Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune: A Debtor to Mercy Alone

One of my pet peeves as a pastor is finding the perfect words for a song of application after the sermon and the tune is terrible. As I am preaching on Philippians 1:6 this Sunday, I once again came across this problem. I just discovered the hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” and I love the words. They are so comforting and uplifting, but the tune seems so dark and sorrowful. In my opinion the tune would have been better suited to a hymn/psalm of lament or contrition.

There are at least two reasons why it is a bummer when good words are set to poor music. One reason is that the psalm/hymn might not ever be used in worship and God’s people will miss out on some of the rich words of our psalms and hymns. This is why I have highlighted one of these hymns below.

A second reason, which I want to focus on, is that if the song is used in worship, the music can create a sort of barrier to the words being sung. Having just preached on the 3rd commandment I can’t help but think that this in some way aids people in taking the Lord’s name in vain. It causes them to be emotionally detached from praising God’s name. This doesn’t excuse the worshipers who are detached, it just means that they have to work harder to focus on what they are singing. And it makes it hard to exhort people to heartfelt worship when the musicality of a psalm/hymn is conflicting with the words in some way.

The music should reinforce the words being sung and press them home to the heart of the worshiper. I liken this to a preacher whose sermon content might be great but his delivery style makes the sermon hard to listen to (I’m sure I am guilty of this at times). Perhaps he always shouts and emphasizes everything or perhaps he is too quiet and doesn’t seem moved at all by what he is saying.  Or perhaps he is too fast or too slow. Either way, there should be a connection between the pitch, the volume, the speed, even the facial expressions and body language of the preacher and his sermon content. When it comes to “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” we too need tunes that reinforce the words that we are singing so that our hearts and minds will sink deep into the truth of God’s Word and our faith will grow. We will not only be aided in worshiping God with all of our heart and mind, we will also have an easier time memorizing the words that we are singing and hiding God’s word in our heart.

That said, I do believe that there are many psalms and hymns set to great tunes in our various songbooks, but I am looking forward to improvement from the work of at least two Psalter Hymnal Committees that I am aware of (both in the URCNA and OPC). I hope that we will find great musicality in these songbooks that really support the words we are singing. In the meantime I’d like to highlight a great hymn, not so great tune:

A Debtor to Mercy Alone

by Augustus Toplady

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now, nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo, or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands eternity will not erase;
Impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in Heav’n.

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11 thoughts on “Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune: A Debtor to Mercy Alone

  1. I hear you on poor choices of music. This is a good post. Two things I think I can add for discussion.

    First, minor keys need not mean sad moods. Minor keys can create all kinds of moods – in the case of this hymn, I’m struck that it sets us in great awe of God’s mercy in Christ. It could be put in a major key or more “optimistic” mode, but there is a mood created by this particular tune.

    Second, it isn’t too bad to reset a hymn. While it isn’t ideal, sometimes you don’t even have to change the music at all. Check at the bottom or top of the page for a number. For this hymn, I assume it is something like: 8.8.8.8.8.8.8.8 or 16.16.16.16. Next step is to find the metrical tune index and find another song that matches. If one of those tunes matches, then have the pianist or organist play that tune for these words.

    Anyway, thought I’d toss that out. You’re probably familiar with this (from your music background at Moody), but I thought it might help other readers too.

  2. Good thoughts Andrew. I guess when I first looked at this hymn I was more focused on the second and third verse. Personally I think that the tune matches the first verse fairly well. But I was mainly focused on the second and third verse as I am preaching on Phil. 1:6 this Sunday.

    I also am not against minor keys. I think they are appropriate for songs of lament and contrition and as you suggest for creating a sense of awe at God’s mercy as in the first verse of this song. This is one of the challenges of composing music for psalms and hymns, namely creating a mood that works for all of the verses. I don’t envy the musicians who face this and other difficult challenges when it comes to composing tunes for our songbooks!

    I do know about the metrical index and every once in a while I will switch the tune. But I rarely do this, because sometimes it leaves people out who don’t know the “familiar tune” that we are singing. But it is something worth noting.

    So your points are well taken, I mainly wanted to highlight the importance of musicality and the words of this beautiful hymn.

    • Cool cool – sorry for the slow reply.

      Yeah, good call with not switching the tune much. Pam has always spoken against doing that since it really isn’t much better than just putting words on a screen or handout without music.

      Someday, (when I’ve got free time!) I could probably reset those words to a different tune in sibelius or something. Then just E-mail it over to anyone who wishes to use it. Let me know if you have any tune suggestions!

      And yes to your comment on the importance of musicality matching the text. I suppose even if my response to the tune of this particular hymn differs from yours, we can TOTALLY agree on the importance of these two things coming together in a meaningful way.

      This was a very good post! (Just wanted to make that clear!!)

      • I think I may like the tune better if I heard it actually played well on a piano. I have only listened to the midi file on the cyberhymnal web-site and usually midi files don’t do a tune justice.

        Musicality became something of a fascination for me when I sang in the men’s choir at Moody Bible Institute. In some of the songs that we sang I noticed that some composers wrote some of the most appropriate music for the words that we were singing. That combined with a good conductor teaching us how to sing the music with the proper musical expression made it all the words all the more powerful. I love it when tunes fit the words and are played in such a way that it really reinforces the truth. Some might say that I am idolizing music, but that is the opposite of my point. My ultimate desire is that the music composition along with the performance of the accompanist reinforce the truth and not distract from it, so that when people leave the service they are in awe of our Triune God (not the music!) and want to live lives of gratitude for his grace. I am happy to sing a capella or with simply a piano or a guitar as long as the music reinforces the words in such a way.

        BTW, it might interest you to know that our Classis elected a man that we nominated from our church to the URCNA Psalter Hymnal committee. He is now an Elder in our church and is a music professor at Briercrest College and Seminary in Caronport, SK. Here is his bio: http://tinyurl.com/47mhjml. In light of this post, I am glad that we’ll have a professionally trained musician on the committee.

  3. Hey Brian,

    I think Haeck and Recio have a tune for this hymn that is both reverent and appropriate. Does that sound right to you?

    I hope things are going well up North!

  4. Pingback: Great Hymn, Great Tune: How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place « Wrath to Riches

  5. have you heard of the tune Denmark? an old lady at our chapel used to play this tune to that hymn but has lost the music sheet

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