I feel shame in the light of this to be thought of as British.
Hymns and the Bible Part 1
(HP indicates numbers of hymns in Hymns & Psalms)
Sheep are dirty, smelly, horrible creatures – In the beginning – hymns and psalms…
The king of love my shepherd is (HP 69)
We had finished singing this hymn in the theological college chapel. The preacher, an Anglican in full regalia stood on the chancel steps and preached the only sermon I can remember in its entirety:
“’And on his shoulder gently laid and home rejoicing brought me’. Sheep are dirty, smelly, horrible creatures. So are you. Amen.”
I’ve been thinking about that ever since. And for our study of hymns and the Bible it is salient. Our hymns so often diminish, rather than enhance what we find in the Bible. It is easy to take a phrase say, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’, put it into a hymn, sing it with enthusiasm, but not fully grasp all that it might mean or say to us. Lamentations 3, 1 goes like this:
1 I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath;
2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;
3 against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones;
5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;
6 he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.
7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me;
8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding;
11 he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow.
13 He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood.
16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD.”
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
21 ¶ But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
These are the words of a person dragged into exile, the time is around 586 BCE. The sense of exile is not just from home but from God. For these people God resided in Jerusalem. But they were in Babylon. This was total abandonment. Now let me add another layer to the story. The one who laments is one of God’s chosen people. Yet God has manifestly let him down. This is evidence of the action or inaction of a God who is heard elsewhere saying ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’. Any sense of faith they have they cling to with very little hope. The close of this passage seems either foolish or audacious, ‘The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’.
It is the very necessity of a hymn to be succinct, economical in its use of words. Sometimes this can have a very powerful effect, but we must beware not to reduce power or wonder, scandal or lament to simplistic, ineffective syllables. ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ does not do this. What is does do is to lift words out of a context which, if only we had lived in it, would make them all the more strange, yet all the more powerful.
It was for this reason that the Old Testament scholar John Bright, many years ago, argued that while we are Christians, and we cannot get rid of that fact, we should preach from the Old Testament giving full credence to the tradition in which it was formed if we are to gain a more complete understanding of God.
So how have hymn writers approached the Old Testament? Or put another way, how much of the Old Testament survives as hymns? If we go onto auto-pilot we will arrive at the Psalms, but I want to visit somewhere else on the way, Song of Songs. Much of this is erotic, it is a love song. Most hymns relate the bridegroom in the book to Jesus. The words become safe and lose much of their power. And again and again we will find that the Bible is more earthy, more real than our 21st century sensitivities allow, and we are the poor for it.
Now let us focus on the Psalms.
The name which comes first to my mind in this connection is Isaac Watts. Watts produced a collection of hymns the title of which gives the lie to his agenda: The Psalms of David imitated in the language of New Testament and applied to the Christian state and worship. He sub-titled the book, An Enquiry into the right Way of fitting the Book of Psalms for Christian Worship. Watts sought to Christianise the Psalms. He notes:
Between the 27th and 29th Psalms: “The 28th Psalm has scarce anything new, but what is repeated in other Psalms.”
After the 42nd Psalm: “The 43rd Psalm is so near akin to this that I have omitted it, only borrowing the 3d and 4th verses to conclude this Hymn.”
In the 55th Psalm: “I have left out some whole Psalms, and several parts of others that tend to fill the Mind with overwhelming Sorrow, or sharp Resentment. neither of which are so well suited to the Spirit of the Gospel, and therefore the particular Complaints of David against Achitophel here are entirely omitted.”
After the 107th Psalm: “The 108th Psalm is formed out of the 57th and 60th, and therefore I have omitted it.”
Psalm 52, 54, 59, 64, 70, 79, 88, 137, and 140 are omitted without comment.
I want to argue against this approach. When in our worship liturgies or our hymns we are selective about the bits of the Bible we can or cannot use in Christian worship we tend to excise those things which are uncomfortable to us personally. In this we must be careful. As Bright wrote, ‘..we shall never hear the Old Testament’s word rightly unless we are willing to hear it all’. Equally we cannot, we must not, just lift material from the Bible, Old or New Testament, without trying to understand the situation in which it was first set. To do that is to misunderstand the original meaning every bit as much as if we ‘do a Watts’ and Christianise everything.
Having cleared that out of the way I want to look especially at the Psalms. As these were originally sung we might expect them to be central to our search. But how do we deal with them? To begin with there are simple practicalities. Hebrew and English poetry do not follow the same conventions. Hebrew often parallels or repeats themes, not in the manner of a chorus, but with repeated lines or ideas. This instance comes from Isaiah 7, 9: ‘If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established’ . There is a Hebrew word play here that we so easily miss. ‘If you do not stand firm – that is, in trust – you will not be stood firm – that is, in your position’. Now this might seem to be of little consequence until we see that it is King Ahaz who is scared and who is being encouraged by Isaiah to overcome his fear because God is on his side. There are nuances we do well to grasp. And this word play is still in use today. I have a recollection of Fred Kaan speaking of a ‘companion God’. He explained that companion has a root meaning of com = with, panus = bread. A whole new sense begins to unfold which I picked up in a hymn of my own:
Here in the company of friends
the bread says we are one,
companion God remain with us,
till pilgrim days are done.
If we try to sing the Psalms in simple word for word, line for line translation, as in say, Anglican Chant, while we may come near to retaining the meaning, the mode of singing is not easy for everyone and there is a tendency, except for those skilled in this art, to have to concentrate on the method rather than the content of the words.
Another possible way of approaching this material is to produce metrical paraphrases. That is, the Psalm is translated into English, but the words are then arranged so that they fall into verses like a traditional hymn. This is still the preferred pattern in some Reformed churches. The Free Church of Scotland produced a complete collection, Sing Psalms, as recently as 2003.
The Lord’s my shepherd (HP 70)
We can see there is a problem here. We want to sing ‘he makes me down to lie’ – pause – in pastures green’. There should be no pause. And in ordinary English we would say ‘he makes me lie down in green pastures’. The order of the words and the way we sing them doesn’t always make sense. So what we are trying to do is not easy. Why bother?
Because, as John Calvin, the reformer, put it, within the Psalms
…there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated…there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.
So let us get to the crux of the matter. Just how can, or should, our hymns be influenced by Psalms?
We need to know a bit more about the Psalms. To begin with they are not all the same. They originally had different purposes. There are many different types of Psalms: Hymns of Praise, Laments, Royal Psalms, Psalms of thanksgiving, pilgrimage songs and wisdom poems. Different commentators have different categories. In the space we have we’ll not delve into all of them, but an exploration of some will begin to give a hint as to what we have gained from the Psalms and what we have lost and need to regain.
To begin with let us try to get back into that world in our imaginations. So think for a moment what it must be like to be ‘the apple of God’s eye’ (Psalm 17, 8), to feel that you are precious to God. Corporately you are God’s chosen people. You are his people, he is your God. This gives rise in worship to a range of reflections and emotions. There is a great sense of thankfulness and praise (Psalms 145 to 150). Psalm 145 inspired:
All creatures of our God and King (HP 329)
The Psalms often speak of a profound sense of security. We think of Psalm 23 again, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. But the very language of this Psalm ought to hint at something else. While we are secure in God’s love we are also living in society with others. Such society needs to be governed and we begin to uncover another aspect of Old Testament life. While we might separate religious and secular, they did not. And politics was an intimate part of life. By the time the temple was built, and the Psalms were an intrinsic part of temple worship, the people were ruled by a king. But in a very really sense this community was also a theocracy, ruled by God. So where does the king fit it? What was his place?
At the coronation and in subsequent years the king was reminded in a temple festival of his place of dependence on God and his responsibility to care for, not simply to govern, the people. The festival was elaborate and, we believe, involved Psalm singing. Imagine the gates of Jerusalem, the Holy City, closed and barred. Imagine a vast number of people crowding on the road up to the city. Then through the throng comes the king. The crowd block his way. He cannot go forward and they are closing behind him. Then, as the crowd quietens, a voice rings out:
Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
And the King replies:
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
And the crowd call back:
He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
And again a voice cries above the throng:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
And the crowd ask:
Who is this King of glory?
And a voice responds:
The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
And again the leader sings out:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory?
And all the crowd reply:
The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.
This reconstruction based on Psalm 24 gives a picture of the way in which some of the so called royal psalms may have been used. While they have a firmly religious foundation they underline that Kingship brings responsibility and that kings only reign if the people let them. The message is deeply political.
Now look back at the Psalm that came before, that comfortable, reassuring Psalm 23. Perhaps we need to look at this differently now. And why? Because the king was regarded as the shepherd of the people. God was the eternal shepherd, as it were, but the king is being seen as God’s ambassador. Now let’s re-read this:
‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. From a Christian perspective we picture ‘the Lord’ as Jesus, perhaps as God. But now do the mental jump. If the king, the ruler, is God’s ambassador it is the king who will lead me by still waters, restore my soul (my being), prepare my table (ensure I have food), let my cup run over; in short keep me in ultimate safety. So that is the king’s responsibility. And what do we gain from this in our hymns? At worse a poor paraphrase, at best a comfortable sense of reassurance. What we have lost is that prophetic element which says to those of us and our neighbours who have power, this power has been given to you for the good of others and not for yourself and you will hold it only so long as we see evidence of that gracious, godly responsibility and care! This gentle Psalm has teeth. And if we know the Psalms better and the context from which they came they will serve us more effectively, inspiring our hymns and informing our worship.
Lord, you have searched and known my ways (HP 71)
What else can we uncover that we have lost? Francis Davison’s interpretation of the closing verses of Psalm 137, written in the 17th century goes like this:
Happy, who, thy tender barnes
From the armes
Of their wailing mothers tearing,
‘Gainst the walls shall dash their bones,
With their braines and blood besmearing.
At least a third of all the psalms are psalms of Lament, of complaint to God. This lament has theological warrant in Israel in the cries of hurt, rage, doubt, vengeance and isolation poured out to a God who had let the people down. Go back to that starting point, of a people beloved by God, and sure of that, trying to make sense of life when it goes bitterly, horribly wrong.
These words are not buried, not stifled, but passionately cried. They are real. In the same way, as Christians, we can lament when things go wrong, when God does not live up to our theological expectations. The nature of this lament is important, but the manner in which the church expresses it is open to immense distortion. So we turn to Psalm 137, omitted you will remember by Isaac Watts form his collection.
In the United Kingdom many Psalters used for worship omit this Psalm altogether. Some lectionaries have ignored its existence. What do we do with words which give expression to such heinous vengeance? ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’. Perhaps it is easiest if we take the role of Marcion, cutting out these difficult passages of scripture. When we do we impoverish the church. Those who still need to give voice to such feelings can no longer do so. The words are not there. If anyone happens to remember them, they are soon told that this is no way to speak to God. ‘Praise in all things’ is the order of the day. To use these words would be like a child swearing in front of a favourite aunt.
Perhaps it is even worse than that. As Walter Brueggemann has said, ‘The lament psalms are obviously a scandal to the church, because they cannot be prayed to a god who does nothing, and because they must not be prayed within a social system that cannot be changed or criticised’. They underline both our lack of faith and our unwillingness to live the gospel. Whatever our theological position, they present an obstacle.
In part it is due to the fact that we think that Christians should be gentle, meek and mild and that strong feelings are prohibited. Yet Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was angry at injustice. ‘Love inspired the anger that cleared a temple court’. He gave vent to strong feelings and did not suppress them. Or could it be that we are frightened to admit to ourselves, let alone to our neighbours, or to God, that life does sometimes hurt, that things do make us angry, that we feel lost, alone, upset, helpless or even vengeful?
It is clear that Psalms could be used by oppressed people and have been. The words are those with which people can identify. This is the strength of psalmody, for while Psalms give voice to specific needs generated by particular situations, there is invariably a universal application which will enable the Psalms to be used by succeeding generations. This having been said, the force of emotion they contain, is sometimes so powerful as to make us hesitate. For those subject to oppression and injustice, living in a strange land, this must seem like a theological absurdity! Perhaps asylum seekers could enlighten us as to why, sadly, we need these words even today.
We conclude this part of our journey with Isaac Watts, to whom we will return in part 2.
O God, our help in ages past (HP 358)
Hymns and the Bible Part 2
You can do better than that, Isaac – The birth of the English hymn
‘Dad, this service is boring!’ This was a time when church worship was not altogether stunning. The Book of Common Prayer, with its beautiful yet, even then, sometimes impenetrable language was all the meat on offer. And if you liked singing it was metrical psalms or scriptures. And suffering this, the story goes, it may be apocryphal, that Isaac Watts moaned to his father, ‘I’m bored’ or the 17th century equivalent. And the story goes that his father replied with, ‘well, if you think you can do better!’
So this is where we begin. What made him bored?
With the Reformation Calvin, Luther and others allowed for singing in church. For some the only thing that was allowable was a strict scriptural paraphrase. William Kethe’s ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ from before 1594 is a paraphrase of Psalm 100.
All people that on earth do dwell (HP 1)
Not all the efforts were as good as that. But let us step back a little.
Jean Calvin was instrumental in introducing the metrical Psalm to Geneva during the sixteenth century. He used a prose translation by Merot and Beza(c. 1533). Calvin himself wrote hymns of which ‘I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art’ is an example, the last verse being a paraphrase of Psalm 29, 11:
1 I greet Thee who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake:
I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.
2 Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of Thy pure day.
3 Thou art the Life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by Thy power.
4 Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness;
O grant to us the grace we find in Thee,
That we may dwell in perfect unity.
5 Our hope is in no other save in Thee;
Our faith is built upon Thy promise free;
Come, give us peace, make us so strong and sure,
That we may conquerors be, and ills endure.
Martin Luther substituted a simple German service for the Latin Mass and made use of hymns as ‘powerful instruments in spreading his faith'(21). His hymnody was scripturally based (eg., ‘From heaven above to earth I come’; a hymn on Christ’s birth) and often deeply rooted in the Psalter:
1 Out of the depths I cry to Thee,
Lord, hear me, I implore Thee;
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me,
Regard my prayer before Thee;
If Thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful meed,
Who may abide Thy presence?
2 Our pardon is Thy gift; Thy love
And grace alone avail us;
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove,
The strictest life would fail us;
That none may boast himself of aught,
But own in fear Thy grace hath wrought
What in him seemeth righteous.
3 And thus my hope is in the Lord
And not in mine own merit;
I rest upon His faithful word
To them of contrite spirit;
That He is merciful and just-
Here is my comfort and my trust;
His help I wait with patience.
4 Though great our sins and sore our woes
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth;
Our kind and faithful Shepherd He,
Who shall at last set Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.
The first verse of this hymn is a metrical version of Psalm 130 but this only has eight verses. Luther goes further. This is a hymn in its own right and as it develops it explores theology. By this I mean quite simply a human understanding of God and humanity’s relation with that God. And so Luther writes, ‘Our pardon is Thy gift; Thy love, /And grace alone avail us’.
What Luther is doing is expanding the medium of the hymn beyond a simple paraphrase of scripture to something which comments on that scripture.
To return to England, by the time of Calvin’s death(1549) Thomas Sternhold had published nineteen metrical psalms under the title ‘Certain Psalms…drawn in English metre’. A single verse is perhaps enough to give us an idea of his poetic ability:
O thou, my soul, bless God the Lord;
and all that in me is
be stirrèd up his holy name
to magnify and bless.
John Hopkins added to this collection in 1551 and the completion of the translation of the Psalter into English was achieved between 1556 and 1562 by English exiles in Geneva.
In 1696 Nahum Tate (then Poet Laureate) and Nicholas Brady produced a ‘New version of the Psalms of David fitted to the Tunes used in Churches’ to supplant the ‘scandalous doggerel’ of Sternhold and Hopkins(25). A Scottish Psalter developed independently, as did other psalters such as William Hunny’s ‘Seven Sobs of a Sorrowful Sole for Sinn'(1583).
As pants the hart for cooling streams (HP 416)
Poetry and hymnody do not always come side by side and poets do not always write good hymns. Nevertheless George Herbert, through his skilful simplicity, began to explore what might be achieved. We only need to read his rendering of the 23rd. Psalm to realise that his poetic genius enabled him to give a far better expression of these words than we have examined so far:
The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?
He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe:
In both I have the best.
In assessing Herbert’s work Watson says this, ‘His poetry is among the most moving and effective in the English language, though much of it is too complex and witty for hymn singing’. The judgement is right and so, for the foundations of modern English hymnody we must turn to Isaac Watts. His importance to us now is as a pioneer of the use of hymnic language. He kept to mainly biblical texts for his work but, following Luther, he began to explore theology using hymns and in doing so he laid down the framework of the modern English language hymn. He established a standard against which all that was to follow would be assessed.
When I survey the wondrous cross (HP 180)
Watts looks at the cross and sees not simply an instrument of torture and execution but a picture of a real person offering his life for another. He reflects on this and writes those most powerful of lines,
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Elsewhere Watts approaches the theme in a different direction:
Nature with open volume stands
To spread her Maker’s praise abroad,
And every labour of his hands
Shows something worthy of a God.
This is the whole realm of nature which speaks so eloquently of a God of creation to those able to interpret what they see in this way. But Watts cannot stop there and the theme of the cross immediately presents itself.
But in the grace that rescued man
His brightest form of glory shines;
Here on the cross ’tis fairest drawn
In precious blood and crimson lines.
Here his whole name appears complete;
Nor wit can guess, nor reason prove,
Which of the letters best is writ,
The power, the wisdom, or the love.
Here I behold his inmost heart,
where grace and vengeance strangely join,
piercing his son with sharpest smart,
to make the purchased pleasures mine.
O the sweet wonders of that cross
Where God the Saviour loved and died!
Her noblest life my spirit draws
From his dear wounds and bleeding side.
And again the hymns ends, like ‘When I survey the wondrous cross, with words of dedication;
I would for ever speak his name
In sounds to mortal ears unknown,
With angels join to praise the Lamb,
And worship at his Father’s throne.
Watts died in 1748. Charles Wesley was born in 1707. Soon he was to bring to an incredible consummation all that Luther and Watts had begun. A few hymns will demonstrate what I mean.
O for a thousand tongues (HP 744)
Charles Wesley wrote, John Wesley collected and edited. ‘O for a thousand tongues’ is a hymn of praise. Of some 18 verses we have but a slim edition of ‘O for a thousand tongues’. With good reason. John Wesley wrote that people were welcome to re-print the hymns he had collected, but in doing so to leave them as they were for, ‘None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse’! But we have certainly needed to mend the sense, the content if you will. One verse of the original is racist, ‘And wash the Aethiop white’. We could no longer sing this yet it was written by an opponent of slavery. It is a reminder to those of us who write and sing now, that what we write and sing is provisional and our understanding of what is acceptable, what is offensive may change. Charles wrote for his day. Another verse, more familiar to us, speaks of …’leap, ye lame, for joy’. Opinions of this differ. I know people with disabilities who say, ‘well it’s a metaphor’ or ‘it’s scriptural’ and they’re right. But some find the image, the metaphor hurtful and for them I would rather not use it.
What is clear throughout is Wesley’s care in the use of words. Everything adds to the power of the text. Nothing is superfluous. Think how few Wesley hymns have choruses even though these might sometimes have reinforced what was being said. And for this hymn the core is praise.
Charles wanted a thousand tongues to sing the praise of God in Christ. One imagines him saying, ‘And that’s not really enough, Hark! How all the welkin rings!’ and if you wonder at that word ‘welkin’ we’re talking about the heavens, in today’s language the whole of the cosmos ringing to welcome the birth of Christ. ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ is weak by comparison.
Hark! The herald angel sings (HP 106)
So what was distinctive about the legacy which Charles Wesley left to hymn writers who came after him? You might say it was ‘Methodist’. But what does that mean? I think his influence can be seen firstly in
1. The style of his writing
While Isaac Watts had shown that it was possible to write religious verse that was not just a Psalm or scripture paraphrase, Charles took the art to new heights. The style that Charles Wesley used followed a pattern in which stanzas were regular with a consistent rhyme scheme. The argument of the text was developed from stanza to stanza in a logical manner. Scripture and religious poetic allusion were interwoven in the texts.
The next characteristic of Charles Wesley is his
2. Use of scripture.
When Watts wrote he tended to use one scriptural theme. In some instances Charles Wesley took a scriptural narrative as his starting point, as in ‘Come, O thou traveller unknown’ (HP 434). He more often quotes from different parts of the Bible, some obscure others well known , and brings them together in such a way that the words flow and you simply do not know where one quote ends and another begins. This is the essence of Wesley’s genius, the capacity to move through scripture interpolating references one with another in such a manner as to leave the reader feeling that they had always been associated in this way. 24 lines of ‘Behold the servant of the Lord’ offer no less than 41 scriptural allusions or references.
These first two characteristics are evident in most of Charles Wesley hymns.
The last over arching characteristic of Charles Wesley’s hymns is their theological foundation.
On the 24th October 1743 Charles Wesley wrote in his journal, ‘We laid us down to sleep, and rose up again, for the Lord sustained us. Assembled before day to sing hymns to Christ as God…’ Not just hymns, notice but ‘hymns to Christ as God’. The words underline the understanding that Jesus is God, and the son-ship of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity are put in this light. The hymns are theologically precise.
Charles Wesley strongly challenged the Calvinist theology of double predestination, the concept that people are all predestined to heaven or hell, and that there can be no change in this status; yet he holds strongly to the Calvinist view of that that God is truly God, that in all things God has the initiative. And so it is God who ‘empties himself of all but love’. God is, to use the technical term, a kenotic God, a self-emptying God who becomes human in the person of Jesus.
One of my favourite Wesley lines is ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’ from ‘Let earth and heaven combine’(HP 109). This wonderful hymn speaks of a self emptying God becoming limited by human constraints of time, life and history. This is the God who Wesley says, ‘Laid his glory by’, ‘Our God contracted to a span,/Incomprehensibly made man’. Timothy Dudley Smith picks up the phrase in his hymn ‘Child of the stable’s secret birth’(HP 124) putting it this way the ‘Voice that rang through the courts on high/contracted now to a wordless cry’. But Charles Wesley did not invent the phrase. The only other use of the word ‘contracted’ in English hymnody in this sense is in Charles Wesley’s older brother, Samuel’s, ‘Hymn to God the Son’. In a different context the words were used by George Herbert and also Jeremy Taylor. Nothing is new!
‘And can it be’(HP 216) and ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin’(HP 706) compete as the text that it is thought that Charles wrote to mark his and his brother’s, so called, conversion experience of 1738. It should come as no surprise that ‘And can it be’ addresses the subject of salvation, soteriology if you like, from a very personal perspective. John’s experience is well known. Charles was in a mechanic’s house, he had been suffering from pleurisy. It is not melodramatic to say that he could have died. He had been ill for some time and the infection left him weakened for the rest of his life. He was visited by a friend, John Bray, who read the story of the paralysed man from the gospel according to Matthew (9, 1 – 8). To Charles it seemed to fit his situation. He felt that he had been forgiven and valued. The following day was Whit Sunday, May 21st 1738, and he awoke with optimism and a sense of peace. Charles told his friends that he now felt ‘under the protection of Christ’.
The first three verses of ‘And can it be’ are quiet and introspective. Not at all suited to the tune SAGINA! ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood?’ there is amazement here at the personal interest that God has in the individual. And all this is, for Wesley, fact in spite of the understanding that Charles has that in the cosmic span of things he sees himself as complicit in the death of Jesus. It is a mystery why God should empty himself of all but love to offer graceful forgiveness to the individual sinner. Having been bound so long, Charles, echoing words relating to Peter’s freedom from imprisonment , is himself free.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Bible and interpretation are mingled. Text is placed against text. In the end we are left wondering what we remember from scripture and what we have internalised as we have sung. This is part of the strength of hymns – they help us to remember. This is also their danger. We can remember things that are not true, or scriptural.
Part of Charles Wesley’s integrity rested in his knowledge of scripture, not just the King James version of the Bible but the original Greek and Hebrew. In Hymns & Psalms we have the hymn ‘What shall I do my God to love, My Saviour, and the world’s, to praise?’ (HP 47). This is the first verse as we have it:
What shall I do my God to love,
My Saviour, and the world’s, to praise?
Whose tenderest compassions move
To me and all the fallen race,
Whose mercy is divinely free
For all the fallen race, and me!
Charles Wesley wrote, not ‘Whose tenderest compassions move’ but ‘Whose bowels of compassion move’. He knew that in Mark 1, 41 when Jesus is confronted with a leper seeking to be healed that the English translation ‘And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean’ didn’t give full weight to the original Greek. The word, rather the words, we translate as ‘compassion’ literally mean either ‘having your guts knotted up inside you’ or ‘snorting like a war horse’. Even modern translations do not touch the depth of feeling, of anguish and anger. Wesley’s original, ‘bowels of compassion’ is more earthy, nearer to the truth, though unsingable today.
But it is just this integrity, this closeness to the scripture that makes Wesley’s hymns trustworthy still.
What shall I do my God to love (HP 47)
Believing what we sing is important. Singing what we believe is important. So when we are confronted with theological statements in hymns rather than straight quotes from the Bible we depend on the integrity of the writers. We also ought to use our own intelligence and integrity as we sing.
The most obvious characteristic of Wesleyan spirituality is its inclusivity. John and Charles were both persuaded that an Arminian understanding of God’s grace was the right one. ‘Thy sovereign grace to all extends, /Immense and unconfined’ was preferable to the Calvinist concept of double predestination in which people were predestined to heaven or hell at birth with no hope of the judgment being tempered or countered. The grace that they had experienced was for all, ‘reaching all mankind’. The reason for this was pastoral as much as it was theological. Charles had had to pick up the pieces, so to speak, of people who had heard Calvinist preachers and been convinced of their own condemnation such that they lived their lives in genuine fear of hell. Suicide would be no way out of this dilemma as this would only bring the inevitable nearer. So, in Charles words, God’s grace was ‘So wide it never passed by one, Or it had passed by me’. And this was important. The offer of grace was closed to no one. This was the scandal of the universal gospel.
Pastorally the consequences of a positive judgement might be no less dangerous. Charles told of a man convinced of the permanence of his own salvation going home and beating his wife saying that no matter what he did, even if he killed her, he was assured of heaven as he was one of the elect. And so Charles particularly continued to emphasise the need for Christians to demonstrate in their lives and actions the evidence of their conversion. Sanctification, being made holy, was an ongoing process. While the offer of grace was free and unconfined there was still an obligation to work out salvation in the here and now. A lapse of commitment was a possibility for Charles and so he wrote:
My trespass is grown up to heaven;
But, far above the skies,
In Christ abundantly forgiven,
I see thy mercies rise.
We are more familiar with John’s emendation, ‘My trespass was grown up to heaven’. John argued that Charles was forgiven and that was that. Charles, in effect, said, ‘but I’ve done it again, My trespass is grown up to heaven’. I can identify with that! Still what is critical is that all embracing love and grace which is open to all humankind.
Some of the language of the Wesleys was archaic even as they were using it. But the task for the preacher and hymn writer, for the disciple, for every Christian goes on. More of that in Part 3.
Love divine, all loves excelling (HP 267)
Hymns and the Bible Part 3
I thought they were all dead…. Hymn writing today
The Church of Christ in every age (HP 804)
When I introduce myself as a hymn writer the usual response is ‘Oh, I thought they were all dead’. Well I’m not….yet…
So what of hymn writing today?
‘Beset by change but Spirit led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead’. Those words of Fred Pratt Green set our scene for this paper. One of the reasons for the response to hymn writing is that it is built on a long heritage. Hymns can sometimes sound old-fashioned. The structure si age old and sometimes the language hasn’t changed much either.
But that heritage is important. That is where we start, it is the foundation. Let me remind you. The hymns we have looked at already give a clue as to the nature of hymns and how writers have used the Bible. So, hymns can be a paraphrase of scripture, they can retell Bible stories, they can interpret scripture, they can state doctrines (statements about God), but they can also make doctrine – we’ll come to that later. Hymn writers today work within all these frameworks though some prefer one framework to another. Let’s look at a few examples.
I am the bread of life (HP 611)
Suzanne Toolan has paraphrased scripture and the hymn has the same problem of many other paraphrases. It is difficult to sing, the metre, the structure forces the sentences out of shape and they don’t fit easily with the music. There is perhaps a reason for this other than the fact of the difficulty of paraphrasing scripture. Hymns have a repetitive structure which makes them easy to sing by a congregation. But look at at: My Jesus, my Saviour, /Lord, there is none like You. (you can find this on HymnQuest – Google it if you don’t know it) The author Darlene Zschech is a singer songwriter. As such she performs her songs and others then sing along with her. This gives a freedom to her writing. A soloist can sing in rhythmic and melodic patterns that a congregation would have difficulty following without the guide of the soloist. There is nothing wrong in this and it can be done very effectively. But it does make this sort of song very different from a traditional hymn. It lends itself to more literal presentations of scripture, to the use of repetitive phrases or choruses which serve to reinforce belief. This makes such songs very suitable for use with new believers. Few writers in this style tackle more difficult issues like challenges to belief and the style often stops short at brief descriptions rather than extended explorations of a theme. This does not make them wrong but simply different in style, intention, use and purpose.
So let me return to hymns in the traditional sense and leave songs to another time. Use of scripture need follow neither a rough paraphrase nor become a song that needs a soloist or cantor to lead. Timothy Dudley Smith, writing when the New English Bible first came out was moved by its translation of the Magnificat. The following hymn follows this almost word for word, but his skill as a writer turns it into a magnificent hymn:
Tell out my soul (HP 86)
What about Bible stories, and what we might call narrative hymns? We looked at Wesley’s hymn about Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok brook. How do writers today address Bible stories?
You know the story of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. Herman Stuempfle re-told the story in a hymn written published in 1989: ‘Breathing hate, the huntsman hurries’. The first two verses tell the story without any interpretation but then the remaining verses begin to interpret the scripture and, applying it to us, provide a challenge, culminating in these words:
Christ, our Lord, earth’s teeming millions
Still await your Love’s pursuit.
Christ, your call still sends apostles;
Claim us each as Love’s recruit.
Send us, Love’s sure hunters, seeking
Love’s own prey, the lost, the least,
Till, Love’s captives, they are gathered
Free at last to share Love’s feast.
Let us turn in another direction. The heritage of Charles Wesley again provides the challenge. ‘And can it be’ reflected on what God has done in Christ. Setting the believer free. but some of the images and language are difficult. We sing them easily only because we know them. Who or what for instance is ‘the first born seraph’? whose flight we are to out soar? I have been asked and I don’t know the answer. The hymns that I regard as the greatest to have been written in the 20th century was written by Brian Wren. Unashamedly it takes Wesley’s theme and structure even echoing some of his images. The tune, ABINGDON, by Eric Routley was written for ‘And can it be’:
Lord God, your love has called us here (HP 500)
Brian Wren struggles theologically and this struggle is dynamic. Brian Wren never lets his writing rest. The hymn begins, ‘Lord God, your love has called us here’. Wren is aware of the developing theology of the vulnerability of God and the postmodern movement which means that people ‘lording it over’ one another has become anathema. So the text changes to ‘Great God, your love has called us here’. And the change is not just on a whim, but brings us nearer to scripture:
So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
This struggle is significant. Martyn Atkins in his book, Resourcing Renewal, suggests that if churches are to be renewed they must return to scripture, but also to the charisms of their founders (the gifts that gave the church and individual denominations purpose) and they must as the same time be conscious of the spirit of the age. Again, Wesley wrote of ‘serving the present age’. All of these criteria can be applied to what we sing, how we sing and even raise the question as to whether we should sing at all.
Shine, Jesus, shine has to be one of the most popular hymns of the last part of the 20th century.
Lets apply our criteria to this. Is it scriptural? Well, yes:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
So that’s all right then. Is it Methodist – does it fit with the expression of Christianity that we represent? No real problems here either. Graham Kendrick is a fine writer. What about the spirit of the age? Well the hymn uses ’you’ and ‘your’ rather than ‘thee’ or ‘thine’ but the feel is not far removed from, say, ‘Blessed assurance’ from the 19th century. And what do we make of the middle verse?
Lord, I come to Your awesome presence,
from the shadows into Your radiance;
by the blood I may enter Your brightness…
Let me share something with you. I have done research into the ‘effects of parasympathomimetic drugs on the rectum of Pleuronectes platessa’. Does that make sense? And I would argue that ‘by the blood I may enter Your brightness’ is as unintelligible to those outside the church as my jargon from the world of fish pharmacology. We need to find you language, new metaphors that speak to the present age rather than holding onto old language, however comfortable and familiar it may be to us. Without this change the church becomes a clique.
And when he says learned, we might well say, contemporary – of the present.
So a challenge to us:
Some hymns express utter certainty things that are really statements of faith. The Christian may indeed believe them, but proving them is another matter. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be disputes between people of different religions. The claims of Christianity would be so self-evidently true as to be beyond contradiction. But we even contradict each other – think of Calvin and the Wesleys.
So there is infinite variety in present hymnody.
The Music Resource Group of the Methodist Church in its report to the 2010 Methodist Conference ‘has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because the type of imagery they use and we believe that this issue needs further analysis and reflection’. It is interesting that of over 55 hymns written by Janet Wootton only 3 found their way into the draft presented to Conference last year and all of these have now been excluded. This is a continuing and unwarranted exclusion and the arguments against it can be found in a substantial book, This is our song, women’s hymn writing published this year by Epworth Press, ironically funded by Methodism!
There may be variety but it is being nurtured very selectively in some quarters.
Hymns have always explored doctrine and have sometimes asked questions, have pushed at the boundaries. If I was to offer guidance to new writers I would ask that
1. they tackle old themes in new and innovative ways using language that is contemporary. And what is con-temporary, of the time tomorrow, will not be what we are using today.
2. they tackle new themes that need to be addressed.
…And maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to make doctrine. Oh dear!
© Andrew Pratt 2018
Whenever we write, whatever we write, we are influenced by our experience. We may choose to try to deny that influence, or to use it. Traditionally those who rely heavily on scripture to inspire their writing are least likely to bring their own biography into play. Others allow that biography to be the starting point for their writing. The distinction is not always obvious. Charlotte Elliott wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’. It reads like a straightforward expression of dedication, of commitment until, that is, we reach the third stanza:
Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.
Elliott’s biography tells the story of a woman trying to find a way of faith, questioning what she had received from the teaching of the church and trying to make sense of her own disability. She was not blind, the fourth stanza is pure metaphor, but her health was poor. Her collection of poems, Hours of Sorrow Cheered and Comforted begins with these words: ‘Not for the gay and thoughtless do I weave/These plaintive strains: they have not learned to grieve’. She knew such grief and this informed her writing.
When we take the risk of allowing our writing to be influenced in this way I believe that we open ourselves to our own humanity and others will find that they can identify with what we have written and make it their own. So I want to make a case for the conscious use of biography and experience to inform our hymn writing. This is best done by reference to hymns and writers we already know. Though it would be informative to try to delve into the work of contemporary writers, that could be hurtfully intrusive and we might even draw the wrong conclusions. Nevertheless it is my hope that we might look at the texts we use to seek to understand the human experience which lies beneath them. Then as we write, we might provide material which is more accessible to others and more likely to give expression to the emotions and needs of those for whom we write. As we do so we will mirror what John Calvin believed the Psalms did and that is not a bad basis for our creativity
Frederick Faber, writing in 1861, reflected that The Olney Hymns acted ‘like a spell upon him for years’, while the influence of Wesley on his writing is also discernible. The Olney Hymns, published by John Newton and William Cowper in 1779, had the intention of providing ‘for the promotion of faith and the comfort of sincere Christians’. We know that John Newton wrote biographically when he composed ‘Amazing grace’. In Charles Wesley’s writing there is a strand of clear biography but this is often lost deep within the theology and scriptural allusion of the texts we sing. When his son was dying of smallpox he wrote a poem which begins with an allusion to Isaac and an identification of his son with that character as he is waiting to be sacrificed. Then with great emotion the piece continues: ‘For pity’s sake the victim spare/And give me back my son’. The words are individual and extremely personal yet the questions are eternal and the lament universal. Charles Wesley commented, ‘how little do parents know/What evils are prevented by an early death’. Like any parent he tried to understand the incomprehensible, to give reason to the irrational.
These influences are a starting point for Faber in as much as they give him permission to write personally and pastorally.
There is one other author to whom we should first look, and that is William Cowper. ‘O for a closer walk with God’ is threaded through with strands of his own experience. This is a personal plea every bit as powerful as those we find in the individual Psalms of lament:
O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?1
As I have remarked elsewhere,
Cowper struggled with Calvinism and arrived at the conviction that he was predestined to damnation. Writing to John Newton he said: ‘The future appears as gloomy as ever; and I seem to myself to be scrambling always in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels, prepared to push me headlong. Thus have I spent twenty long years’. He goes on to state that death will come before another twenty are out, and that the ‘enemy of Mankind’ has had such an interest in him that ‘even God’s omnipotence to save is a consideration that affords me no comfort, While I seem to have a foe omnipotent to destroy’.
These experiences, together with Cowper’s grasp of language, led him to write some of the finest hymnody on the subject of desolation. These texts are still well known while his poetry is more obscure. His words are poignant, born of experience. They focus particularly on doubt and uncertainty yet, like the psalmist, his words are undergirded with a sense of faith so that, even as he anticipates damnation, he sees affliction as being part of God’s will with the power to work for good. His words often seem contradictory, saying at one moment, ‘The saints should never be dismayed’, while at another giving voice to a sense of desperation, ‘Send none unhealed away’. Cowper’s God is one to whom people can come when they are ‘Deep-wounded souls’, but there is always a sense of personal unworthiness:
The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?
Throughout all his lamenting and searching there is the reassurance that God ‘…proclaims his grace abroad!’ and changes hearts of stone, that, on turning to God, ‘..calm content and peace we find’. Even when we are lost in ‘blind unbelief…God is his own interpreter/And he will make it plain’, and though our ‘love is weak and faint’ we should seek grace to love God more, that in the end we might echo the words of a hymn fragment which, both in language and rhythm, urges us to progress to our ultimate goal:
To Jesus, the Crown of my Hope,
My soul is in haste to be gone:
O bear me ye cherubims, up,
And waft me away to his throne!2
Many texts in Faber’s collection are of a similarly reflective, individual nature. Through his hymns we find him working out his faith. In his collection of 1849 ‘The Thought of God’ speaks in awe of the vastness of God who, though intimate to the believer, is ‘beyond imagined space’. This sense of awe brings an appropriate fear of God which Faber addresses in the next text, ‘The Fear of God’. Following very much the pattern of William Cowper, Faber now admits to a dryness of spirit. In a text entitled ‘Peevishness’ he longs to be near to God while being ‘amidst the storm’ and attests that he is ‘deadly sick of men’, that ‘It seems as if I loathed the earth’. He diagnoses a discord within himself and states that: ‘…this peevishness with good/Is want of love of God’. ‘Tis we who weigh upon ourselves;/Self is the irksome weight’. All his efforts are unable to counter his sense of desolation:
Therefore I crave for scenes which might
my fettered thoughts unbind,
And where the elements might be
Like scapegoats to my mind.3
Such scapegoats would take away with them those things which he felt obscured God. Then, Faber hopes, that all things will tell ‘Not of Thy worship, but much more,/And only, Lord! of Thee’. It is natural to move from this point of abandonment to consider what is God’s intention for our lives and for eternity, and this Faber does. ‘Predestination’ explores the concept of election and God’s will to work in human lives. The struggle with the conflict between experience and faith continues and is told through the medium of the hymns. Not only the texts themselves but the way in which they are collected together takes us on a spiritual journey. In ‘The Right Must Win’ Faber struggles with the observation that good does not always triumph:
Ah! God is other than we think;
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height, and reached
Only by childlike love.
Right is not always where it seems to be, and so:
Blest too is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.
The faithful are urged:
Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.
In the end a truth will be discerned:
For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.
The words are his own, hewn out of his own struggles and experience and, sometimes perhaps, we echo them.
Theology and biography intertwine in many of these texts. For Cowper the ‘mysterious way’ in which God moves in part reflects his mental state and experience. Faber sought a God of wide mercy and gentle love having lost his mother when he was quite young, but also struggled with the predestinarianism of his Calvinist upbringing. Similarly the theology that nuances Charles Wesley’s writing more than any other is that of Calvin.
For Wesley Calvinist predestinarianism was answered by Arminianism. Whether he is writing in an overtly polemic fashion or in a more affirming style Arminian theology permeates his hymns. His own feelings sometimes thread themselves through the verse. The stanzas of ‘What shall I do my God to love’ speak of the Arminian theology that John Wesley preached. Verse 4 is the verse which is particularly influenced by Charles own spiritual experience to which we find significant witness in his sermons. We normally sing John Wesley’s version of these words: ‘My trespass was grown up to heaven’. Charles Wesley had written ‘My trespass is grown up to heaven’. He found the path to perfection ran consistently up hill. Yet on other occasions there is an overwhelming sense of joy and hope derived from his personal faith experience and often expressed in the first person, for example, ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood’.
Where is all this leading us? Hymns historically have been defined as ‘praise of God sung’. Yet it has been acknowledged for years that, especially in the free-church tradition, the purpose of hymns has widened. The authors that I have addressed so briefly in this paper have, additionally to any other influence, allowed their own feelings, experience and biography to inform their writing.
A sub-text of personal experience is found in many texts written during the last fifty years. Sometimes the experience is buried and we simply guess at the events which have prompted authorship. For others, notes accompanying the printing of individual hymns allow us to trace the motivation of their writers. On occasion hymns are written second hand, as it were, the authors having imagined themselves into the place of others and then poured out praise or lament as if it was their own. We turn back again for a single, perhaps the best, example of this genre to Frederick Faber:
My children! My children! they clustered all round me,
Like a rampart which sorrow could never break through;
Each change in their beautiful lives only bound me
In a spell of delight which no care could undo.
The picture is one of a mother besotted with her children. The words are individual with the repetitive use of the personal and possessive pronouns. The following reflection on the nature of the one who has died only heightens the image:
But the eldest! O Father! how glorious he was,
With the soul looking out through his fountain like eyes:
Thou lovest Thy Sole-born! And had I not cause
The treasure Thou gavest me, Father! to prize.
The text begins to move into the spirit of lament and protest characteristic of the psalmist, but it is still full of subtle observation and tenderness as we imagine this blue-eyed, perhaps sensitive, child. The sense of outrage continues through the succeeding verses, mingled with description, as we hear that the child was, ‘My tallest! My fairest! Oh let me complain;/For all life is unroofed, and the tempests beat through’. The romantic imagery of the hymn comparing the loss of bereavement with the destructiveness of nature, is woven through the whole piece. The responsibility for the death is laid at God’s door for, ‘All was bright, but Thou camest, so dreadful and brief,/Like a thunderbolt falling in gardens of flowers’, it is as though a ‘lily-bed lies beaten down by the rain’.
The author begins to rationalise what has happened, to debate with God:
I murmur not Father! My will is with Thee;
I knew at the first that my darling was Thine:
Hadst Thou taken him earlier, O Father! – but see!
Thou had left him so long that I dreamed he was mine.
Faber recognises that love can result in pain when the loved one dies. He writes with compassion, not discouraging loving attachment, but grieving the more for the loss:
Thou hast taken the fairest: he was fairest to me
Thou hast taken the fairest: ’tis always Thy way;
Thou has taken the dearest: was he dearest to Thee?
Thou art welcome, thrice welcome: – yet woe is the day!
The text reflects the very common, and not very healthy idea, that God took the specially loveable children because he wanted them for himself, and wanted them young and innocent. The initiative of God is fervently underlined as each line begins, ‘Thou’. The words are not ones of acquiescence, but rather of accusation. Even the phrase, ”tis always Thy way’ is less one of resignation in the context. It is a complaint against God’s seeming capacity to inflict the greatest pain when He inflicts pain at all, continuing the theme of the opening two lines of the text: ‘Thou touchest us lightly, O God! in our grief;/But how rough is Thy touch in our prosperous hours!’ It is as though God is trying to have the greatest effect possible as He takes this child. We are reminded again, by the repetitive nature of the text, just how fair and dear was this child, so that the question, ‘was he dearest to Thee’ becomes rhetorical suggesting that he could not possibly be; the closing line being almost thrown in God’s face.
Up to this point we may have been convinced of the commitment of the author to his text and his identification with the subject matter. Yet, if we reflect, we remember that Faber was not married, was a Catholic priest and had no children. His imagination has enabled him to reflect on the grief of a mother who has lost her child and to use that reflection to inform his text in such a way as to make these words a useful prayer at the time he was writing.
Today we would eschew such sentimental hymns, but many will be able to look at texts, particularly by Fred Kaan, Brian Wren or John Bell, and guess at their inspiration even when the author has not made this explicit. The consequence of earthing hymns in ordinary human circumstances is that others singing the words can easily identify with them and make them their own. The hymns become a means to help us to tell our own stories. We can then place them in the context of the gospel. The hymns speak to our own condition.
Is there a message here for those of us who continue to write? I believe there is. If without being overly self-indulgent we can root our texts in reality, in personal experience of ourselves and others, then what we write will be more helpful in the worship of the church and more supportive to the lives of ordinary Christians.
1 All quotations of words by William Cowper are taken from Cowper, W., Poetical Works, Edit. W.M. Rossetti, Moxon, London.
2 Pratt, A.E., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, Inter Varsity Press, Leicester, 2003, pp162-3.
3 All quotations of hymns by Frederick Faber are taken from Faber, F.W., Hymns, 1861.