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.

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