respect as a man committed to following the Bible and reasoning carefully from scripture to practice, rather than starting from practice and trying to justify it from scripture. And though I obviously disagree with "exclusive psalmody", I regret that we do not sing the Psalms any more than we do. We are the poorer for it.

Under Calvin's guidance, poets such as Clement Marot and composers such as Louis Bourgeois crafted a style of Psalm-singing that was standardized in the Geneva Psalter, published in its first complete edition in 1562. (This included the previously referenced OLD 100TH tune, "All people that on earth do dwell", PFTL#17.) Its influence was far-reaching. When English Protestants fled the reign of Mary Tudor, many came to Geneva and interacted with the Psalm-singing tradition; their own native production, the Sternhold & Hopkins Psalter, was greatly influenced by the Genevan style. This Psalter was used well up into the early 1700s in both England and the American colonies, and was, along with the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, one of the primary English-language texts that accompanied the founding of our country.


Schwertley, Brian. Sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship. Lansing, MI: Schwertley, 2000.

Calvin, John. Calvin's Bible Commentaries: Psalms, trans. John King, 5 vols. Originally published 1847. Forgotten Books, 2007.

The MacMillan Book of Earliest Christian Hymns, ed. F. Forrester Church & Terrence J. Mulry. New York: MacMillan, 1988.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Again the Lord of Light and Life

Praise for the Lord #13

Words: Anna Barbauld, 1772
Music: Thomas Arne, 1762 (arr. Ralph Harrison, 1784)

Anna Barbauld (1743-1825) wrote hymn poetry long before the flowering of the Victorian era, and the coincident explosion of popular publishing, made women hymnwriters fairly commonplace. A quick look at her secular poem Rights of Woman is enough to show that she would hardly have fit in with most of the Victorian women poets anyway; she was unusually independent-minded, and hardly considered herself restricted to "women's topics" or an artificially feminine style. Her writing is vigorous and clear, appropriate to its subject. We have one other of her hymns (she did not write that many) in Praise for the Lord, "Praise to God, immortal praise"(#539).

Stanza 1:
Again the Lord of light and life
Awakes the kindling ray,
Unseals the eyelids of the morn,
And pours increasing day.

Here we have a picture of the sunrise--first the "kindling ray" that lights the east, then the "eyelids of the morn" as the sun peers over the horizon, and finally the daylight "pouring" from the rising sun. ("Eyelids of the morning" is a quaint Biblical expression, found in Job 41:18.) All of this is done "again"; that is, we have seen it over and over, yet our joy in it is never abated. And all of this is the work of the "Lord of light and life"--"Yours is the day, Yours also the night; You have established the heavenly lights and the sun."(Psalm 74:16) He created this world and its sun, sustains all of these natural cycles, and thus continues life on this planet, for "He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together."(Colossians 1:17) And so we see the double meaning of "Lord of light and life"; just as Jesus was instrumental in the creation and sustaining of light and life in the physical realm, so He is the "light of the world" bringing the "light of life"(John 8:12) in the spiritual realm, to which Barbauld turns next.

Stanza 2:
O what a night was that which wrapped
The heathen world in gloom!
O what a Sun which rose this day
Triumphant from the tomb!

If you have been out in the country far from the lights of human habitation on a moonless night, you have seen one kind of darkness. If you have been down in a cave with the lights off, you have seen another--a darkness you can practically feel. But nothing compares to the darkness of a life without hope. Jesus said, "If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"(Matthew 6:23) Ephesians 2:12 tells how profound that darkness was in the Gentile world, until the gospel came: "you were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."

But "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined."(Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:16) Jesus came to bring light into this dark world, "and the darkness has not overcome it."(John 1:5) Despite the best efforts of every devil in hell, Jesus "bound the strong man" and "plundered his house";(Matthew 12:29) the victorious Christ "disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame."(Colossians 2:15) Peter, James, and John had seen a preview of the true power and glory of Christ at the transfiguration, when "His face shone like the sun."(Matthew 17:2) John saw the resurrected Christ many years later and described Him as follows:

The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, "Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore.(Revelation 1:14-18)

"What a Sun that rose this day," indeed. May we never dare to consider the Lord's Day worship commonplace.

Stanza 3:
This day be grateful homage paid,
And loud hosannas sung;
Let gladness dwell in every heart,
And praise on every tongue.

Again in the Revelation of John we see a glimpse of the true depth of the reverence and adoration that surrounds the risen Savior:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!(Revelation 5:11-13)

All of heaven and earth are joined in praise to Him, because all of heaven and earth are in submission to His will and united in love of Him--except for one troublesome group of creatures called humanity. Remember what He has promised to do. Remember what He has not done--come upon us in judgment, rather than mercy. How can we withold the praise that is His due?

Stanza 4:
Ten thousand different lips shall join
To hail this welcome morn,
Which scatters blessings from its wings
To nations yet unborn.

On every Lord's Day, as this earth turns and the day passes around the globe, how many different lips speak praise to our Savior, and in how many different languages? Yet despite our differences, we are family twice over: "He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth,"(Acts 17:26) and, "here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all."(Colossians 3:11)

Barbauld closes this rich text with an oblique reference to another Bible passage about sunrise: "But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings."(Malachi 4:2) Jesus healed the physical diseases of many, but in His death and resurrection He provided the cure for the spiritual disease of sin, for which the world had languished since Adam. The blessings of that Resurrection Morning are scattered far and wide; they stretch from the beginning of time to its end.

"Posterity shall serve Him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim His righteousness to a people yet unborn, that He has done it."(Psalm 22:30-31)

About the music: This tune originated in the 1762 opera Artaxerxes by Thomas Arne (1710-1778).(Choral Wiki) Arne was one of the most prominent native English composers of the 18th century, though he was overshadowed by better-known foreign-born composers such as Handel. Artaxerxes was popular enough to remain in production through the remainder of the century.(Herbage) This particular tune is taken from the minuet that concludes the overture.(Parley) Arne was also the composer of the famous "Rule, Britannia",(Herbage) which has a similar majestic character. The Artaxerxes minuet was arranged as a four-part hymn tune by Presbyterian minister Ralph Harrison (1748-1810) and published in his Sacred Harmony in 1784.(Gallery Music)


Choral Wiki. Arlington (Psalm 2), Thomas Arne.

Herbage, Julian. Thomas Augustine Arne. International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, 11th ed. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1985, pp. 84-85.

Parley of Instruments, conducted by Peter Holman. Vital Spark of Heavenly Flame. Hyperion, 1998.

Gallery Music: English church and chapel music of the 1700s and early 1800s. Who was who: H.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Alas! And did my Savior bleed?

Praise for the Lord #12

Words: Isaac Watts, 1707
Music: Ralph E. Hudson, 1885

Isaac Watts has deservingly been called the "father of English hymnody", and along with the younger Charles Wesley set the standard for its growth in the 18th century. His texts appear no fewer than two dozen times in Praise for the Lord, making him well worth a separate posting considering his contributions and influence.

It should be noted that the refrain of this hymn is not original to Watts, but was added by the tunewriter, Ralph Erskine Hudson (1843-1901). Hudson followed a similar practice with "Blessed be the name" (PFTL #52), to my mind with considerably more success. The text and musical style of the refrain:

At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day!

are not well-suited to the soul-searching gravity of Watt's text, which he titled "Godly sorrow arising from the sufferings of Christ".(Watts)

Stanza 1:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

Watts engages his subject with the typical directness of a sincere, deep-thinking soul free from pretension as a poet. He is picturing the scene of the crucifixion as if he were an eyewitness observer, much as he did in his other great crucifixion hymn, "When I survey the wondrous cross" (PFTL #742). The essential theme of the hymn is this: the unfathomable fact that our Lord died for us, "the righteous for the unrighteous."(1 Peter 3:18)

Down through history it has been commonplace for the subjects to die for their sovereign. Millions have been sacrificed to the agendas of their leaders, and untold numbers have even bravely given their lives "for king and country". Looking to the realm of man-made religions, countless numbers have gone to their deaths (and still do) to satisfy the supposed demands of their gods. But Christ, the King of Kings, laid down His own life for His subjects. Our God does not demand that our children go and die for Him; instead He gave up His Son so that we and our children could live.

What can we say to this? Watts carries the thought further contrasting the holiness of "that sacred head" with the unrighteousness of those He came to save. Herein enters a line that has caused endless controversy: "for such a worm as I." Many hymnals have made the simple emendation to "for such a one as I", and others use "for sinners such as I." I have heard both good and bad reasons for rejecting Watts's orginal wording. The better reasoning is that "worm" portrays us as worthless and not worth saving, and that since God obviously saw us as worth saving, we ought not to describe ourselves so. This points to the balance of humility and yet self-realization found in Psalm 8: "What is man, that You are mindful of him? ... yet You have made him a little lower than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor." A less thoughtful rejection of Watts's text is the modern tendency to simply place self-esteem above all else, which rejects the term "worm" as laughably insulting and not worth consideration--if Watts uses such a term, then he is obviously out of touch and not worth listening to.

In Watts's defense, this term is Biblical. In Job, Bildad introduces it as part of a truism about the vast gulf between God and man: "How then can man be in the right before God? How can he who is born of woman be pure? Behold, even the moon is not bright, and the stars are not pure in his eyes; how much less man, who is a maggot, and the son of man, who is a worm!"(Job 25:4-6) Recognizing that we have to be careful in reading Job, to be sure that we are separating out the human philosophies sometimes presented in the course of the proceedings between Job and his friends, nonetheless, Bildad's words stand on their own logic. Abraham referred to himself before God as "but dust and ashes."(Genesis 18:27) Isaiah said, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away."(64:6) The Bible makes it clear that even at our best, we are so far below the righteousness and majesty of God that the distance between us and a worm is not so great as we might wish to think. And interestingly, it becomes clear that Jesus became just such a "worm" when He took our place on the cross: "But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people."(Psalm 22:6)

The following stanza from Watts's original text is omitted in most hymnals:

Thy body slain, sweet Jesus, thine,
And bathed in its own blood,
While all exposed to wrath divine
The glorious Suff'rer stood!

Though the most obvious reason for its omission is the graphic nature of the second line, it is also arguable that whereas the other stanzas keep the theme (contrast between Christ's holiness and our unrighteousness) moving forward, this one seems somewhat a departure from the overall direction of the hymn.

Stanza 2:
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

The facts are simple, their implications profound:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.(Isaiah 53:4-6)

Watts is careful to keep the matter personal; no hiding in the crowd of guilty humanity is allowed here. We are reminded of the apostles' question after Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him: "Lord, is it I?"(Matthew 26:22) Yes, it was I who betrayed Him to that cross.

Stanza 3:
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man, the creature's sin.

Luke 23:44-45 tells us that when Jesus was crucified, there was darkness for three hours "while the sun's light failed". Watts imaginatively interprets this as the personified sun retreating in sorrow and refusing to shine on the tragic scene of its Creator's death. Jesus is the "firstborn of all creation, for by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through Him and for Him."(Colossians 1:15-16) Yet despite His lordship over all creation, He subjected himself to death at the hands of His own creation--to save the very ones who had rebelled against Him.

Stanza 4:
Thus might I hide my blushing face,
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt my eyes to tears.

After showing us the awesome scene, Watts leads us to the natural, wholesome reaction of the believer: sorrow mixed with thankfulness. In the title of this hymn Watts spoke of "godly sorrow", which leads not to despair but to "repentance leading to salvation."(2 Corinthians 7:10) Tears are appropriate--both of sorrow, and of joy--when we think of the cross.

Stanza 5:
But drops of grief can ne'er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
'Tis all that I can do.

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross."(Colossians 2:13-14) Watts would now have us turn from our emotional reaction to the cross, to a sober and rational review of what it means. It is a debt we can never repay; yet we desire to do what we can, as both heart and head tell us we must. "For you were bought with a price; so glorify God in your body."(1 Corinthians 6:20) We cannot pay back what Christ did for us; but we can give what we have--ourselves. "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..."(Romans 12:1) It is not much, when we think of what He gave--but it is His will, and it is all that we can do.

About the music: The practice of singing the refrain only once, after the final verse, has caught on over the last several years, and has been formalized in some hymnals through a performance instruction to that effect, as in Praise for the Lord, and in the revised Great Songs of the Church (ACU Press, 1986). Hudson's music for the verse is square and straightforward, suiting well enough the direct, uncluttered nature of Watts's writing; the chorus, on the other hand, is of a rather light and rollicking nature for such a serious theme.

The practice of attaching a new refrain onto an existing hymn was frequent in the "campmeeting" songs of the early 1800s, which were part of the background of the later gospel style. It was still seen in later generations, as in Hudson's setting of this text and of "Blessed be the name" (PFTL #52), and in Robert Lowry's setting of Watts's "Come we that love the Lord" (PFTL #111).

It is good to remember that this hymn was sung long before 1885; for an older, alternate tune, see the Cyberhymnal page referenced below.


Cyberhymnal. Alas! And did my Savior bleed?

Watts, Isaac. Alas! And did my Savior bleed. Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

Though this blog is dedicated to the authors and composers that give us hymns, sometimes a person has an even more lasting impact on hymnody in other ways. Luther is one such example; his hymn A mighty fortress is of course a fine contribution to Christian music, but his influence as a theologian on the practice of congregational hymnody was much more far-reaching.

To appreciate the changes that came about in this arena during the Reformation, we need to understand the degree to which congregational participation in church music was restricted in the practices of the Catholic church during the Middle Ages. Though congregational singing was the obvious norm during the early Christian era (cf. the "one another" nature of singing in Ephesians 5:18, Colossians 3:16), by the late Middle Ages the congregation's participation was very limited; the presiding priest and the choir carried out almost all of the musical services. This is not to say that there was no group singing of Christian music among the common people, but where it existed (e.g. the English carols) it was usually not part of the official rites of the church.

Another factor tended to remove the average congregant from the Medieval service--the fact that it was sung in Latin, rather than the language of the people. Though churchgoers likely learned much of the Ordinary (the texts that were sung in every Mass), the portions that changed from service to service were doubtless unintelligible to most. It is necessary to understand some of the thinking behind this: first, the service was considered a sacrifice offered to God, not something done primarily for the benefit of the congregation; and second, it was assumed that the clergy acted as intermediaries between God and the congregation, who could not be expected to understand all of the complexities of the ritual, and did not have to.

There had been those all along who resisted this appropriation of the congregation's role, and in time they succeeded to such a degree that their efforts are still known to us. The much-persecuted followers of the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (1372-1415), for example, were known to practice a very simple form of worship, including congregational singing. But it was Luther, whose theological acumen was matched by his political skill, who relaid the Biblical foundations that opened the way for at least a potential, partial restoration of congregational participation in church music.

In his "Address to the Christian nobility of the German nation", Luther homed in on the logical implications of 1 Peter 2:9, "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation..." He reasoned that "It follows then, that between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, or, as they call it, between spiritual and temporal sons, the only real difference is one of office and function..."(Address) He illustrates the consequences of this conclusion as follows:

...if a little company of pious Christian laymen were taken prisoners and carried away to a desert, and had not among them a priest consecrated by a bishop, and were there to agree to elect one of them and were to order him to baptise, to celebrate the mass, to absolve and to preach, this man would as truly be a priest, as if all the bishops and all the popes had consecrated him. That is why, in cases of necessity, every man can baptise and absolve, which would not be possible if we were not all priests. This great grace and virtue of baptism and of the Christian estate they have quite destroyed and made us forget by their ecclesiastical law...(Address)

The realization that all Christians stand equal as priests before God means that "no man may put himself forward or take upon himself without our consent and election, to do that which we have all alike power to do."(Address)

In the area of church music, Luther's revolution meant the return of a meaningful participation by the congregation in the official services of the church; and this necessarily meant a change in the nature of the services. He said in 1523 that:

I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass, immediately after the gradual and also after the Sanctus and Agnus Dei. For who doubts that originally all the people sang these which now only the choir sings or responds to while the bishop is consecrating?(Whitwell, 12)

It is important to understand that Luther did not dislike the music of the Medieval Latin service, except where he believed the texts were unscriptural; but he believed that the worshipper, as a priest before God, needed to understand what was transpiring. For schools and universities, where Latin and music were taught, the rich heritage of Gregorian chant and Latin hymns might continue in their chapel services; but for the average churchgoer, something else would obviously be necessary.

Luther promoted the pragmatic adoption of hymns from a variety of sources: original compositions, folk hymns, adaptations from the Latin service, even adapted popular songs. (When challenged on the latter practice, he is supposed to have said, "Why should the devil get all the good tunes?") He also encouraged the widespread study of music and the diversity of local musical traditions, denying the value of the rigid uniformity practiced in the Catholic services of the era. (It could be argued that Luther created a musical culture that nurtured some of the greatest musicians in the Western tradition, most notably Johann Sebastian Bach.)

Some examples of the Lutheran "chorale":

  • Original composition: The best example is still "A mighty fortress", by Luther himself. It is theologically strong, musically sound, and has lasted for generations. Luther might be described as a "serious amateur"; he had formal lessons in music, and if he was not a great composer himself, he showed a good appreciation of those who were.

  • Folk hymns: A well-known example in our hymnal is "Fairest Lord Jesus" (PFTL #137). The text is found at least as early as the 1600s, of unknown authorship; the music is known no earlier than the 1800s. The simplicity of both text and music are typical of the contributions of these unknown artists down through the years.

  • Latin adaptations: One of the most famous of these is "Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands". Though not in Praise for the Lord, it can be found in the Cyberhymnal. The melody, and to some extent the text, were adapted from the Medieval chant "Victimae paschali laudes". The Latin text, a translation, and a recording can be found here.

  • Adaptations from popular music: "O sacred head now wounded" (PFTL #484) is actually a combination of the last two techniques; the text is adapted from a Medieval Latin hymn, and the melody from a popular song. The text was from the Latin poem "Salvi, caput cruentatum", sometimes attributed to the prominent 12th-century cleric Bernard of Clairvaux, but cannot be confirmed in a source earlier than the 14th century. Paul Gerhardt, an important figure in Lutheran church music, adapted it in a German translation in the 1600s. The origin of the music is much more certain. The melody was written by the German composer Hans Leo Hassler, with the lyrics "Mein G'muth is mir verwirret", first published in 1601.(Cyberhymnal) In its original, secular form it had a considerably more lively rhythm (listen to a MIDI file from the Choral Public Domain Library). The lyrics of the first verse translate as follows:

    My peace of mind is disturbed;
    This a tender maiden has caused.
    I am completely and entirely astray,
    My heart hurts badly.
    Day and night I have no rest,
    Always there is great complaint,
    Continual sighing and weeping,
    In utter sorrow despairing.(Stolba, 114)
    All we are missing is a pickup truck and some rain, and we would have a classic country song. Were people bothered by the associations of the music with its former text? Perhaps. It was put to the service of spiritual lyrics some 50 years after its original composition, but the most likely reason for its use in the 1650s was that it was still current, i.e. people were still singing the original song.

Luther did much that was praiseworthy in the restoration of congregational singing to its place of prominence, and in encouraging an atmosphere of "deregulation" of the service in which a repertoire of congregational song could grow. The fine tradition of the Lutheran chorale, which has blessed the Christian world in the centuries since, also speaks well of his efforts in the arena of hymnody.


Luther, Martin. Address to the Christian nobility of the German nation.

Whitwell, David. Martin Luther on Music. Essays on the History of Western Music.

Cyberhymnal. O sacred head.

Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music: An Anthology, 2nd ed., Vol. I: From Ancient Times through the Classical Era. Wm. C. Brown, 1994.

Above the Bright Blue

Praise for the Lord #11

Words & music: Charles E. Pollock, 1903

Charles Edward Pollock, 1853-1954, was a gospel songwriter active in the first two decades of the 20th century, mostly writing tunes for other people's lyrics.(Cyberhymnal) Except for "Above the bright blue", none of his works have retained much currency, though his "Beautiful Bethlehem bells" appears on some web sites dealing with Christmas music.(

Stanza 1:
There's a beautiful place called heaven,
It is hidden above the bright blue,
Where the good, who from earth-ties are riven,
Live and love an eternity through

The apostle Paul, writing from a Roman prison, knew that his ties to this earth could be cut at any moment. And though he did not want to leave his work unfinished, he could honestly tell the Philippians, "I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better."(1:23) I will have to admit that I am not there with Paul yet; I am still too tied to the affairs of this life, the strength of my faith is still too intermittent, to honestly say that. But I am closer than I was, as the years go by and I see the meanness that goes on in this world and the general futility of even the more positive things that this world tries to do.

There is another kind of "earth-tie" that is more personal: "But I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?"(Romans 7:23-24) We try, and try again, and try again, but the life of righteousness and holiness that we seek remains just one foolish stumble out of our reach. Hopefully we are at least aware of our faults, and consistently trying to overcome them through the Lord's help. But won't it be wonderful when there is no more temptation? No more moments of weakness, pride, or carelessness that lead us astray? "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."(Romans 8:23)

Above the bright blue, the beautiful blue,
Jesus is waiting for me and for you;
Heaven is there, not far from our sight,
Beautiful city of light.

One of the things I appreciate about this text is its approach to describing heaven. Instead of the somewhat materialistic tone struck by other "heaven" songs from Pollock's era, the focus is on the spiritual. Stanza 1 talks of a place where we will "live and love"; stanza 2 calls it a "land of sweet rest", as opposed to the "earth-ties" of stanza 1; but the central idea, reinforced by the refrain, is that "Jesus is waiting". It is a "beautiful city of light" because "the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb."(Revelation 21:23)

Stanza 2:
This land of sweet rest awaits us,
Some day it will break on our view,
'Tis promised by Christ the Redeemer,
To His followers faithful and true.

You may be familiar with the famous tagline from the commercials of a certain clothing store: "I guarantee it." You may have been irritated by the speaker's voice, perhaps even mimicked it (proof that those advertising dollars were well spent!), but everyone in the TV viewing area of a Men's Wearhouse knows that gravelly-voiced George Zimmer guarantees his store's services. In a recent interview he discussed how important that slogan really is to him; he wants to run a business that has integrity, and he knows it has to start from the top. We judge a promise based on the one who stands behind it.

Jesus promised that there would be a place for us after this life: "Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also."(John 14:1-3) We do not know what it will be like to pass from this life, and it frightens us; there is much we do not know about that next life, and it makes us wonder; but we know Jesus promised, personally, that He would take care of it. He guarantees it.

Stanza 3:
We know not when He shall call us,
Whether soon, the glad summons shall be,
But we know, when we pass o'er the river,
The glory of Jesus we'll see.

One of the most powerful lessons on the need to be ready to meet the Lord at any time is from a parable of Jesus, recorded in Luke:

Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the wedding feast, so that they may open the door to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them awake, blessed are those servants!(12:35-38)

Firefighters on duty at a station keep their clothing, gear, and vehicles in a state of readiness so that they can deploy for action within a few minutes. They might be asleep, or eating, or watching television, or playing cards, but when the alarm sounds they are ready to go. They can do this because: 1) they have acquired the proper training and equipment, 2) they refresh their training and maintain their equipment on a regular basis, and 3) they keep a state of mental readiness, regardless of the activities of the moment, remembering the purpose for which they are on duty. "You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."(Luke 12:40)

About the music: This is a well-written example of the traditional congregational gospel song; the harmonies move very logically and predictably, and the part-writing of the voices is particularly well done, being both technically correct and easily sung (a good combination). I suspect that Pollock wrote the alto part against the melody, then the bass, and filled in the tenor last. The alto tends to run in parallel harmony with the melody, and the song functions fairly well even as a soprano-alto duet. For smaller congregations that may not have strong basses and tenors (or any basses and tenors!) this kind of writing is a blessing.

A little bit of criticism: If you follow the link above to "Beautiful Bethlehem bells", you can read (and hear, in all its MIDI glory) why Pollock was not exactly the leading light of the gospel song era. The imagery of the text is bizarre (what exactly are "Bethlehem bells" anyway?) and the language is that American brand of saccharine pseudo-Victorian poetry that we tend to associate today with greeting cards. Not that an archaic poetic style should keep us from singing a really great hymn--I will go down fighting to my last breath for the rich, deep language of, say, Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley, to name two; they are well worth putting up with a few "thees" and "thous". But I would have a hard time convincing a young person of today that they should overlook the flowery, artificial style of many late 19th- and early 20th-century gospel lyrics, unless there is a strong message beneath the surface. The same criticism that we old codgers make of some contemporary Christian songs--"It doesn't really say anything"--can be just as true of old songs.

Turning to "Above the bright blue", it is easy to see why this is Pollock's most successful work. The language is refreshingly simple, and relatively free of poetic flourishes; as I try to read this through younger eyes, only the expressions "bright blue", "riven", "'tis", "summons", and "o'er" stand out as unfamiliar from everyday language (at least, everyday language for one familiar with basic Biblical concepts such as "Redeemer", "eternity", etc.). "Bright blue" is a fairly obvious reference to the bright blue sky; "'tis" and "o'er" are unfortunate poetic contractions that we can't seem to get along without, so they should be familiar from plenty of other songs; and "summons" is still current in our legal language in very much the same sense used here. That leaves only "riven" as a word that may leave the young reader scratching his or her head; not bad for a text of this age!

The expression "pass o'er the river" in the third stanza is a different sort of issue. You know what it means, but ask yourself how you know that. We use "crossing over Jordan" as a metaphor for death, because it was on this crossing that the Israelites entered the Promised Land of Canaan. We are also perhaps following the application of 1 Corinthians 10, which compares the crossing of the Red Sea under the cloud to baptism. As I have heard this taught my whole life, the Israelites' escaping slavery in Egypt is a type of the Christian's escape from sins, with the miraculous entry into a new life being marked by water baptism; the wilderness wandering is a type of the "church militant", the struggles of the Christian life as we fight against our rebellious tendencies and learn to be holy to God; and the crossing of Jordan into Canaan is a type of the "church triumphant", when we are released from the wanderings of this life and enter into eternity.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of songs follow this metaphor--"Deep river", "On Jordan's stormy banks", "Down by the riverside", "Shall we gather at the river?", etc. Perhaps this image is so common that we can expect anyone, even the unchurched, to be aware of it; but it is good to realize the common cultural references we assume. So far as I am aware, the Bible never actually applies "crossing the Jordan" to the Christian's death and entry into paradise; it seems a valid comparison, but it is one we have constructed ourselves. (If I am wrong, please let me know!)


Cyberhymnal. Charles Edward Pollock.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Abide with Me; 'Tis Eventide

Praise for the Lord #10

Words: Martin Lowrie Hofford, 1884.
Music: Harrison Millard, 1884.

Neither Hofford nor Millard are represented by any other hymns in Praise for the Lord, and in fact they have none listed in the Cyberhymnal, a copious source for such information, besides this one. Each of them wrote other works, both sacred and secular, but it appears that this hymn alone of their collaborations has survived into any modern usage.

Stanza 1:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
The day is past and gone;
The shadows of the evening fall;
The night is coming on!
Within my heart a welcome Guest,
Within my home abide.

O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, ’tis eventide!
O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, ’tis eventide!

The text is a meditation on the experience of the two unnamed disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, the day of His resurrection, but did not recognize Him: "Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, 'Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' And He went in to stay with them."(Luke 24:28-29)

Much of the first stanza is a poetic elaboration on the coming of night. Nighttime, even in our modern age of electric lighting, can still be a time of fears. Trials, whatever they may be, always seem worse at night; and just as the rising sun usually fills even the hardest times with a little bit of hope, the setting sun can cause us to dread the long dark hours ahead. But after establishing this somber scene, Hofford makes a fine poetic turn--the coming of the night is of no concern, because there is "within my heart a welcome Guest," whose presence fills our lives with such warmth and light that no earthly darkness matters.

Stanza 2:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
Thy walk today with me
Has made my heart within me burn,
As I communed with Thee.
Thy earnest words have filled my soul
And kept me near Thy side.

The disciples on the road to Emmaus were discussing Jesus as the went, but when the very subject of their conversation joined the company, they were (miraculously, one supposes) unable to recognize Him.(Luke 24:14-16) But after He revealed Himself they said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?"(Luke 24:32) What a feast for the intellect, the heart, and the soul it must have been, to walk and talk with Jesus for an evening! The wonderful news is, we still can. We can commune with Him in His word every day, meditating on His teachings. They are never out of date--they are as comforting and convicting as the day they were spoken.

Stanza 3:
Abide with me, ’tis eventide!
And lone will be the night,
If I cannot commune with Thee,
Nor find in Thee my light.
The darkness of the world, I fear,
Would in my home abide.

What would your life be without Jesus? This final stanza turns the first stanza inside out, showing that without Him, the spiritual darkness of the world--not the physical darkness of evening--will dwell in us, regardless of the time of day. Jesus once said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life;"(John 8:12) but He also said that the inverse is equally true: "If anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him."(John 11:10) What will our choice be?

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in..."(Revelation 3:20)

About the music: Harrison Millard (1829-1895) was an American operatic tenor and minor composer, leaving behind a number of art songs, choral works, and even an opera.(Cyberhymnal) The influence of this broad acquaintance with the classical tradition can be seen even in this little gospel song, with its pleasant, well-formed melody and harmonic variety. For example, after the stanza's calm, repetitive, folk-like melody, the refrain immediately leaps up to the leading tone of the scale (TI, the last note of the major scale before reaching DO again); but instead of continuing up to the top of the scale, the melody winds back down again. The sense of resolution we are expecting is delayed until the repetition of the phrase, "O Sa- vior", upon which the melody finally reaches up to DO. This makes a logical and satisfying answer to the expectant-sounding phrase before; but at the same time, the DO is harmonized with a minor chord rather than major, thus delaying our expected resolution once again before the finish. It is fairly ordinary stuff for classical music of the era, but it is a nice touch of craftsmanship in the context of a gospel song, many of which use no more than three different chords.

A little comparative criticism: The similarity of this hymn to Henry F. Lyte's "Abide with me" (PFTL #7) is obvious, since they draw on some of the same imagery, and it is hard to avoid the question: Is it as good a hymn? In one sense, we might say it is obviously not, because "Abide with me" is one of our most well-known and beloved hymns, and "Abide with me; 'tis eventide" is comparatively obscure. Is that good evidence? Not necessarily, since some mediocre hymns are more "well-known and beloved" than they deserve to be, and some better hymns ought to be rescued from obscurity. But Lyte's "Abide with me" has been well-received across the English-speaking world, and across several generations, far from the time and place in which it appeared--evidence of something substantial beyond the fashions of its day.

On a more analytical level, "Abide with me" speaks to a greater range of human experience and emotion, and describes more fully the sources of our need for Christ to "abide in us", whereas "Abide with me; 'tis eventide" is more narrowly focused on the desire to foster a closer relationship to the Lord. "Abide with me" is more urgent in its pleading ("Help of the helpless!"), and more incisive and bitter in its assessment of what is wrong with the world about us ("change and decay in all around I see"). Perhaps this is why it has had a greater impact on our hymnody--because it is more emotionally pungent. None of this, of course, lessens the real value of "Abide with me; 'tis eventide"; it is a fine text, rooted in scripture and bringing a needed exhortation.


Cyberhymnal. Harrison Millard.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Wonderful Savior

Praise for the Lord #9

Words: Fanny J. Crosby, 1890
Music: William J. Kirkpatrick, 1890

The story of Fanny J. Crosby (1820-1915), the blind poet whose lyrics so dominated the 19th-century American gospel song, will require a post of its own. It is enough just to point out that she has more texts in Praise for the Lord than any other writer--thirty, in fact.

Stanza 1:
A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
A wonderful Savior to me;
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock,
Where rivers of pleasure I see.

He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry, thirsty land;
He hideth my life with the depths of His love,
And covers me there with His hand,
And covers me there with His hand.

Isaiah 9:6 promised a Child to come whose "name shall be called Wonderful"; the angel Gabriel promised that "He will save His people from their sins."(Matthew 1:21) Surely the name "Savior" is one of the most precious to us, because it relates so directly to our need to be saved from our sins. And however much the term "wonderful" has been overused in our language, when we apply it to Christ we must remember to bring it back to its pristine meaning--"full of wonder, miraculous". He was full of miracles and wonders in His works, of course; but His very existence--God on this earth, living as a man, dying for our sins--was the greatest wonder of all.

The "cleft of the rock" is a powerful image of a place of safety and divine protection. David hid in the rocky caves when Saul pursued him(1 Samuel 23:25), and was delivered; Elijah also hid in a cave in Mount Horeb when he was on the run from Jezebel,(1 Kings 19:8-9) and had a meeting with God. Crosby, however, is certainly referring to the experience of Moses with the Lord in Exodus 33:18-23:

Moses said, "Please show me your glory." And He said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name 'The Lord .' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." And the Lord said, "Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen."

In this case, the danger from which Moses is protected, in the cleft of the rock, is that of looking on Gods's unveiled glory. Crosby chooses not to address this irony, but instead blends this incident with that of God bringing water miraculously from a rock in "a dry thirsty land."(Exodus 17:6) This fountain of water in the desert was necessary to the survival of the Israelites, of course, but it was also a symbol of spiritual salvation to come. 1 Corinthians 10:14 asserts that "the Rock was Christ," and we see the symbol fulfilled with Jesus' promise of "living water" to the Samaritan woman (John 4) and in His proclamation of John 7:38--"Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" In a single Biblical metaphor, Crosby has painted the picture of Jesus as both our Protecter and Sustainer.

Stanza 2:
A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord,
He taketh my burden away;
He holdeth me up, and I shall not be moved,
He giveth me strength as my day.

In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus said, "Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light." Does the Christian life seem a light burden? Wouldn't it rather be easier to simply follow the course of least resistance into a life of carelessness and small-time sin? But when we look at the true burden of sin, we realize the heavy chains of bondage that we, like Dickens's ghost of Marley, are forging unawares. "For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me."(Psalm 38:4) What a blessing to know, however hard this life may seem at times, that we are free from those burdens that would keep us from heaven!

In the second half of the stanza Crosby paraphrases another great passage about God as a Rock: "He only is my Rock and my salvation; He is my defense; I shall not be moved. In God is my salvation and my glory; The Rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God."(Psalm 62:6-7) The phrase “I shall not be moved” is familiar to us from the spiritual song that became an anthem of the civil rights movement (PFTL #819); but it is derived from frequent appearances in the Psalms (e.g. nos. 16, 30, 55, 121). In those psalms, there is the common thread of a sense of steadiness in the face of adversity, as of a warrior holding ground in battle.(Miller, 398)

Stanza 3:
With numberless blessings each moment He crowns,
And filled with His fullness divine,
I sing in my rapture, oh, glory to God
For such a Redeemer as mine!

James 1:17 reminds us that "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights"; but though we ought always to be thankful for the material blessings He has given so freely, perhaps we do better when we look at the spiritual blessings alone. In Ephesians 1:3 Paul says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." Foremost of these, of course, are the "riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us."(Ephesians 1:7b-8) God was not stingy with the precious blood of His Son, nor grudging with His grace. "Fullness" is a word frequently found in connection with the gospel of Christ as well, because He did nothing by half-measures. "For in Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in Him, who is the Head of all rule and authority."(Colossians 2:9-10) It was Paul's earnest prayer that all Christians should come to know this fullness of Christ in their own lives:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.(Ephesians 3:14-19)

As the refrain of Robert Lowry's great hymn asks, "How can I keep from singing?"

Stanza 4:
When clothed in His brightness, transported I rise
To meet Him in clouds of the sky,
His perfect salvation, His wonderful love
I’ll shout with the millions on high.

"For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened--not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."(2 Corinthians 5:4) Christ was clothed in bright, white clothing at the transfiguration (Mark 9:3) and again in the Revelation (1:13), and the saints in the Revelation are frequently represented as being clothed in the same manner (3:5, 3:18, 4:4, 7:9, 19:14), which symbolizes "the righteousness of the saints."(Revelation 19:8)

Not that it is our own righteousness, for "all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags."(Isaiah 64:6) As Paul explains, it is not "a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."(Philippians 3:9) That is the righteousness that will surround us as brilliant white garments, on the day of our transformation; that is the righteousness in which we will stand before the judgment seat of God; that is the righteousness in which we will live forever in heaven. A wonderful Savior is Jesus my Lord!

About the music: William J. Kirkpatrick (1838-1921) makes a strong showing in Praise for the Lord with more than twenty tunes, including those for the following hymns:

"For Christ and the church" #156
"Hallelujah! Praise Jehovah!" #200
"Lead me to Calvary" #384
"Lord, I'm coming home" #414
"O to be like Thee!" #499
"Redeemed--how I love to proclaim it" #544
"Stepping in the light" #599
"The Lord is in His holy temple" #685
"'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus" #687
"We have heard the joyful sound" #722
"We'll work till Jesus comes" #743
"Who will follow Jesus?" #760
"Will your anchor hold?" #776

Two things are obvious--first, that he had a penchant for simple, uncomplicated, upbeat tunes, and second, that lyrics matched to his tunes tend to have a long and successful career in the Churches of Christ, at least in this country. At least one of the above, and quite possibly two or three, might be heard at our services on any Sunday. Kirkpatrick's songs work well for a cappella congregational singing, with clear, easy-to-follow harmonies and catchy melodies. If it is sung fast enough, his tune for "A wonderful Savior" falls easily into the feel of a fiddler's jig.

Kirkpatrick's associations are interesting. He was a partner in a music publishing business with John R. Sweney (1837-1899), also a prominent tunewriter for gospel songs.(Reynolds, 120) Both of them set lyrics by fellow Methodist Fanny Crosby. Kirkpatrick also wrote the music for "O to be like Thee!"(PFTL #499), a text by the up-and-coming Methodist hymn lyricist Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960). Interestingly, Kirkpatrick had a connection with the Gospel Advocate, serving as music editor for the interesting but short-lived New Christian Hymnal (1907), under the general editorship of T.B. Larimore. It would be interesting to know if Kirkpatrick set the stage for the partnership that later developed between Thomas O. Chisholm and Lloyd O. Sanderson (1902-1992), the hymnal editor for Gospel Advocate's extremely popular Christian Hymns (1935). Chisholm and Sanderson co-wrote "Bring Christ your broken life"(PFTL #67), "Buried with Christ"(PFTL #85), and the classic "Be with me, Lord"(PFTL #40).


Reynolds, William J., Milburn Price, and David W. Music. A Survey of Christian Hymnody, 4th ed. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing, 1999.

Miller, Clyde. Psalms, vol. 2, The Living Word Commentary. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing, 1980.