“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
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.
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.