Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Awake, my soul, in joyful lays

Praise for the Lord #38

Words: Samuel Medley, 1782
Music: Leavitt's Christian Lyre, 1831

Samuel Medley (1738-1799) does not appear elsewhere in Praise for the Lord, but at least one of his other texts, "O could I speak the matchless worth" has appeared in a number of other hymnals used among the Churches of Christ. Medley was yet another sailor who turned to ministry, in his case from reading the sermons of Isaac Watts.(Cyberhymnal,"Medley")

This text first appeared in the Collection of Hymns compiled by J.H. Meyer for Lady Huntingdon's Chapel in Bath, England.(Cyberhymnal,"Awake") Bath in that time was a playground for the nobility, with a reputation for loose morals (see Jane Austen). The Lady Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, however, was a patroness of Methodism in particular and religious revival in general in the city.("Lady Huntingdon")

Stanza 1:
Awake, my soul, in joyful lays,
And sing the great Redeemer’s praise;
He justly claims a song from me--
His lovingkindness, O how free!
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness, O how free!

The term "lovingkindness" occurs in the King James Version some twenty times in the Psalms, in each case translating the Hebrew term chesed. It carries with it a sense of active "zeal" towards the subject, a mercy that is ready to save.(Strong's H2167) Even a small sampling is enough to see the power of this expression:

Show Your marvelous lovingkindness by Your right hand, O You who save those who trust in You from those who rise up against them.(Psalm 17:7)

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.(Psalm 36:7)

Do not withhold Your tender mercies from me, O Lord; let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me.(Psalm 40:11)

Hear me, O Lord, for Your lovingkindness is good; turn to me according to the multitude of Your tender mercies.(Psalm 69:16)

Cause me to hear Your lovingkindness in the morning, for in You do I trust; cause me to know the way in which I should walk, for I lift up my soul to You.(Psalm 143:8)

My lovingkindness and my fortress, my high tower and my deliverer, my shield and the One in whom I take refuge, Who subdues my people under me.(Psalm 144:2)

The Revised Standard Version and the English Standard Version translate this term differently: "steadfast love". God's love and kindness toward us is more than a feeling; it is an active, working relationship in our favor. God is not just well-inclined toward us, but has gone to great lengths to reveal Himself to us, and to provide a way of salvation so that we can return to Him. We are not so faithful to Him, but He is to us.

What can be our response? Medley's hymn says "He justly claims a song from me", and the Psalmist agrees. We should remember the lovingkindness of God when we come together to worship, as Psalm 48:9 says, "We have thought, O God, on Your lovingkindness, in the midst of Your temple." Psalm 63:3 tells us the result of these meditations: "Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips shall praise You."

Stanza 2:
He saw me ruined in the fall,
Yet loved me notwithstanding all;
He saved me from my lost estate--
His lovingkindness, O how great!
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness, O how great!

Romans 5:6-8 makes this sobering point:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

There was nothing in God's justice that demanded Him to provide a way of salvation for us, especially considering what it would cost Him. Thankfully, there was something in His grace that did so. The greatest measure of His lovingkindness died on a Roman cross nearly 2,000 years ago.

Does Medley mean to teach original sin in that first line? Perhaps so, considering he was influenced by Watts, the staunch Calvinist, and served as a Baptist minister himself. But we need not read that line in such a way. Revelation 13:8 describes Christ as "slain from the foundation of the world", an interesting insight into how the heavenly realm views earthly time. Yes, there was a specific point in time that He was slain--but God's knowledge of that fact was so certain that it was, from His perspective in eternity, a fact that always has been. Likewise the sin of Adam and Eve; it occurred at a specific point in time, but God knew it would happen, and prepared Christ as the remedy (1 Peter 1:20). The same is true of us--God saw, from His perspective of eternity, all of us "ruined in the fall" by our own actions, and "predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ"(Ephesians 1:5) if we choose to accept His grace.

The following stanza is omitted in our hymnal:

Though numerous hosts of mighty foes,
Though earth and hell my way oppose,
He safely leads my soul along--
His lovingkindness, O how strong!
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness, O how strong!

Perhaps editors have been squeamish over the years about using the word "hell" in a hymn text; it is a powerful word, not to be used lightly, though I see nothing wrong with its use here. Hymns need not always be pleasant and well-mannered; sometimes they need to be blunt.

Stanza 3:
When trouble, like a gloomy cloud,
Has gathered thick and thundered loud,
He near my soul has always stood--
His lovingkindness, O how good!
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness, O how good!

We commonly use clouds and storm as a symbol of the troubles of life, but it is interesting to see how these things appear in the Scriptures. The majority of the time, though "clouds and thick darkness" are fear-inspiring, they are also closely connected with the works of God. God showed Himself on Sinai in "thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount".(Exodus 19:16) God spoke from a cloud in Luke 9:34-35, terrifying Peter, James, and John at the time of Christ's transfiguration. Christ left this earth accompanied by clouds (Acts 1:9), and promised to return in judgment the same way.(Luke 21:27)

Many of us enjoy "a good thunderstorm", and I suspect for the same reasons. The wind, driving rain, and lightning remind us that there are powers in God's natural world before which we are helpless, and which cause us to think on His power and authority over this world and our lives. We look on the storm and remember that the God who allows these forces to be unleashed will also hear our prayers, and that calmer weather will return. Can we learn to view the figurative storms of life in the same way? Perhaps the storms of persecution, trial, and suffering can serve the same purpose: to remind us that God, and not we ourselves, is the One on whom we must rely.

Praise for the Lord ends the hymn after three stanzas. For curiosity's sake, I am including the remaining stanzas from the original version:

Often I feel my sinful heart
Prone from my Jesus to depart;
But though I have him oft forgot,
His lovingkindness changes not.
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness changes not.

Soon I shall pass the gloomy vale,
Soon all my mortal powers must fail;
O! may my last expiring breath
His lovingkindness sing in death.
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness sing in death.

Then let me mount and soar away
To the bright world of endless day;
And sing with raptures and surprise,
His lovingkindness in the skies.
Lovingkindness, lovingkindness,
His lovingkindness in the skies.

There is a typical progression here: the tendency to fall away, the inevitability of death, and the ultimate reward. These first two topics are not dealt with nearly enough, in my opinion, in modern hymns; but they were common enough in this earlier era.

About the music: You can view a scanned copy of the original Christian Lyre at http://books.google.com/books?id=NyVwTQIfNWoC&printsec=titlepage. The music of "Awake, my soul" is on page 22, and the text on page 23.

Leavitt published this in New York City; it was certainly not a frontier hymnal, but was also not from the more classical art music tradition. James Downey, an a very interesting article, identifies it as one of the beginnings of Christian popular music in the United States.(Downey,150) Interestingly, the Christian Lyre coincided with the urban revivalism of Charles G. Finney, the prototype of the urban revivalists stretching from Dwight Moody down to Billy Graham. Leavitt sent Finney free copies in hopes of encouraging the hymnals adoption in Finney's revivals.(Downey,152ff.)

Nothing could be more "popular" in nature than this hymnal; Leavitt actually solicited texts and music from the public.(Downey,153) This did not sit well with the Boston "better music" crowd, typified by Lowell Mason. Mason's associate Thomas Hastings, composer of some fine tunes himself (best known for the music of "Rock of Ages"), called the Christian Lyre a "wretched publication", and engaged in a long-running editorial battle with Leavitt over the proper separation between sacred and secular in music.(Downey,155)

The really difficult part of this hymn is what Brown & Butterworth called that "queer curvet"--that is, a prancing leap, like a show horse--at the end of every other phrase.(277) The first occasion is on "great" at the end of the second line. Once this figure is learned, however, this tune is no more difficult than many others we already sing. The Cyberhymnal folks, as usual, kindly provide a MIDI rendition of this tune. Downey calls this a "folk hymn",(153) which it well may be, though it strikes me as something more on the order of the music-hall ballad than of the frontier.


Downey, James C. Joshua Leavitt's "The Christian Lyre" and the Beginning of the Popular Tradition in American Religious Song. Latin American Music Review 7/2 (Autumn-Winter, 1986), pp. 149-161.

Brown, Theron, and Hezekiah Butterworth. The story of the hymns and tunes. New York: American Tract Society, 1906. http://books.google.com/books?id=TtJf7S-WeNwC

Cyberhymnal. Samuel Medley. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/m/e/d/medley_s.htm

Cyberhymnal. Awake, my soul, to joyful lays. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/a/w/awakemso.htm

Lady Huntingdon's Chapel. History Today 37/8 (August 1987), pp. 2-3.

Strong's H2617. Strong's Concordance notes provided by Blueletterbible.org. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2617&t=KJV

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