Archives for posts with tag: hymns

Have you ever listened carefully to the words of this familiar Christmas hymn?

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

The first stanza introduces us to one of the themes of this hymn: People move through daily life, often unaware both of God’s providential care (upholding creation, as seen in the movement of the stars) and of the movement of his salvation plan (the coming of Christ). But the reality that Jesus defies our expectations and goes largely unrecognized does nothing to diminish the reality of his significance: here, in this little town, is born the Answer to every human need from age to age!

For Christ is born of Mary,
and gathered all above,
while mortals sleep, the angels keep
their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars, together
proclaim the holy birth,
and praises sing to God the King,
and peace to men on earth.

While the humans sleep, unaware, the angels know and celebrate what God is doing. Yet even “morning stars” (Job 38:7) “wonder” at it (1 Peter 1:12).

How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him
still the dear Christ enters in.

This is where I think I’d misread the hymn in the past. When it says “so God imparts,” the so doesn’t tell us the reason God imparts but the manner. That is, in this way (“just so”) God gives his grace: in ways unexpected (to us) and unrecognized (by us) and ordinary (cp. Lk 1 in Mary’s song/Magnificat). This is true both of the Incarnation and of a Christian’s salvation–not everyone will recognize what has happened, and it may not be flashy, but just as surely (in both cases), Christ has come to live with His people! Conversion is an invisible yet real work of God; in Christ God applies the blessings of heaven to flesh-and-blood, sinful people (cp. Ephesians 1). It is a gift both heavenly and earthly, equally real in every part.

And so having reflected on those theological bits, isn’t the last stanza a logical response?

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in;
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.

To this day most ears still don’t hear his coming, but unbelief never damages or changes the truth (Rom. 2:3-4). When we hear the good news (the Gospel) announced by the angels (and repeated today by very ordinary Christians and pastors), we must receive it. Christ will deal with our sin so that we can be restored to him. Welcome, our Lord, Emmanuel!


The density or conciseness of poetry and hymnody is part of what makes it memorable and effective. But I’ve found that sometimes paraphrasing a hymn helps me “unpack” it and benefit from the full implications of the text. The following lines echoed in my head as I prepared for this coming Sunday…

[adapted from “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” George Croly (1780-1860)]

I’m not asking for a dream
or for new prophetic revelation.
I’m not asking you to remove my humanness with all its limitations;
I’m not asking to meet an angel or to have your Words blasted to me from an opening in the clouds:

I only ask that you remove the blindness of my soul and help me see your truth.

Spirit of God, have your way in my heart today.

Take a minute and read this brief letter of Jonathan Edwards’ (Letter to Benjamin Colman, May 22, 1744). Writing to a pastor friend, Edwards recounts the details of a disagreement in his church–viz., the inclusion of hymns in their meetings (as opposed to the exclusive singing of Psalms).

Observations from Edwards’ account:

  1. Faced with something new that we like, we have a tendency to adopt it exclusively, a move that is not always healthiest for us.
  2. Faced with changes we don’t agree with, we tend to clam up and leak our thoughts to precisely everyone except the people we should be taking our concerns to.
  3. Faced with a “he-said/she-said” situation, it’s always best to go ahead and check with he and she.

I think a lot of pastors can empathize with Edwards as well (“I thought everything was OK, but apparently some people were bothered–they never said anything to me!”). Remember, this was coming to Edwards’ attention almost two years after they started introducing hymns.

In the end, though, Edwards seems to take it all in stride, and the introduction of the new music seemed to be a generally welcomed and healthy addition to congregational life. Their example encourages me.

In recent years, we’ve heard a number of evangelical leaders and hymn writers denounce sappy, Jesus-as-boyfriend language in our songs. This is good. The problem is not new, however; it showed up in 19th-century Gospel songs, German Pietist hymns of the early 18th century, and probably a number of earlier places, too.

The following passage comes from Reginald Heber (1783-1826), Anglican bishop and hymnwriter best known for penning the hymn Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Offering up a few of his own hymn texts for consideration, Heber sent along these remarks:

In one respect at least, he [Heber] hopes that the following poems will not be found reprehensible;–no fulsome [that is, flattering] or indecorous language has been knowingly adopted: no erotic addresses to Him whom no unclean lip can approach; no allegory ill understood, and worse applied. It is not enough, in his opinion, to object to such expressions, that they are fanatical: they are positively profane. When our Savior was on earth, and in great humility conversant with mankind; when he sat at the tables, and washed the feet, and healed the diseases of his creatures; yet did not his disciples give him any more familiar name than Master, or Lord. And now, at the right hand of his Father’s Majesty, shall we address him with ditties of embraces and passion, or language which it would be disgraceful in an earthly sovereign to endure? Such expressions, it is said, are taken from Scripture: but even if the original application, which is often doubtful, were clearly and unequivocally ascertained, yet though the collective Christian church may very properly be personified as the spouse of Christ, an application of such language to individual believers is as dangerous as it is absurd and unauthorized. Nor is it going too far to assert, that the brutalities of a common swearer can hardly bring religion into more sure contempt, or more scandalously profane the Name which is above every name in heaven and earth, than certain epithets applied to Christ in our popular collections of religious poetry.”

– Letter to the Editor of The Christian Observer (London, October 1811). As appears in Hymnology: A Collection of Source Readings, David W. Music: Scarecrow Press, 1996 (151-2).


  1. In Heber’s view, sappy language cheapens the name of Christ and invites the scorn of onlookers; in fact, we might as well be hurling around curse words.
  2. Heber implies a number of specific violations to avoid in hymn language: engaging in flattery (emotionally over-the-top ascriptions of praise), employing language usually reserved for expressions of romantic love, including awkward or vague allegories, referring to Christ in casual terms, and applying aspects of the Bride of Christ to individual believers.
  3. I don’t think Heber is saying that they should only call Jesus “Master” or “Lord” in public worship; only that Christianity had gone far beyond expressions of familial love into rank sentimentalism.

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?

Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
for I am thy God and will still give thee aid.

I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
for I will be with thee thy troubles to bless,
and sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shalt lie,
my Grace–all-sufficient–shall be thy supply.
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose–
I will not, I will not desert to his foes.
That soul, though all Hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never—no, never—no, never forsake.

from Rippon’s Selection… (1790)

First, I don’t intend this to be hymnologically profound post–I get to teach that all week long, but don’t intend to do it here (if you’re interested in more info and original spelling/capitalization, start here).

What I will do is express my wonder at the number of hymns I had memorized as a child, but didn’t really understand until I was in college (or later!).

For example, How Firm a Foundation is a song all about God’s promises, which ground our souls in a world of upheaval. I regret to say that I sung this hymn for years before realizing that the first verse is merely an introduction to the rest of the stanzas, each of which recount a specific promise of God from Scripture.

I regret to admit that it was a long time before I realized that the last verse has nothing to do with us committing not to forsake God, but precisely the opposite. It’s paraphrasing God’s promise never to forsake his own, reminding us that he will not act “against” those who have hidden in Jesus (Rom 8:31+ff.).

Now, it’s possible that in the first eighteen years of life, I was unusually dense and inattentive to the words I was singing. But I suspect that I was not (and am not) alone. It makes me wonder how many people are still singing this song and have no idea what they’re singing.

So how important is it for a music director to occasionally plan one or two sentences to help introduce a hymn and point us to the heart of what we’re about to sing? On some Sundays, it might be the most fruitful twelve seconds of your day.

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