Reading the Hymns: God Moves In a Mysterious Way

Christmas is almost here, and I once again feel like writing about a hymn.  My hymn today is “God Moves in A Mysterious Way”, one of William Cowper’s contributions to the Olney Hymns. It is not, I admit, a very seasonal hymn. It does not bring straightforward tidings of comfort and joy, but a word to those facing suffering and grief. This hymn does not take up the mystery of the Incarnation, but rather the mystery of a loving Father who brings difficult gifts. I hope that for some it will prove to be seasonable.

Since I have written about a Cowper hymn before, I won’t much rehash my or Fred Sander’s account of his biography: William Cowper lived a tragically sorrowful life. At what should have been a triumphant moment in his career, he fell into a suicidal depression. For the rest of his life, he was plagued by years-long spells of depression and delusion. Some of his delusions were too horrifying to relate here. John Newton’s sermon at Cowper’s funeral gives a frank account, though it is, I repeat, a disturbing read.

Cowper wrote this particular hymn around the time of the onset of one of his relapses, the one that Newton mentions as beginning in 1773.  When he writes of dreadful clouds and “a frowning providence,” he describes the oncoming storm in his heart and mind. He speaks, in short, from the place of grievous experience.

While Cowper’s lyrics have a special significance for those who have experienced depression and other forms of mental illness, they also speak to the common experience of grief, fear, and suffering.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper forthrightly sets the theme of the song: the mystery of God and His providence. We cannot see His reasoning or plans, even if something of His broader purpose has been revealed.

Cowper notably uses the imagery of the sea and of storms. The waves and perils of the sea are a common biblical theme. The psalmist describes his emotional turmoil by saying, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” (Psalm 42:7) The song of Jonah contains a similar line (Jonah 2:3).

Psalm 107 uses nautical imagery in a different sense, of even more relevance to this hymn. Verses 23-32 describe some who sailed in ships on the sea, where they “saw the deeds of the Lord.” According to the psalm, God brought forth a storm (v. 25) that overwhelmed the sailors (v. 26). They called out to God for mercy (v. 28), and He calmed the storm (v. 29). Thus this stanza of the psalm repeats the theme of Psalm 107 of God bringing hardship to His people and then delivering them when they cry out to Him.

So Cowper, likely alluding to these and similar passages, depicts the mystery of God’s providence. The dangerous and uncontrollable sea is like solid ground beneath God’s feet. The mighty storms of the sea He rides like a chariot or a horse, controlling them for His ends.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

This is a pithy summary of Job 28, where Job or the narrator (interpretations vary) describes the deep mines of the earth. There the skilled dig up gems and precious metals in places hidden from the sight of all creatures. Humans can dig that far, and reveal great treasures. “But where shall wisdom be found?’ (v. 12) Its vault is deeper than any mine, and it is a treasure greater than any gemstone or gold trinket.  “It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (v. 21) The passage concludes by saying that it is God alone who knows where Wisdom is kept, so that “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” (v. 28)

The wisdom in God’s “bright designs” is portrayed as a hidden treasure. Again God’s sovereign providence is linked with the mystery of God’s purposes.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Here Cowper calls for courage in the face of storm clouds. Like the waves of the sea, the storm-clouds of the sky are an apt image of the turmoil of the grieving heart. The inner feelings that accompany depression, anxiety, and other mental distresses can resemble the turmoil, dreadfulness, and unpredictability of storm clouds and sea billows. In fact, Newton referred to the onset of Cowper’s troubles, saying, “The next morning a violent storm overtook him.”

Cowper pulls an interesting trick with these images. He uses very ominous phrasings, but inverts their significance. The phrase, “big with” implies that the object is full to bursting, as an extension of the idiom “big with child.” When a storm cloud is “big with” something, you expend it to be something fierce and unpleasant. Likewise, few things are known to break pleasantly on one’s head. In particular, a cloud breaking implies that its storm has been suddenly and violently unleashed.

The dreadful cloud is full to bursting, and its storm will surely break on your head. But beyond the ominous outward appearances, there is mercy even in the thundercloud and blessings in the oncoming storm. The mercies and blessings may not be readily visible, but the eye that sees the divine goodness, as we shall see, is the eye that sees with faith.

This is where the context of Cowper’s suffering is vital. This is no saccharine promise of gaining your best life now.  [Warning, dissonantly hilarious video link.] It comes from a man who has known despair in its most irrational of depths, but still girds himself to trust in God’s good providence.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Cowper speaks directly. Trust in the God of grace, and do not judge the Lord by outward appearances. Here Cowper says no more than what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:17-18:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen. The breakers and waves may cover you. The fierce storm may break out on your head. It may feel as if God is frowning over you. These are all too visible to the eye. But the wisdom of the matter is, at present, hidden in God’s deep mines. It remains unseen, along with the divine smile, because it rest in the Eternal One.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Over the course of our lives, we may begin to perceive hints of God’s purposes in our difficult experiences. We might come to see present signs of God’s good purposes. And if not, we can be confident that God is not thwarted.  Sweetness can blossom forth, even from a bitter bud. And once we enter into the full flower of God’s eternal promises, no present earthly time frame will seem long.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

Now Cowper comes to the bottom line. His words about unbelief are not meant to be a slur on those who lack faith. Rather, it is to say that God’s purposes can only be perceived from the perspective of a well-formed faith. It is similar with human relationships. If things look bad, we will only believe, or even listen to, someone’s explanation if we are already inclined to trust them.

Cowper is, in essence, suggesting the posture of “faith seeking understanding.” Unless we begin with a posture of trust, informed by God’s public revelation in Scripture, we will not see the broader picture. It is for good reason that Jesus repeatedly said, “If you have ears to hear…” He likewise said of Peter’s confession of faith, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17)

God will make His purposes plain. Faith will become sight. Every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4), and blessings will no longer be mixed with pain. Until that day, only the eye opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in the storm.

Reading the Hymns: The Gospel Brings Tidings

“The Gospel Brings Tidings,” by William Gadsby (1773–1844), was one of my favorite hymns during the Berkeley years. It is, I admit, obscure. It’s not on Cyberhymnal or any of the hymnals indexed on Far as I can tell, its only recent publication is by Red Mountain Music, in one of their albums drawn entirely from Gadsby’s Hymns.

Gadsby’s Hymns is mainly used by Strict Baptists in England and Primitive Baptists in America, but it contains many gems worthy of a broader audience. It was compiled by Gadsby for his congregation; he sought to form a collection “free from Arminianism,” so the hymns would match the preaching. It was not free of contributions by Arminians, however, as Charles Wesley hymns are set alongside ones by John Newton, Joseph Hart, and himself. It was published in 1814 and expanded in 1838. It was further supplemented by J.C. Philpot after Gadsby’s death. It contained no music, like most older hymnals, so a Companion Tune Book was made for it in 1927.

Gadsby was a minister with the Strict Baptists, an old hyper-Calvinist denomination in England. I’m not using that term in the common sense, where “hyper” is effectively a stand-in for several swear words. (Or maybe it means, “Mark Driscoll right after downing two Red Bulls.”) The Strict Baptists denied faith in Christ to be a universal human duty. The gospel call is only truly offered to the elect. Happily, this doctrine did not infect most of his hymns.

“The Gospel Brings Tidings” is based on Isaiah 61:1-3:

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; to appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.

Jesus read from this passage in the synagogue and said of it, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)

As for singing it, RMM wrote a setting, or look for an 11s tune in your hymnal’s metrical index. I once successfully sang it to the tune of “Immortal, Invisible.”

The gospel brings tidings, glad tidings indeed,
To mourners in Zion, who want to be freed
From sin, and from Satan, and Mount Sinai’s flame,
Good news of salvation, through Jesus the Lamb.

Continue reading

Reading the Hymns – The Sands of Time Are Sinking

This weekend’s hymn is a follow-up to last weekend’s profile. Samuel Rutherford did not, to my knowledge, write any hymns. But in the 19th century, someone wrote one for him.

Ann Cousin (1824-1906) was a Scottish poet and the wife of William Cousin, a Free Church of Scotland minister.  She starting writing hymns for use in her husband’s church in Irvine, Scotland. Very soon, her hymns were being used and enjoyed throughout Scotland and England.  In 1854 she wrote a poem, originally titled “The Last Words of Samuel Rutherford”, based off of his Letters and deathbed sayings. The original version contained a whopping nineteen verses, but before long five of them circulated together as “The Sands of Time Are Sinking.” The full version is on the Indelible Grace website, with notes indicating which letters are referenced in each verse.

Cousin does a great job distilling Rutherford’s main pastoral themes into concise, accessible verse. The result is a beautiful Christian reflection on death and what comes after, and on the beauty of the Savior. Still, it is Cousin’s hymn and not Rutherford’s. Far from slavishly copying his catchphrases, she shows a willingness to rework even his most memorable lines and to supplement them with poetic images of her own invention. Her adaptation was so successful that the “Rutherford” quotes on the memorial in Anwoth are, in fact, Cousin quotes. In sum, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” is at once a pithy introduction of Samuel Rutherford’s theology, and an expression of Cousin’s poetic genius.

1. The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for –
The fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark had been the midnight
But Dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.
Continue reading

Reading thy Hymns Bonus: O Come, O Come Emmanuel

Today’s selection is possibly the oldest Christmas carol that is still in use. It is a Victorian translation (by John M. Neale, 1851) of a 12th-century Latin carol, which was in turn adapted from a set of 8th century monastic antiphons.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a guided tour of traditional Christian interpretations of Old Testament prophecy. Each stanza calls up a major theme of Messianic prophecy, drawing upon at least one major verse that Christians have seen as a reference to Christ. I know that this interpretive tradition raises many major, often heated, questions and objections. Let’s bracket those for the sake of this post, so as to focus on unpacking what this hymn is trying to tell us.

Three common notes for all the verses. First, each one is a prayer to Jesus under a variety of prophetic names. The refrain is the answer to the prayer: Rejoice, Emmanuel will surely come! Continue reading

Reading the Hymns: The Contrite Heart

This hymn is a new favorite of mine. It’s by William Cowper (1731-1800), and first appeared in the Olney Hymns collection, which he co-published with John Newton.  Fred Sanders recently highlighted Cowper and the Olney collection. He introduces them so well that I actually have very little to add to it!

As Dr. Sanders says, Cowper lived with chronic depression. His first major spell came in 1763, cutting off a promising legal career at its peak. He began to despair of his salvation. In time, he recovered somewhat and retired to the country town of Olney to live with friends. Newton was the parish priest and soon became a close friend. Newton and the others urged him to write so as to steady his mind. Still, the despair periodically recurred, and during those spells he lost all sense of assurance of salvation. He wrote most of his works when that dark cloud loomed more distantly, during the times of relative calm and happiness.

Which brings us to “The Contrite Heart.” Continue reading

Reading the Hymns: Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior

Fanny Crosby was one of the great, and greatly prolific, hymnwriters of the 19th century. Considering how that century was a bit of a golden age of hymn writing, that’s saying something. Did I say prolific? She almost sets her own definition for the term, considering that wrote over 8,000 hymns.

Some of her songs were criticized as being too emotionalistic or sentimental. In that way, she shows the pitfalls of populist hymnody, then and now. But she is hard to beat when she hits her stride. Her writing is filled with scriptural insight, with simple language that rewards deeper reflection. At her best, she is populist hymnody at its best.

And did I mention that she was blind from childhood? She composed her hymns mentally, from memorized sources, often working on several simultaneously before dictating them. All 8,000+ of them.

Her most well-known contributions include “Blessed Assurance” and “To God be the Glory.” Here, I want to highlight “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior”: Continue reading

Reading the Hymns: Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending

I have so enjoyed Matt’s weekly postings of hymnodic reflections that I’ve jumped at the opportunity to continue the series during his absence.  This week’s hymn, another of the four most popular Anglican hymns, is often sung in the days leading up to Advent.  At first glance it might seems strange to celebrate the second coming of Christ in conjunction with His first coming, however, the practice of so doing provides the balance needed to keep the Advent (and Christmas) themes of Divine love and light from devolving into mere sentimentality.  Remembering the first coming of Christ in light of the end of all things ought to remind us how desperately we need a savior—and how immense and earth-shattering is the good news that God is just and merciful.

The present text of the hymn has undergone a few redactions since first being penned by John Cennick, a land surveyor turned preacher and Moravian evangelist.  Cennick was an acquaintance of the Wesley brothers and this quite probably accounts for Charles Wesley’s knowledge of the hymn.  The most common version of the text is Wesley’s and it is the version followed below.    However, the comparison of Cennick’s version with Wesley’s is interesting as it brings to light Wesley’s mastery of English and Scripture as he expounds upon and clarifies the nascent themes in Cennick’s version.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

The theme of the hymn is taken from Revelation 1:7 and begins and ends with an exhortation to look to the coming King, Jesus Christ, and celebrate the blessed and glorious reign of God as the indisputable monarch of all things in heaven and earth.

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

It is natural to wonder what sort of King it is that is returning to claim his kingdom and what life will be like under his rule.  If He is to be a just and righteous ruler, what will that mean for the wicked men and women?  If He is to be a deliverer of His people (a Messiah), what will that mean for the people, institutions, and beliefs and practices that have been holding His people captive?  The implication of a just, righteous, and freedom-granting ruler is that injustice, wickedness and bondage will be abolished and done away with: Good news for the captive and the oppressed, bad news for the wicked and the oppressor.

Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!

Exploring, again, the implications of what is a great comfort to the Christian, but a terror to the ungodly—God’s omniscience and omnipresence—the author forcefully suggests that though heaven and earth would flee from the terrible presence of the just Judge who will open the secret heart of all men; the very men who would most hide themselves from this scrutiny will be compelled to stand before the Judge and give an accounting of their actions.  This is justice, the terrible equality of all men before God is such that every man must acknowledge his responsibility for his deeds.  The bribe’s of the wealthy, the words of the crafty, and the intimidation and power of the extortioner are all as nothing in face of the just King.

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

What then do we have to hope for?  If the secrets of all men be made known on the Day of Judgement, then surely all men will be tried and found wanting.  However, the centerpiece of this hymn, and of the Gospel itself, is the very good news that redemption has happened and that justice has been satisfied in such a way that God’s saints might be welcomed into the retinue of the King without lessening His justice in any way.  Hallelujah, indeed.

Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heav’n and earth t’inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!

Such words sound harsh and unfeeling in a day and age where niceness is one of the cardinal virtues of the land.  However, it is wise to keep in mind that if goods such as justice and righteousness are to prevail, they come with a cost: the cost of punishing all that is unjust and evil.  There can be no new heaven and new earth unless the old be done away with, there can be no universal reign of perfect goodness and truth unless badness and error are finally and absolutely defeated.  The cry of the Church and of God the Spirit is for such perfect state to come where all is peace and harmony and love, where communion between God and man is like the unity shared by the Blessed Trinity.  The birth pangs are necessary to bring about new life.

The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

The King bears in His own body the message of the Gospel.  That which was done out of hatred, rebellion, and pride has been transformed by Divine Love into the centerpiece of adoration and praise for all eternity.  The facts of wickedness and evil are acknowledged rather than glossed over, yet they undergo a powerful metamorphosis as their sting is turned into a song.

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

The exhortation to look for the coming King in the first verse modulates into an invocation of that same King in the last.  The great and terrible fact of the Second Coming provides the impetus for the action of prayer among His people—given the nature of the King and veracity of His promise, it behooves His people to act with a faith that gives expression to their knowledge of Him.

Reading the Hymns: Blest Be the Tie that Binds

John Fawcett was a Baptist.

If you listen to critics of Baptists (and evangelicals), he should have had no idea about the role that community played in the Christian life.  The emphasis on individual salvation, personal piety, and going to heaven when you die leaves little to no room for the church.  And Fawcett was living in that dreaded 18th century, when such themes were at their highest.

But don’t tell that to Fawcett, whose hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds”  is oriented toward the extolling the beauty of Christian community within the Church.  Fawcett understood that beauty, and the sacrifice required to attain it.  He turned down the 18th century equivalent of Saddleback or Mars Hill to remain with his tiny, bad-paying parish simply because of the strength of his ties there.

It’s the sort of legacy we should remember, and probably recover.

The words are taken from Google Books’ earliest copy of the hymn, which is from 1800.

Blest be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.

Notice, of course, that there is only one tie that binds.  Though Fawcett doesn’t name the Spirit, his meaning is clear.  Beneath the verses lies Paul’s words to the Phillipians:  “If there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in [the] Spirit, intent on one purpose.” Continue reading

Reading the Hymns: Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior

This week’s selection is from one of evangelicalism’s most prolific hymn writers, Fanny Crosby.

Crosby, who was a Methodist, is best known for “Blessed Assurance,” which encapsulates the evangelical conviction in the reality of the atonement.  But the other side of the evangelical confidence in the work of Christ is a strong sense of our own lack of worthiness–a sense that in its worst forms slips into anxieties about our union with Christ and the accomplishment of our redemption.

But Crosby avoids that sort of anxiety, crafting lyrics that manage to highlight our status as adopted by Christ even in and through the expression of repentence.  (It’s worth noting that Red Mountain Church’s contemporary rendition of the song is the best I know, and worth spending 89 cents on.)

Musically, “Pass Me Not” is a classic representative of what seems to be a distinctly American hymn style.  It has a striking simplicity and stays within the much decried four chord structure of contemporary praise choruses.  But the alternating meter of the tune–from syncopation to straight and back again–give it a subtle complexity that today’s rock-inspired music lacks. Consider the first stanza:

Pass me not, Oh Gentle Savior.  Hear my humble cry.
While on others Thou art smiling, do not pass me by. Continue reading

Reading the Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth

One of the most significant facts of Christian theology is that the death and resurrection of the man Jesus Christ empowers not only the redemption of all mankind, but the renewal of the entire created order.

That’s a theological fact that I suspect we rarely take into account when we approach the communion table.

But today’s hymn–in, as best as I could discern, its original form–manages to seamlessly unite the doctrines of creation and reconciliation.  While “For the Beauty of the Earth” is generally regarded as a hymn simply oriented toward the goodness of creation, it was originally written as a communion hymn.

It’s author, Folliett Sanford Pierpoint, was a Cambridge scholar who taught classics as a schoolmaster and wrote poetry.  He first published this hymn in Lyra Eucharistica, a collection of hymns dedicated for Holy Communion, with the title of “The Sacrifice of Praise.”  That was in 1864.  The hymn quickly proliferated the corpus of hymnals, receiving numerous modifications that stripped it of some of its most potent communion language, and was often used specifically for children.

But a communion hymn it was originally, and so that is the form in which we shall treat it. Continue reading