This hymn text was written anonymously and first published in Lynchburg, VA in A General Selection of Spiritual Songs (1811). This tune, also composed anonymously and most likely best defined as a “folk tune,” first originates in print in Southern Harmony, New Haven, 1835. The tune is “modal,” meaning it is neither major nor minor, sounding foreign to the modern ear. Yet, many early American folk tunes were modal. This rather dry information constitutes the known “facts” about this hymn. Yet, the hymn proclaims something significant, speaking as it does from the early days of the American nation.
The first two stanzas proclaim Christ’s love for us in that it “. . . caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul.” This same love, “when I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,” results in Christ becoming incarnate, laying “aside His crown for my soul.” What, then, is this love?
In Greek, of course, there are several different meanings to our one English word “love.” The sense of its use in the hymn reflects the use of “love” not only in the Gospel of John but in the epistles of John. We know that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” (I John 4: 16b.) Love here is agape. This is a type of unconditional love of which, truth be told, only God is capable. This is sacrificial and selfless love, one that is evidenced in action. As the writer of music notes has said before, the very-human notion of exchanging gifts, ubiquitous to all cultures, illustrates this theological concept. We give gifts to those we love. We do not merely speak words; we give. We give in either time, thought, or in physical goods. Even the obligatory office party or routine Christmas gifts to one’s clients are meant to evoke a sense of appreciation, as artificial and misused as it may be these days. In a similar way, the Holy Trinity did not merely lament the sin of humankind from afar; rather, Christ was sent as the atoning sacrifice, living as a real person in the real world. John speaks to of this: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him.” (I John 3: 1) The world [kosmos= “cosmos”] rejected Christ and the love He represented and embodied.
We may think that we “love” this food, that car, that music, or we may even love that person. Yet, this is not agape. We do not necessarily know God specifically from these manifestations of “love.” We can only know love in this sense if we know God. The Jews and Romans who crucified Jesus certainly, it must be thought, loved their families, their jobs, their possessions, but such “love” did not assist them in recognizing Christ for who He was. Those types of love—of which we are still surrounded with today—do not necessarily lead to God. Only those who know God can know what love is. Hopefully, these other forms of “love” (the Greeks had several words for the different types of love) will proceed from the initial agape of God, which He has first “lavished” on us. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, we do not know God because we “love,” we love because we know God.
With this in mind, we rejoice in the words of the final stanza of our hymn, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing His love for me, and through eternity I’ll sing on!”