“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
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.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a church on a Sunday evening, and we closed the service by singing the doxology. I began singing, almost without thinking, but then I wondered, “When did I learn the doxology, and how did this short song become known as ‘the doxology’?”
I mostly grew up in Baptist churches, graduated from a Methodist college, and frequently visit a nearby Reformed Presbyterian church. In all of these, I have sung the doxology, usually either to begin or end a service. I don’t remember learning it, and assume I picked it up through repetition.
So, who wrote the doxology, where did it come from, and why do so many different denominations include it as a matter of course? And what does doxology mean anyway?
The word doxology comes from the Greek word doxologia meaning a short hymn of praise to God. Different religions have their own doxology hymns, so my search will focus on the doxology I’m familiar with which was written by the Anglican priest, Thomas Ken.
Thomas Ken was ordained in 1662 after obtaining degrees from Oxford. He would eventually serve as chaplain to Princess Mary of York, then royal chaplain to King Charles II before serving James II (who would lock Ken and six other bishops in the Tower of London for refusing to publish the king’s Declaration of Indulgences). Before his royal commissions, however, he spent ten years at Winchester College.
Ken felt it was important for his students to spend time in private worship, so in 1674 he published A Manual of Prayers For the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College. This pamphlet included two long hymns: “Awake, My Soul and with the Sun” and “Glory to Thee, My God, This Night.” Both these hymns ended with what we now sing as the doxology as their final stanza. The manual remained in private circulation as the hymns could not be sung publicly for fear of “adding to the Word.” In fact, hymns were not officially approved by the Church of England until 1820. Apparently, Ken disagreed with the thought that hymns could be dangerous as he instructed his students to “be sure to sing the Morning and Evening Hymn in your chamber devoutly.”
Skipping ahead almost two hundred years, a story from across the ocean demonstrates the power of praise through the doxology. At Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia, (a Confederate prison during the Civil War), a group of new prisoners was marched to the door about ten o’clock one night then left outside until arrangments could be made for them. In the company, was “a young Baptist minister, whose heart almost fainted when he looked on those cold walls and thought of the suffering inside. Tired and weary, he sat down, put his face in his hands, and wept. Just then a lone voice sang out from an upper window. ‘Praise God, from whom all blessings flow’; a dozen joined in the second line, more than a score in the third line, and the words, ‘Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ were sung by nearly all the prisoners. As the song died away on the still night, the young man arose and sang, ‘Prisons would palaces prove, If Jesus dwell with me there.'” (From One Hundred and One Hymn Stories by Carl F. Price)
That the words written by the Englishman Thomas Ken for his students in 1674 ended up on the lips of a group of Americans in the middle of a war in the nineteenth century and are now sung in countless congregations across the world amazes me. How even more remarkable is it that lines which could originally only be sung in private are now known and sung in different denominations throughout the world in public worship and praise.
Charles Wesley, hymn writer extraordinaire, is credited with writing thousands of hymns and for the hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, he wrote eighteen stanzas.
Wesley was inspired to write the hymn by a comment made by Peter Boehler. “If I had a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ with them all.” He wrote the hymn to celebrate his first year anniversary of being saved. The line that eventually became the title was actually the first line of the seventh stanza in its original form.
Though his brother, John, was the preacher and organizeer behind the Methodist movement, it was the hymns of Charles which gave the Methodists their reputation for being “overly exuberant” in their worship. The Anglican church the two men grew up in did not sing hymns during their services, and they certainly didn’t express themselves in an “exuberant” way. Salvation changed, not only the hearts of Charles and John, but the way they wanted to worship.
Though there are many great lines in this hymn, the line “He breaks the power of canceled sin” recently caught my attention in an interview with Richard Foster concerning spiritual formation. Understanding that at salvation, Jesus’ blood has washed away my all my sin and thus canceled them, what kind of power can “canceled sin” have in my life?
Have you ever doubted? About God’s love? God’s power? God’s forgiveness? Have you ever thought God couldn’t use you because of past sin in your life? You say you believe He forgave you, but . . .But? If you do, then how can that forgiven, that canceled, sin have power over you? If that “canceled sin” is keeping you from doing what God intends for you, if it is keeping you from walking in faith, if it is keeping you from sleep–it has power over you.
The good news is: He does have power over canceled sin. We receive that power through sanctification, by walking and growing in grace. As Foster says: “The idea is that it’s possible for sin to be canceled and yet still have power. In the life that is with God, Christ breaks that power so that we are growing in grace, as Peter puts it in 2 Peter 3:18. Some people have a tough time with a verse like that because they only think of grace as unmerited favor.” (Christianity Today, October 2018, p. 64).
So, celebrate, O Christian! He does have the power over canceled sin. He sets the prisoner free!
Remember not the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for the sake of your goodness, O LORD! Psalm 25:7
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is a hymn written by Robert Robinson in 1757. As a young man, Robinson had been apprenticed to be a barber and hairdresser though he was often found reading instead. One day he went with some friends to hear George Whitefield, mostly to mock and harass the famous preacher. Whitefield’s words of “O generation of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? ” (Matthew 3:7) stayed with Robinson for three years until he finally gave his life to Christ. He wrote the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” two years later at the age of 22.
Robinson became a preacher and, though he wrote many theological and historical works, he only wrote two hymns. Studying the words of his more famous hymn has impressed me in several ways. For one, Robinson did not die famous or well-known and was never considered a great song writer or musician, yet, “Come Thou Fount” is still being sung over 260 years later and not just because it has been stuck in a hymn book. Every line has a profound meaning and can, not only be sung, but used as prayers.
Tune my heart: “Tune my heart to sing thy praise.” My heart needs to be tuned daily, hourly even, to sing His praise as it constantly goes out of tune with and toward Him, reaching for the world or being led by my flesh, causing a discordant sound in my soul.
Here I raise my Ebenezer: For a man who had been a Christian such a short time, I marvel at his usage of the passage in 1 Samuel 7:12. The prophet Samuel raised a stone, named it Ebenezer (meaning “stone of help”) as a monument saying, “Thus far the LORD (Yahweh) has helped us” to remind the Israelites of how God had helped them thus far and would continue to help them as long as they kept His covenant. I would think it would take someone well-versed in the Scriptures to even know of this passage much less to be able to use it in a song.
Prone to Wander: Are you prone to wander? I fear I am, and it is this verse I have sung in my heart many times over the years. When I can recognize my wandering heart for what it is and how great a debtor I am to His grace (daily!), then, I, too can pray for God to bind my heart with His grace and keep me close to His side.
Come, my Lord: This final verse is unfamiliar to me. Has it been left out of certain hymnals? Or have I just overlooked it in my love for the other verses? Whichever, the final verse reminds us that one day we will see Him face to face and sing His praises forever.