“I feel sure that the great majority of people do like singing. It helps to build up an audience–even if you preach a dry sermon. If you have singing that reaches the heart, it will fill the church every time. There is more said in the Bible about praise than prayer, and music and song have not only accompanied all scriptural revivals, but are essential in deepening spiritual life. Singing does at least as much as preaching to impress the Word of God upon people’s minds. Ever since God first called me, the importance of praise expressed in song has grown upon me.” D. L. Moody
“Man of Sorrows! What a Name,” a hymn also known by its repeating refrain “Hallelujah! What a Savior!” was written in 1875. The author, Philip P. Bliss, took his title from Isaiah 53.
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root from a dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Knowing Bliss wrote several of his hymns based on sermons he heard preached, it is possible that a sermon from Isaiah 53 also inspired him or perhaps it was his own personal reading of this moving and prophetic chapter that gave him the inspiration to write this hymn.
The first stanza introduces the Savior and his purpose for coming here: “Ruined sinners to reclaim.”
The second stanza paints a vivid picture of the sacrifice Christ gave for us. “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.”
The third illustrates the contrast between us “guilty, vile and helpless we” and our Savior, “Spotless Lamb of God was He.”
The fourth proclaims both his death and triumphant finish and the fifth proclaims His return when we’ll sing forever, “Hallelujah! What a Savior!”
Ira D. Sankey, a singer for D. L. Moody’s evangelistic meetings–who also wrote hymns and compiled a book of hymns with Bliss–wrote of the hymn “Man of Sorrows” in his autobiography. “When Mr. Moody and I were in Paris, . . . I frequently sang this hymn as a solo, asking the congregation to join in the single phrase, “Hallelujah, what a Savior,” which they did with splendid effect.
“It is said that the word ‘Hallelujah’ is the same in all languages. It seems as though God had prepared it for the great jubilee of heaven, when all his children had been gathered home to sing ‘Hallelujah to the Lamb!'”
(Is there any other word that is recognized in all languages? In both Italian and Irish–hallelujah; in Spanish–aleluya; in Slovak–aleluja; in Swahili–Haleluya. ‘Hallelujah, what a Savior’ will surely be heard in heaven.)
Bliss discovered his love of music at a young age and studied when he could, eventually becomin an itinerant music teacher. When he was 26, he and his wife moved to Chicago where he conducted musical institutes and was soon known for both his teaching and singing. One night in 1869, he passed a revival meeting where D. L. Moody was preaching. Apparently, the singing was “rather weak” that night, and Bliss offered his help. After a quick interview, Moody accepted his offer and later urged him to give up his business and become a singing evangelist.
In 1873, Bliss did decide to give up everything (musical conventions, writing secular songs, business position, and work at the church) in order to go full-time into singing music for evangelism.
On November 24, 1876, Bliss sang at a minister’s meeting led by D. L. Moody in Chicago. Over 1,000 preachers were there to hear Bliss introduce a song he had just written the music for: It is Well with My Soul. He had only a month left to live.
Again, from Sankey’s autobiography: “This was the last hymn I heard Mr. Bliss sing. It was at a meeting in Farwell Hall in Chicago, conducted by Henry Moorehouse. A few weeks before his death Mr. Bliss visited the State prison at Jackson, Michigan, where, after a very touching address on ‘The Man of Sorrows,’ he sang this hymn with great effect. Many of the prisoners dated their conversion from that day.”
Bliss and his wife and children spent Christmas that year with his mother and sister in Pennsylvania, planning to return to Chicago in January to work with Mr. Moody. He received a telegram asking him to come sooner, so he and his wife obtained train tickets, deciding to leave their children with his mother. On December 29, 1876, the Pacific Express was three hours late due to a blinding snowstorm. Crossing a river over a trestle bridge, the first engine reached the other side but the rest fell 75 feet into the ravine of icy water.
Mr. Bliss managed to free himself, crawling through a window. However, his wife was trapped and he returned to try and help her. A fire broke out and soon the wooden coaches were ablaze aided by the fierce winds. The Blisses, along with at least 92 others, did not survive.
As Mr. Bliss’s trunk was sent ahead on another train, it reached Chicago safely. Inside were several songs, Mr. Bliss was working on. One hymn, “He Knows,” by Mary G. Brainard (Bliss wrote the music and chorus) began with the words: “I know not what awaits me. God kindly veils my eyes . . .”
Mourning the loss of Mr. Bliss, D.L. Moody had this to say about his friend: “In my estimate, he was the most highly honored of God, of any man of his time, as a writer and singer of Gospel Songs, and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory . . .”
Though the life of Mr. Bliss was tragically cut short, he left a legacy of music that continues to lead us to worship the Man of Sorrows who became our glorious King.
My Life and the Story of the Gospel Hymns: and of Sacred Songs and Solos Ira D. Sankey
Eugene Peterson is best known for his translation of the Bible published in 2002 when Peterson was seventy years old. He spent many years before then as a college professor (teaching Hebrew and Greek), then a small-town pastor but became known all over the world with the publication of “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language.”
Though long familiar with “The Message,” Leap Over a Wall (1996) was new to me. A picture on instagram of a book labeled “reflections on the life of David” and subtitled: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians quickly caught my interest, and it was well worth my search.
Peterson’s mother’s possessed fantastic storytelling abilities, so Peterson grew up being fascinated with the characters of the Bible–not because of their spiritual depth or insights–but because of their stories. “Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit’s literary genre of choice is story.”
Of all the people in the Bible, David is one with an overwhelming presence and gives us some of the Bible’s greatest stories. Who doesn’t know the story of David and Goliath? David and Bathsheba? God uses his life–in all its sordid details–to teach us about Himself and how we should respond to our Creator. Though we often think of the Bible as being full of doctrine, laws, and theology (and it is), God uses the stories of His people to teach us.
“God reveals himself to us not in a metaphysical formulation or a cosmic fireworks display but in the kind of stories that we use to tell our children who they are and how to grow up as human beings, tell our friends who we are and what it’s like to be human.”
In each chapter, Peterson goes through different areas, specifically relationships, of David’s life and how he responds to God in each one. How did these various relationships in David’s life (Saul, Jonathan, Abigail, Doeg, etc.) help him to see God? To turn to God? To trust in God? Peterson’s own imagination combined with his scholarly knowledge of theology creates a book full of wisdom and insight told in his own “earthy” way. If you’re familar with “The Message,” you won’t be surprised to see a chapter titled “Boneheads–David and the Sons of Zeruiah.”
Peterson explains how in much of David’s story, it’s not how he lives or the decisions he makes that put his story in the Bible. They are there to teach us about God and how He continually works in our lives and in those around us. “God’s salvation, not David’s shoddy morals or clever genius, is the subtext here.”
Though David seems to spend much of his life going from one disaster to another, he ultimately ends up praising and trusting in God as expressed in the title taken from one of David’s more lengthy psalms of praise. “For by you I can run against a troop, and by my God I can leap over a wall.” Psalm 18:29
“The primary concern of the spiritual life isn’t what we do for God, but what God does for us.”
Winner of Christianity Today’s fiction award in 2017, The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe is historical fiction based on the life of an unknown woman loved by Augustine of Hippo, an early church father. Wolfe first heard of this woman when she was only twelve, and when she asked for the woman’s name was told, “No one knows. She is lost to history.” This stayed with Wolfe through the years and with research and beautiful writing, she has brought the unnamed woman to life along with Augustine and their son.
Being of a lower social status than Augustine, he took “X” as his concubine but could not marry her. Lest you think that made her lesser in his eyes, Augustine wrote of her in Confessions: “the woman with whom I had been living was torn from my side as an obstacle to my marriage and this blow crushed my heart to bleeding because I loved her dearly.” As Wolfe explains in her author’s note, “To be labeled a concubine was not a derogatory term in the ancient world and was often inscribed on tombstones as a title to denote the status of the deceased.”
Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a touch of romance.
We don’t often think of hymns as poetry, but when we take the time to read and hear the words, we often find beautiful phrases with some deep theology woven in. Leland Ryken, a literary editor of the ESV Bible and a professor of English at Wheaton College for almost fifty years, writes in 40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: “Much of the beauty that we experience when we sing hymns is the beauty of the music. Experiencing hymns as poems puts the focus on the verbal beauty of the words and phrases. The great hymns of Christian tradition are an untapped source of devotional poetry, just waiting to be made available for the pleasure and edification of Christians.”
In my familarity with hymns, I have too often sung through the words, not appreciating their depth of feeling and theology. I would like to challenge you to read through some of your favorite hymns and consider the words and what the writer may have been going through or trying to convey.
For today, I want to look at the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” The opening stanza contains words of comfort and assurance. A reminder that since God has given us His Word to live our lives by, how could we have a more firm foundation?
“How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in his excellent Word! What more can he say than to you he hath said, To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?”
What more can He say? Nothing–though, of course, we need to read His Word to know what He has said. The next four stanzas are written as if God were speaking, reminding us of the promises from His Word.
In the second stanza: “Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed. . . . I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
Third stanza: “When through the deep waters I call thee to go,” I will be with thee. (Isaiah 43:2)
Fourth stanza: “When through fiery trials they pathway shall lie”–His grace is sufficient. (2 Co 12:9; 1 Peter 4:12-13)
Fifth stanza: “The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose”–He will never forsake. No, Never! (Deuteronomy 31:6)
Though written in 1787, the words are no less true or relevant for our lives. Enjoy and worship this hymn written with the ancient truths of God’s Word.
My last few blogs have been about some favorite hymns and their history. A few more such tales shall be forthcoming, but first I wanted to take a look at some hymns that will not be found in today’s hymn books because, well, times and language change. What might have been sung in all seriousness at one time would have us either giggling or horrified today.
My first selection was written by Jame Rowe (1865-1933). Rowe wrote this hymn to encourage temperance and in 1920 the song was included in the hymnal, “New Perfect Praise for Sunday Schools, Singing-Schools, Revivals, Conventions, and General Use in Christian Work and Work.” (Number 80 if you have this book lying around). The title of the hymn: “Good-bye, old Booze, Good-bye.” The first line: “We’ve closed your door for evermore.” And the refrain begins: “Good-bye, old Booze, good-bye, We’re glad to see you go.” Try singing that around a campfire some night with your youth group.
Before we leave Mr. Rowe, let me add that he wrote more than 9,000 hymns, poems, recitations, and other works. Probably his most famous and one still included in many hymn books is “Love Lifted Me” which Rowe based on the Biblical story of Peter stepping out of the boat and into thestormy waters.
E. M. Bartlett (1883-1941) also wrote many hymns, co-founded Hartford Music Company and was the founder of the Hartford Music Institute in 1921. One of his hymns only made it into two hymnals and will probably not be added to any in the twenty-first century. Titled: “If Men Go to Hell, Who Cares?” is a good example where punctuation and emphasis on certain words can make such a difference in meaning. The first line begins: “While the world rushes on in its folly and sin,” and the refrain begins, “Who cares, who cares?” Let us assume that Mr. Bartlett wanted to provoke people into caring about the destination of people’s souls, but I don’t think a refrain of “Who cares? Who cares?” would get that message across very well today.
Mr. Bartlett suffered a stroke in 1939 leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to do the traveling and singing he had been doing. It was during this time that he wrote a hymn that he is better remembered for and is still being sung today: “Victory in Jesus.” Mr. Bartlett was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 1973.
My final selection for hymns lost in translation is by the prolific writer Isaac Watts. Watts deserves a post or two to himself, but for now, it is the hymn, “Charity to the Poor” also known as “Pity to the Afflicted” (1719) which will be highlighted here. The title is harmless enough. It’s the first line which only made it into print for a couple of hymnals before it was changed: “Blest is the man whose bowels move.” For you readers of the King James, you will probably see nothing wrong with this as you are certainly familiar with Paul’s directive to put on “bowels of mercies” (Colossians 3:12). Others, however, (even a couple of hundred years ago) prefer singing about one’s heart rather than one’s bowels, and, consequently, this line was soon changed.
Though I’m enjoying exploring hymns from the past, I also love many of the songs that are written and sung every year. As Robert Morgan says in one of his books about hymn writers (Near to the Heart of God), “When the Bible tells us to sing ‘a new song’ to the Lord, it’s telling us that every generation needs to write its own music. If a time ever comes when the young generation isn’t writing praises to the Lord, Christianity is dead.”
Many times songs can be both old and new. How many versions have you heard of “Amazing Grace”? The lyrics never grow old even as the music may be changed or other verses added, as in “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone).”
I want to leave you with an old hymn which is new to me. Our choir sang it a few weeks ago and before that first practice, I don’t think I’d ever heard it before though it was written in 1890 by Samuel Trevor Francis and has been published in forty-six different hymnals.
The Beautiful Mystery is Louise Penny’s eighth Inspector Gamache mystery. The whole book takes place at a secluded monastery in the wilderness of Quebec.
Rabbit Cake has a ten-year old protagonist whose mother drowned while sleepwalking. Sounds depressing, I know, but this is a delightful book. Favorite quote:
“That was what her rabbit cakes were about, celebrating every small good thing in your life. I know most families don’t celebrate every new moon or every solstice and equinox, but maybe they should. You never know when someone you love will shoot themselves in the middle of their own birthday party, or be found dead in another state, caught in a river dam, so everyone might as well have their cake right now.”
Beartown: About hockey, love, hope, tragedy, friendship, and loyalty in a small town where everyone knows everybody and everyone is affected by another’s hurt. “Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.
The Queen of Hearts: Two women who became best friends in medical school are now practicing medicine and raising their families in Charlotte, NC. A doctor from their past comes to Charlotte and secrets better left buried come to surface.
Dissolution: First of the Matthew Shardlake historical mysteries. Henry VIII has ordered the dissolution of monasteries. Informers abound and a murder soon takes place. Well-written historical fiction as well as a mystery. Looking forward to continuing this series.
Assassin’s Quest: Third in what was originally called The Farseer Trilogy. Has since grown to several more books but start with the first: Assassin’s Apprentice. Nobody builds fantasy worlds and develops characters better than Hobb.
Sorcerer to the Crown: First in a new fantasy series. Takes place in Victorian England. Zacharias Wythe, a freed slave and the new Sorcerer Royal, must find out why England’s magic is drying up. Bonus: there’s a dragon. Second book coming out in March.
A good year for reading! Looking forward to many more in 2019. How about you? What were your favorites in ’18? Which books are you excited about in 2019?
Happy New Year!