How Firm a Foundation

April is National Poetry Month and though I don’t read as much poetry as I would like–between studying the Psalms and some hymns, I have been reading more poetry than usual.

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.

 

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Hymns–Lost in Translation

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.

Tune My Heart to Sing Thy Grace

 

 

“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.