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Reading the Hymns: The Gospel Brings Tidings

March 6th, 2011 | 6 min read

By Kevin White

“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.

Gadsby plays a little game of “two terms, same meaning” in the first line. “Gospel” means “good news,” and “glad tidings” are, well, “good news.” So in the very first line, he’s reminding us that the gospel is, at root, happy news of deliverance.

For who? For mourners in Zion, who are promised comfort from the One anointed to proclaim the good news of God’s redemption and kingly reign. For God’s people, who seek salvation through Jesus from sin, Satan, and the burden of earned righteousness.

“Mt. Sinai’s flame” is a reference to Hebrews 12:18-24, which invokes Moses’ fear upon climbing the mountain to receive the Commandments as an analogy of how the gospel of Christ is greater still than the old Law. The Law was good, but Christ’s fulfillment of the Law is greater.

What sweet invitations the gospel contains,
To men heavy laden with bondage and chains;
It welcomes the weary to come and be blessed
With ease from their burdens, in Jesus to rest.

Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) To those weary, from the bondage of sin, from the cares of the world, from heaviness of heart, the gospel extends the promise of rest in Christ. To remove the weight of sin and sorrow, and to give us life and joy. To trust in His merits, to receive His joy, and to know that we have the duty of sons and daughters, not of outcasts.

For every poor mourner, who thirsts for the Lord,
A fountain is opened in Jesus the Word;
Their poor parched conscience to cool and to wash
From guilt and pollution, from dead works and dross.

The fountain is perhaps a reference to 1 Corinthians 10:4—“And all [Israel] drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Christ is the source of the life-giving spring that soothes those who thirst for the Lord. But water not only satisfies thirst; it cleanses. Jesus nourishes our souls and cleanses us from our sins and imperfections.

I find “poor parched conscience” to be the most stirring line in the song. It really captures the feeling of the weary Christian, lashed by guilt, and seemingly cut off from all help. When we too easily forget that salvation is a free gift from God, a gift that is not purchased by works, but which enables and inspires them. Then, the gospel is glad tidings, with its offer to drink of Christ, like clean water in the desert. To become like the tree planted by the water (Psalm  1), with deep roots that feed upon the stream even in times of drought.

A robe is provided, their shame now to hide,
In which none are clothed but Jesus’s bride;
And though it be costly, yet is the robe free,
And all Zion’s mourners shall decked with it be.

This is the “garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness,” the white robe of the saints from Revelation. To put on Christ and cover the nakedness of our works. Because even our best thoughts fall short of perfection. So Christ covers us with His merit, bought at great cost. Take comfort, those who mourn in Zion, all weary servants of God. Jesus freely gives us the wedding-dress of salvation.

Kevin White