Monday, March 16, 2009

Angry Words

Praise for the Lord #37

Words: Sunday School Teacher, 1867 (Horatio R. Palmer?)
Music: Horatio R. Palmer, 1867; arr. Will W. Slater, 1944

Horatio Richmond Palmer (1834-1907) had quite a resume as an all-around music educator. He served as music director for the Rushford Academy in his native New York, as the choir director for a large Baptist congregation in Chicago, was the editor of the music journal Concordia, and was the founder of the New York Church Choral Union. Amateur music societies were a staple of 19th-century European and American middle-class life, and the post-Civil War trend of massive concerts played into the "choral union" phenomenon as well; Palmer's success may be measured by the fact that he conducted a choirs of four thousand singers in New York's Madison Square Garden. His career reached even greater heights during the years that he was asked to teach the music section of the famous Chautauqua, New York summer educational programs.(Cyberhymnal)

Stanza 1:
Angry words! O let them never,
From the tongue unbridled slip,
May the heart’s best impulse ever,
Check them ere they soil the lip.

The word "unbridled" is not chosen by accident: "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) James expands on this theme in the third chapter:

For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!(James 3:2-5)

The tongue, of course, is standing in for the words it says--the words we choose day by day, by which the world outside knows us. If we can guard the words we say, we can do much good and avoid much evil; if we do not, we are in for a world of trouble. Words become the focal point of how we relate to one another, and it is tragic how often it is for the worse rather than the better:

With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, [fn] these things ought not to be so.(James 3:9-10)

The idea of words "soiling the lip" might have been inspired by Jesus' statement in Matthew 15:18, "But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person." I can remember at least once having my mouth washed out with soap. It made an impression, but it was not a permanent solution. We need to have our mouths made holy by a far more powerful cleansing agent, and we need to remember to Whom our lips now belong. In Isaiah's famous call to ministry, the prophet responded to the sight of God's holiness filling the temple by saying "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!"(Isaiah 6:5)

God did not deny the fact, but instead sent an angel to touch a coal from the altar to Isaiah's lips, with the words, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."(Isaiah 6:7) It is interesting to note that from this point forward Isaiah understands implicitly that his lips now belong to God, and that he speaks for the Lord, with all the responsibility that involves.

"Love one another," thus saith the Savior,
Children, obey the Father’s blest command.

The specific statement cited is John 13:34-35,

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

The context is interesting. During these chapters Jesus is giving the disciples their last instructions before the crucifixion, and His sense of urgency is palpable. It is easy to understand the emphasis He placed on being ready for persecution, and on relying on the coming of the Holy Spirit after Jesus left them--these were things they desperately needed to know. But one more thing that Jesus felt they desperately needed to know was the imperative to love each other. He even returned to the topic in chapter 15, and repeatedly used the word "command" and "commandment". More than a dozen times these words are repeated in the epistles.

If we love one another as Jesus loved His disciples, what would that mean? He loved them in spite of their hardheadedness and occasional small-mindedness. He loved them in spite of their wavering faith. He loved them in spite of their occasional childishness (of the wrong sort), jealousy, and short-sightedness. And dare we question that He even loved Judas, who wickedly and knowingly betrayed Him? If we love one another as Jesus loved, can we not think before we speak?

Stanza 2:
Love is much too pure and holy,
Friendship is too sacred far,
For a moment’s reckless folly,
Thus to desolate and mar.

Stanza 3:
Angry words are lightly spoken,
Bitterest thoughts are rashly stirred,
Brightest links of life are broken,
By a single angry word.

The last two stanzas explore the same theme: the fact that one angry remark, one lapse of self-control, can do damage that may never be undone. Words can be weapons, but they are not "smart weapons"; they do not always hit the one intended, and there is no abort or self-destruct button we can push before our words reach their target.

The book of Proverbs contains many pithy comments on the need to control our tongues, and the danger of losing control of our tempers.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.(Proverbs 10:19)

There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.(Proverbs 12:18)

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.(Proverbs 15:1)

Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.(Proverbs 17:27)

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.(Proverbs 25:11)

Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.(Proverbs 29:20)

The truth of these statements is evident from everyday life. I have known people who say, "Well, I just say what I think and if people don't like it, that's their problem." Oddly enough, all of these people were young; I suspect that in time the school of hard knocks changed their tune. Words mean things, and actions have consequences.

Sadly, the ones who suffer the most from our angry words are likely to be those closest to us. Since our guard is down at home, we will sometimes say things to family that we would never say to a stranger. Of all the places where patience, love, and self-control need to be exercised, it is in the home! There are a lot of things that we should say, and don't; and there are certainly a lot of things that we shouldn't say, but do!

Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.(James 1:19-20)

About the music: Palmer's background can sometimes be seen in his hymns. One can easily imagine the 4,000-voice choir singing his the surging crescendos of his music for "Master, the tempest is raging"(PFTL#425), or building up to the grand climax of his anthem "O Lord, our Lord"(PFTL#486). Of a very different nature, though are "Yield not to temptation"(PFTL#798) and "Angry words". Both begin with a soprano-alto duet (in their original settings) which moves almost exclusively in parallel thirds, probably the easiest possible harmonizing the altos can get. "Angry words" appeared in a Sunday School publication, and it is likely that these were intended for children. Perhaps the soprano-alto duets were even intended for child soloists, which would certainly be a cute effect. Their translation to the mixed adult voices of congregational singing, however, detracts from that sort of charm, and the stanza music of "Angry words" in particular can come across rather syrupy. Nonetheless, it is a price we pay for a really well-considered and thoughtful text, on a subject about which we have far too few hymns.


Cyberhymnal. Horatio Richmond Palmer.

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