Monday, August 15, 2005

For the Love of God and His Church Don't Get Rid of the Hymns

I want you to forget about music for a moment, if that is possible. I want to tell you that there is no such thing as "Christian music", only Christian lyrics. Good music is simply the vehicle through which our words flow. So, banish for a moment the music that accompanies the following poem, and I think that you will be freshly overwhelmed.

I want to take a look at a magnificent poem by Dr. Isaac Watts. I will treat it verse by verse, as is my style. Please feel free to ignore the commentary. Analyzing poetry can sometimes stifle its beautry. But if you read what I've written, I hope that you will gain the appreciation that I have found in his profound poetry. The title of this poem is, "Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?"

Verse 1:

Alas, and did my Savior bleed
and did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I?

Alas is a good word. It is an interjection that expresses mourning or grievance. It regrets that something has occurred, and wishes that it could have been otherwise. The poet asks a simple question about his savior. Did he bleed? Did he die?

We see that this is no ordinary savior. This savior is also the poet's King. One to whom the poet owes his allegiance. Kings send subjects to die for the crown, not the reverse.

This Savior King is also Holy and Sacred. The poet believes this King to have been a great man. Someone worthy of adoration and the highest praise found in language. This man was Sacred. This is contrasted with the poet's view of himself. The poet is a worm.* He is not a nobleman worthy of regard, but a wretched worm. He is a nobody, and yet he finds that his Sacred King bled for him personally.

Theologically speaking, the poet stresses his personal depravity, and an idea of a personal atonement. Christ died for HIM. Jesus shed His blood on the poet's behalf.

*Modern hymnbooks have replaced "Such a worm as I" with "For sinners such as I" without even so much as a footnote in most hymnbooks. I can only guess that it is because modern people do not like to think of themselves as worms. But to rob Dr. Watts of this imagery is shameful. If anyone knows how this came about, I'd like to know.*

Verse 2:

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
And love beyond degree!

The King loves this subject, and in an act of unprecedented love and mercy, the King dies for the subject's crimes. While being dismayed that this is the truth, the poet still celebrates this magnificent King's sacrifice.

Theological points:
The doctrine of a penal, substitutionary atonement is found here. That is, Christ died on the cross in the place of the poet, and Christ died for the poet's crimes.

Verse 3:

Well might the sun in darknes hide,
and shut his glories in,
when Christ the mighty Maker died
for man, the creature's sin.

The sun is ashamed. He hides his face from the spectacle of Jesus being killed. Darkness covers the land. For Christ also made the sun, and it has the sense to see the atrocity of the situation.

The King is Christ Jesus, and not only is He Sovereign, Savior, Sacred, gracious, and loving, but He is also Creator. He made the sun and the servant. Man is the creature; Christ is Maker. Man is brazen enough to kill the King; the sun hides in shame.

Verse 4:

Thus might I hide my blushing face
while Calvary's cross appears,
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes to tears.

Now the poet is ashamed. He is ashamed as the sun is ashamed. He cannot bear the vision of the Sacred King groaning on his behalf. The picture brings shame, and yet it brings profound thankfulness. He cannot look, but he cannot deny the reality. It causes him the deepest shame, and yet it brings him great joy.

Verse 5:

But drops of grief can ne'er repay
the debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, i give myself away,
'Tis all that I can do.

His grief over his King's sacrifice can never repay his Lord's kindness. His grief alone cannot atone for his crimes that caused Christ's sufferings. Pitifully, he offers himself, a worm, to the service of the King. He recognizes that the gift is small, but it is all that he can give. The King has offered himself for the criminal, and now the criminal offers himself for the King.

I hope that you can read these verses as poetry, and I hope that you are able to meditate on them. Yes, music is useful, but it is not inspired. I have often heard it said that the longest book in the Bible is the Psalms. The Psalms were, of course, songs. But I find it interesting to note that not one note of music is preserved for us, only the words. Only the poetry remains. Even the musical notations sometimes given are lost in ambiguity (The meaning for words like "Selah" are unclear at best.)

I think that in the future I will take more time to look at some of the beloved poems found in the hymnbooks of the Church. I wonder why such good poetry is missing from my Norton's Anthology? Certainly Dr. Watts was as influential as the other poets of his day!


jdthorne said...

This is similar to a discussion I had with some of my students the other day about Christian music. They were asking if some band was a Christian band. I had to tell them that bands aren't Christian. People are Christian. The songs they sing can be directed towards God or towards other people, it doesn't matter.

I wish Christian "artists" could write lyrics like 'Alas, Did My Savior Bleed'. Most lyrics today seem so shallow and I find myself not listening to Christian music because the lyrics aren't that good, and neither is the music.

If only they could fuse the two together like Rich Mullins used to do.

Anonymous said...

Brings to mind the beauty of choir specials from the past, which are seldom heard in any churches anymore. I wonder...have you seen people come to the Lord upon listening to the band up in front? I never have...yet as a young person, I certainly have seen people come forward, without invitation, simply upon listening to the choir number...or a soloist,etc.

My dad, 78 yrs old, goes to assisted living and nursing homes to play his trumpet or coronet when asked. He was telling me the other day he had planned on playing 2 old hymns back to back and to his horror discovered on the 2nd song that he was playing something entirely different, though still an old hymn. He apologized profusely to the pianist who insisted they complete the song anyway (because obviously the Holy Spirit was in control) and then play the 2nd song planned afterwards...and the pianist was playing along without music (obviously a great musician). He said the tears began rolling down all those old faces in the audience... The old words no doubt returning to the old minds sitting there. How many verses do we remember of modern music...unless we sing it each week? I think the old hymns stick with us because they were so intense in their meaning...sermons in themselves even!

Thanks for a voice of reason...great blessings fall on you and your ministry. I would enjoy being in the congregation of such leadership!

Paula said...

When I first began singing with our choir, we had to memorize the music because we were not allowed to have the sheets in the risers. I would sit all week memorizing the hymns exactly this way: as if they were poetry -- because they are. I encouraged my fellow singers to do the same because so many of them complained of the language being difficult. I find it beautiful. Thanks, Sojourner

Laura said...

I, too, love the hymns for the lyrics. When I play my flute in church, I "sing" the hymns in my mind. But, nothing takes the place of voicing them. And yes, the poetry of the hymns is profound.
Our church has begun using the Trinity Hymnal, which has unearthed the original lyrics of many modernly mangled hymns.

It's such a blessing to see the powerful working of His sovereignty, mercy and grace uplifted in the "old hymns of the church". Praise be to the Lord God Almighty!

Anonymous said...

In a recent issue of the magazine a local radio station puts out, was this quote:
"A good friend of mine, who was raised by a Godly pastor's wife, tells me that when he was rocked to sleep at night by his mother, she didn't sing to him just little ditties and lullabies, she sang him the hymns of the faith. When he was in the crib, he remembers her leaning over and singing to him', 'A Mighty Fortress is our God', 'And Can it Be?','More Love to Thee, O Christ', My Jesus, I Love Thee', 'Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing'. She sang the deep songs'. And he says, 'I remember those hymns'. 'In fact, he says, 'when I got into church, I had heard and learned most of the hymns', a contribution in that young man's life that he'll never forget." Abraham Lincoln

Eric M Schumacher said...

Great blog. Thanks for your thoughts on the hymns. Here are a few I've written:

If you like them, let me know and I'd be glad to send you a hymn book I've written to use in your church.