What Wondrous Love is This

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!”

If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee

Georg Neumark

This morning the choir sings an anthem version of this German chorale, it is played as the communion voluntary, and sung as a communion hymn. This hymn, often sung during Lent, was written by Georg Neumark (1621-1681), a hymnwriter for whom the most productive part of his life was spent in the midst of the trials of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war which decimated the European continent. After he had graduated from the Gymnasium (the German equivalent of our high school) Neumark joined a caravan on its way to Koenigsberg, to attend the only university not disrupted by the Thirty Years’ War.  While en route, the caravan was attacked by robbers, and Neumark lost all his possessions, save a prayer book and some money he had sown into his clothes.  Unable to arrive at Koenigsberg, he searched for employment in Magdeburg, Lueneberg, Winsen, and Hamburg, all to no avail.  Desperate for survival, a pastor friend in Kiel eventually obtained for Neumark the position of a tutor to a local judge.  Neumark wrote this hymn shortly after finding this employment.  His relief is evident in the stanzas:  “What gain is there in futile weeping, In helpless anger and distress?  If you are in His care and keeping, In sorrow will He love you less?  For He who took for you a cross will bring you safe through every loss.”  Certainly the Lord had brought Neumark through a great loss.  But the faith that inspired these words would again be tried.

After two years in the judge’s employment, Neumark had saved enough money to travel to Koenigsberg where he would study law and poetry for five years.  However, he again lost all his possessions, this time in a fire in 1648.  We consider his third stanza:  “In patient trust await His leisure, In cheerful hope, with heart content.  To take whatever your Father’s pleasure and all-discerning love have sent;  Doubt not your inmost wants are known to Him who chose you for His own.”  With great determination, Neumark continued moving from city to city and from one employment to the next in the ensuing years.  He finally ended up as court poet and librarian to Duke Wilhelm II of Sachse-Weimar.  He became a well-known poet (and a member of the poetic “Fruit-Bearing Society) during the last years of his life.  However, he was unable to accomplish his duties after he became blind in 1680.  Yet, he continued in the spirit of the fourth stanza of his hymn:  “Sing, pray, keep His ways unswerving, offer your service faithfully, and trust His word;  though undeserving, you’ll find His promise true to be.  God never will forsake in need the soul that trusts in Him indeed!”

A town besieged during the Thirty Years’ War.

 

Saviour, Again, to Thy Dear Name We Raise

This text was written by John Ellerton (1826-1893), an English country priest who enjoyed not only composing sacred verse (“The Day Thou Gavest, Lord is Ended”) but was a frequent collaborator on that great nineteenth-century English hymnal, Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861, although this hymn did not appear until the 1868 edition.)

Ellerton closes the first stanza of the original hymn with the lines, “We stand to bless Thee ere our worship cease; Then, lowly kneeling, wait Thy word of peace.” Anglican worship involves the body and all the senses, as reflected in liturgical postures. The second stanza concludes in the original, “Guard Thou the lips from sin, the hearts from shame, That in this house have call’d upon Thy Name.”  This is a prayer for sanctification, and the term “name” is used in a Wesleyan/Hebrew context.  When Jacob struggled with God in Genesis 32, Jacob implored God to tell him His name.  This God would not do, rather choosing to bless him instead.  To the Hebrews, one’s name was not merely a conglomeration of syllables, but it encompassed one’s essence and was completely inseparable from one’s personality;  hence, such attention was paid to Jesus naming before His birth. In Ellerton’s hymn we acknowledge that we have invoked God’s name in worship but, in so doing, we likewise realize we have been in His very presence through Word and sacrament.

The original third stanza (slightly altered in the Episcopal hymn) is uniquely British—“Grant us Thy peace, Lord, through the coming night;  Turn Thou for us its darkness into light;  From harm and danger keep Thy children free, For dark and light are both alike to Thee.”  In the British Isles, where it is known to be sunny for about a week in July and rather gloomy much the rest of the year, the appearance of the sun greatly contrasted with the gloom of darkness, and hymnwriters were continuously making theological comparisons.  (Another Victorian hymn which does this is “Abide with Me.”)

Ellerton here prays for peace “throughout our earthly life, our balm in sorrow, and our stay in strife.”  Ellerton is setting the world in a typical Victorian context.  The world is “very evil,” society is full of “change and decay” (“Abide with me”), but only God remains constant, a “rock and fortress.”  (Ps. 46)  This was not only a theological but a national perspective.  British society was no longer the pinnacle of Western society.  Yet, God still offered his grace and redemption to all.  In the closing words of another Ellerton hymn (“The Day Thou Gavest”), we as Americans might do good to remember the humility of those Victorians of ages past:

So be it, Lord; Thy Throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away;

Thy Kingdom stands, and grows forever, Till all Thy creatures own Thy sway.

John Ellerton

 

Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Robert Robinson

This beloved hymn text was written by Robert Robinson (27 September 1735 – 9 June 1790), an English Dissenting minister who seemed to spend his life searching for truth. He early rejected a belief in infant baptism, which caused some trouble with the Anglicans when he went to study at Cambridge. . . with his twelve unbaptised children. He heard the great evangelist George Whitefield preach in 1757 and briefly became a Methodist, although he soon abandoned that endeavor and formed a Congregationalist church in Norwich, although tiring of that he moved to a Baptist church in Cambridge in 1759 where he remained for the rest of his life. He somehow became mixed up with the Unitarians toward the end of his life, and a scandal erupted wherein his congregation surmised that he didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Fortunately, he was able to convince them that he did believe in Christ. Nonetheless, from the perspective of over two centuries hither, this hymnologist can’t help but think Robinson could have used a little more grounding in scripture than in trusting ephemeral feelings.

 

Perhaps that is an unfair accusation to level against Robinson, because he certainly did know his scripture. The second stanza begins, “Here I raise my Ebenezer,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12 in which Samuel raises a stone monument saying, “This far has the Lord helped.” Unfortunately, many hymnal settings today change this obscure Old Testament reference to something more palatable, such as “Here I find my greatest treasure, hither, by thy help I’ve come.” This doesn’t leave us asking the question, “What is an Ebenezer?” thereby leading us further into scripture. Robinson’s Calvinism is evident in the third stanza, “Oh, to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!” Humanity, then, is sinful and fallen, unable to redeem itself without the work of grace, as we read in Ephesians 2: 8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one may boast.” Robinson cries out to “Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to thee: prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love, hear’s my heart, oh, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” These words certainly reflect a belief in the depravity of mankind, which Paul notes in Romans 3: 10, quoting from Psalm 14, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” Robinson here sets forth this idea that even human will has been corrupted and cannot be redeemed without God’s initial action, or “grace.” This Calvinist theology is steeped in really beautiful poetic language. Think of the poetic contrasts—“tune my heart to sing thy grace! Streams of mercy never ceasing, call for songs of loudes praise,” with the realization that our “wandering” hearts must be “fettered” and “bound.” Robinson is consistent in his theological conception that humanity is fallen, and that only the gospel can save.

The Prophet Samuel raising the stone of Ebenezer.

The catchy tune in named NETTLETON after Asahel Nettleton (1783-1844), an American evangelist involved with the Second Great Awakening. Not having much of a track record as a musician, it is possible this tune was composed, compiled, or arranged by John Wyeth, the early nineteenth-century music printer and publisher. Its rugged, triple meter, simple tune, and straightforward AABA musical form allow it to be sung with enthusiasm by even the most recalcitrant singer whose heart, perhaps, needs to be fettered by grace.

 

William C Dix (1837-1898), who wrote this hymn, also wrote “What Child is This” and “As with Gladness, Men of Old.”  He was born in 1837 in Bristol, England, were he grew up to be a formidable businessman and manager of a marine insurance company.  He wrote many hymns and translated others from Greek and Abyssinian sources.  He died in 1898 in Cheddar, England.

The beautiful tune to which we sing it is known as “Hyfrydol,” which is Welsh for “good cheer.”  As with most Welsh tunes, it is lilting, attractive, and almost immediately singable. In the experience of the anonymous writer of music notes, only the most curmudgeonly of church-goers does not enjoy a good Welsh tune, of which there are many in the hymnal.

Let us consider the text:  (Remember, in discussing hymnody and sacred poetry, the words are called the “text” and never “lyrics”!)  The language is highly old-fashioned and poetic.  This was written during the height of the Victorian Era during the second half of the nineteenth-century.  The Victorian English had rediscovered the treasures of the past both in poetry and in ecclesiastical matters. (A walk through suburban London will reveal many beautiful Victorian church buildings all built according to medieval models.)  The language of this hymn was not that which was spoken daily.  From stanza 2 as an address to Christ states:  “Intercessor, friend of sinners, Earth’s redeemer, plead for me, where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.”  This recalls the language of the Book of Revelation, as well as Reginald Heber’s heavenly vision in the second stanza of “Holy, Holy, Holy”:  “All the saints adore Thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. . .”  During this Epiphany season, as we reflect on Christ’s manifestation to us, the third stanza speaks to us eloquently:  “Alleluia, Born of Mary, Earth the footstool, heav’n Thy throne:  Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh our great High Priest.”  Christ, in order to become human, must be born of Mary;  yet, in so doing, His complete divine radiance cannot fully be known to us!  He became “robed in flesh,” yet this did not counter His divinity.  It was both as God and as a man that Christ’s work as redeemer was complete.   It was essential that he become “robed in flesh” and yet remain divine.  How was this so?  Such is the mystery of the incarnation. The author concludes the hymn with Easter overtones, singing about “Jesus, His the scepter His the throne; Alleluia, His the triumph, His the victory alone; Hark! the songs of holy Zion thunder like a mighty flood; Jesus out of every nation hath redeemed us by His blood.” Every good hymn, whether it deal primarily with Christmas, Easter, Communion, or any of the minor festivals, must point to Easter and to Christ’s salvific work on the cross in saving humanity from sin and remind us that we are “redeemed by His blood.”