Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Beauty for Ashes

Praise for the Lord #45

Words & music: Grant Colfax Tullar, 1948

Grant Colfax Tullar (1869-1950) also wrote the music for "Face to face"(PFTL#131), "Nailed to the cross"(PFTL#444), and "Shall I crucify my Savior?"(PFTL#573), all of which have lyrics from Carrie E. Breck, and the harmonization for "I would be true"(PFTL#305). Tullar was a Methodist minister, songwriter, and publisher who overcame considerable odds to enter his profession; with his father unable to work and having lost his mother in early childhood, he had to work from a young age and did not attend school before reaching adulthood. When he reached maturity, he chose to make up this deficit through his own efforts.(Cyberhymnal)

Interestingly, almost all of his hymns in our hymnal date from the turn of the 19th century; only "Beauty for ashes" and "Savior divine, dwell in my heart"(PFTL#563), for which Tullar also wrote both words and music, date from later in his life. Both of these in fact were written in 1948, and appear under copyright by the Gospel Advocate Co. It is conceivable that they were solicited by L.O. Sanderson, music editor of Gospel Advocate's 1948 publication Christian Hymns no. 2, in which both of these hymns appeared.

Stanza 1:
Beauty for ashes God hath decreed!
Help He provideth for ev'ry need;
What is unlovely He will restore;
Grace all-sufficient: what need we more?

Tullar's text is taken from the beginning of Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he might be glorified.(Isaiah 61:1-3)

This is the passage from which Jesus read in the synagogue at Nazareth, of which He said, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."(Luke 4:21)

This is a passage of comforting, and the hymn follows the same theme. In ancient times one sat in ashes in order to signify deep distress,(Job 2:8) and often also repentance.(Jonah 3:6) Ashes are the residue of fire, and thus represent total loss--but they can also represent the purification that fire brings.(Thurn) The Isaiah passage shows those who are humbled by their losses, and ready to follow God; they have been through the fire and now are "poor in spirit" in the proper sense.(Matthew 5:3) God promises that He will give, in place of ashes on the head, a "beauty" (really a "beautiful headdress", perhaps a crown, tiara, or turban).("Strong's H6287)

The hymn acknowledges that we will go through the purifying tribulation of life, but also reminds us that we will not go through it alone: because, as Paul told the Philippians, "my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus."(Philippians 4:19) If the riches of God will be brought to bear on our needs, we certainly should not worry about them! "Grace all-sufficient" is the promise, as Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh. Of course it is important to note that Paul never said that God took away the thorn--but He made it possible for Paul to bear it, and to overcome it.

But He said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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)

This runs contrary to human instincts. When we encounter a debilitating circumstance, we tend to see all the things that it is keeping us from doing. We naturally think that we would be much better off, even in our service to God, if this circumstance were not in our way. But God knows that sometimes it is best to use the negative happenstances of this world (which are the lot of every person) to forge a character that would never have emerged otherwise.

Stanza 2:
God gives for sadness "garments of praise";
Stars for our twilight, strength for our days;
Hope for tomorrow, care for today,
Light for our footsteps all of life's way.

Tullar refers again to Isaiah 61, where God exchanges our "spirit of heaviness" for "garments of praise". The ancients had garments for special occasions, just as we do now; Jesus referred to the "wedding garments" worn at a feast representing the kingdom of God,(Matthew 22:11-12) and the prodigal son was clothed in a fine robe by his father in celebration of his return home.(Luke 15:22) The ultimate in celebratory garments, however, are the white robes worn by the heavenly host in Revelation 7:9. Truly, the sorrows of this life will fade in comparison to the joy of wearing that attire!

"Stars for our twilight" is a somewhat puzzling expression; my guess is that Tullar is using twilight to represent the end of life, and thus is saying that the ends of our lives are blessed by beauties that God has reserved especially for those years, just as the stars only begin to become visible when the light is fading. Grandchildren come to mind as a blessing reserved for those of mature years; as Proverbs 17:6 says, "Children's children are a crown to the aged."

"Strength for thy days" is probably from Moses' blessing to the tribe of Asher, shortly before His death: "As your days, so shall your strength be."(Deuteronomy 33:25) It is a profound, reassuring concept; God will supply enough strength for each day, every day, for all of our days.

We all know the proverb, "While there is life, there is hope;" it could be said equally well that "While there is hope, there is life." People have endured incredible ordeals by clinging to a shred of hope that things would get better; likewise, people have given up too soon because they had no hope. Our God is the "God of hope",(Romans 15:13) and through faith in Him we have "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."(Hebrews 11:1) We can buttress this faith by studying God's faithful actions in the past, from which "we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope."(Romans 15:4)

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time He may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you." (1 Peter 5:6-7) The Bible is replete with examples and assurances that God cares for us every day. Why then do we have so much trouble with worry? I wonder if it is accidental that, in the passage just quoted, an assurance of God's care immediately follows a command to humble ourselves. Is our worry really just a lack of faith, or is it a latent desire to take care of ourselves rather than depending on God? Jeremiah eventually learned "that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps."(Jeremiah 10:23) But practical experience to the contrary notwithstanding, many of us often think we can.

We need the "light for our footsteps" that only God can provide. How many times have you crossed a room in the dark, even a room you thought you knew, only to lose orientation? It is all to easy to be spiritually disoriented in a world that is stumbling headlong through darkness. From Genesis chapter 1 to Revelation chapter 22, God has been providing light; but many choose to reject it. God has provided the light through His revelation: through the word, Psalm 119:105, and most especially through the teachings and character of His Son, John 1:4-9. There is no lack of light; there is sometimes a lack of will to walk in it.

Stanza 3:
Beauty for ashes, gladness for tears,
Sunshine for darkness, faith for our fears;
Peace for our turmoil, concord for strife,
Heaven at evening--then endless life!

Tullar had reason to know what turmoil meant. He was born just four years after the Civil War had ended; his father was a disabled veteran of that conflict.(Cyberhymnal) He would live to see two world wars, economic panics, recessions, and a depression. But the "faith for our fears" of which he speaks is more than enough to meet these challenges.

Jesus told His disciples, "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid."(John 14:27) The peace that Christ offers is different in quality as well as in quantity. Where the world tends to define peace as an absence of conflict or trouble, Christ's peace is an inner assurance and confidence that is not "troubled" or "afraid"--though there is certainly no promise of outward lack of conflict. In fact, in the very next chapter, Jesus warned His disciples that the world would respond to them with the same hatred and violence they were about to show Him. But Biblical "peace" is rooted in the Hebrew word "shalom", meaning wholeness and well-being, having the qualities of balance and justice; that is, it has more to do with the being in a right relationship to God (and by extension, to others) than with a feeling of ease in mind.(Anderson,II,845) Peace, then, is not dependent on the actions of those around us; it is something we choose to receive from Christ, and something we choose to practice in our lives. It is this kind of peace that Jesus showed even on the cross.

About the music: This sounds a lot like "Have Thine own way"(PFTL#197), written by George C. Stebbins in 1902. I have made a MIDI version of Tullar's music for sake of comparison. This is not meant as a criticism; in some ways it is more harmonically adventurous than "Have Thine own way", though the melody is probably not as strong, nor as easily learned. Though this was written in 1948, the style is firmly rooted in the 19th-century gospel style. Of course, slow, contemplative gospel songs are often different from the driving rythms of the quartet-style up-tempo songs, even when penned by the same composer. There is a subcategory of gospel songs here, which some have even called the "gospel hymn" (though that seems to be splitting hairs more than is useful). The "gospel hymn" might be defined as: somewhat slower, without a chorus, with all voices in the same rhythm, and often in triple meter (3/4, 9/8, or in this case, 9/4).

For what it's worth: Tullar should have written the first three notes as pick-ups into the first full measure, with the first downbeat falling on "Ash-", and shifting back the three quarter notes at the beginning of each following measure accordingly. (The rhythmic figure is identical to that of "Have Thine own way"(PFTL#197), which does give the first three notes as pick-ups.)

This creates a little dilemma for the songleader--do you beat the time as it sounds, and treat the first three notes as pick-ups, or do you beat the time as written? In this case I would beat time as written, for the sake of any music-readers in the congregation who might be distracted by an alteration. There are plenty of other times, though, when it is quite useful to beat a different time than what is written. For example, "The Old Rugged Cross"(PFTL#645) might be led with two three-beat patterns per measure of 6/8, instead of struggling with a six-beat pattern. There are also many songs in 4/4 that can be led at a quick tempo much more comfortably, if the songleader uses a two-beat pattern for each measure, essentially treating the 4/4 time as 2/2. "Here we are but straying pilgrims"(PFTL#247) is a 4/4song that can move along very quickly under a two-beat pattern, while saving wear and tear on the songleader's arm!


"Grant Colfax Tullar." Cyberhymnal.

"Strong's H6287."

Thurn, Richard W. "Ashes." The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade. New York: MacMillan, 1987, vol. 1, pp. 456-457.

Anderson, Arnold Albert. The Book of Psalms, 2 vols., reprint ed. London: Oliphant, 1972.


  1. Does anyone know where I might find a copy of this music? Or would anyone have it and be able to send it to me?

  2. Phil,

    I have looked for this too and cannot find a free source online. It was one of Tullar's last songs, copyrighted in 1948, so if the family renewed it (which I believe they must have), the song is still under copyright. You might get it through CCLI or some other licensing agency. Thanks for reading!

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  4. This song is copyrighted by Gospel Advocate Co., Nashville, TN. Copyright was renewed in 1976. It is a beautiful song.