Historical Background for the Hymn: “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”

One of my favorite lines in a hymn is this: “O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be.”

It comes from the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go”. I recently learned the historical background to the hymn and thought I would share it here.

O Love That Will Not Let Me Go

1. O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

2. O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

3. O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

4. O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

History of Hymn
“O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” written on the evening of Matheson’s sister’s marriage. His whole family had went to the wedding and had left him alone. And he writes of something which had happened to him that caused immense mental anguish. There is a story of how years before, he had been engaged until his fiancé learned that he was going blind, and there was nothing the doctors could do, and she told him that she could not go through life with a blind man. He went blind while studying for the ministry, and his sister had been the one who had taken care of him all these years, but now she is gone. He had been a brilliant student, some say that if he hadn’t went blind he could have been the leader of the church of Scotland in his day. He had written a learned work on German theology and then wrote “The Growth of The Spirit of Christianity.” Louis Benson says this was a brilliant book but with some major mistakes in it. When some critics pointed out the mistakes and charged him with being an inaccurate student he was heartbroken. One of his friends wrote, “When he saw that for the purposes of scholarship his blindness was a fatal hindrance, he withdrew from the field – not without pangs, but finally.” So he turned to the pastoral ministry, and the Lord has richly blessed him, finally bringing him to a church where he regularly preached to over 1500 people each week. But he was only able to do this because of the care of his sister and now she was married and gone. Who will care for him, a blind man? Not only that, but his sister’s marriage brought fresh reminder of his own heartbreak, over his fiancé’s refusal to “go through life with a blind man.” It is the midst of this circumstance and intense sadness that the Lord gives him this hymn – written he says in 5 minutes! Looking back over his life, he once wrote that his was “an obstructed life, a circumscribed life… but a life of quenchless hopefulness, a life which has beaten persistently against the cage of circumstance, and which even at the time of abandoned work has said not “Good night” but “Good morning.” How could he maintain quenchless hopefulness in the midst of such circumstances and trials? His hymn gives us a clue. “I trace the rainbow in the rain, and feel the promise is not vain” The rainbow image is not for him “If the Lord gives you lemons make lemonade” but a picture of the Lord’s commitment! It is a picture of the battle bow that appears when the skies are darkening and threaten to open up and flood the world again in judgment. But then we see that the battle bow is turned not towards us – but toward the Lord Himself!

Here is a contemporary version of the hymn by Indelible Gracehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS3o_160OhE

“Jesus, My Great High Priest”

Here’s a great hymn text written in 1709 by Isaac Watts (Tune: Bevan)

Jesus, my great High Priest,
Offered his blood and died;
My guilty conscience seeks
No sacrifice beside.
His pow’rful blood did once atone,
And now it pleads before the Throne.

To this dear Surety’s hand
Will I commit my cause;
He answers and fulfills
His Father’s broken laws.
Behold my soul at freedom set;
My Surety paid the dreadful debt.

My Advocate appears
For my defense on high;
The Father bows his ears
And lays his thunder by.
Not all that hell or sin can say
Shall turn his heart, his love, away.

Should all the hosts of death
And pow’rs of hell unknown
Put their most dreadful forms
Of rage and mischief on,
I shall be safe, for Christ displays
His conqu’ring pow’r and guardian grace.

“Jesus, I Come”

Here is a hymn I have been enjoying singing and meditating on lately. It’s a great preparatory hymn for the Lord’s Day:

“Jesus, I Come” (aka “Out of my Bondage, Sorrow and Night”)

‎”Out of my bondage, sorrow and night,
Jesus, I come; Jesus I come.
Into Thy freedom, gladness and light,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of my sickness into Thy health,
Out of my wanting and into Thy wealth,
Out of my sin and into Thyself,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of my shameful failure and loss,
Jesus, I come; Jesus, I come.
Into the glorious gain of Thy cross,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of earth’s sorrows into Thy balm,
Out of life’s storms and into Thy calm,
Out of distress into jubilant psalm,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of unrest and arrogant pride,
Jesus, I come; Jesus, I come.
Into Thy blessed will to abide,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of myself to dwell in Thy love,
Out of despair into raptures above,
Upward forever on wings like a dove,
Jesus, I come to Thee.

Out of the fear and dread of the tomb,
Jesus, I come; Jesus, I come.
Into the joy and light of Thy home,
Jesus, I come to Thee.
Out of the depths of ruin untold,
Into the peace of Thy sheltering fold,
Ever Thy glorious face to behold,
Jesus, I come to Thee.”

I discovered it through Indelible Grace. Here is a sample of their version.

Here is what it sounds like in most hymnals.

Hymn Favorites: “The God of Abraham Praise”

As I prepare to preach on the call of Abram in Genesis 12 this Sunday, I am reminded of one of my favorite hymns: “The God of Abraham Praise.” You can listen to the tune with the lyrics here, or simply read them below:

The God of Abraham praise,
Who reigns enthroned above;
Ancient of everlasting days,
And God of love:
Jehovah! great I AM!
By earth and heav’n confessed;
I bow and bless the sacred name,
For ever blest.

The God of Abraham praise,
At whose supreme command
From earth I rise, and seek the joys
At his right hand:
I all on earth forsake,
Its wisdom, fame, and power;
And him my only portion make,
My Shield and Tower.

He by himself hath sworn,
I on his oath depend;
I shall, on eagle’s wings upborne,
To heav’n ascend:
I shall behold his face,
I shall his power adore,
And sing the wonders of his grace
For evermore.

The goodly land I see,
With peace and plenty blest,
A land of sacred liberty
And endless rest;
There milk and honey flow,
And oil and wine abound,
And trees of life for ever grow,
With mercy crowned.

There dwells the Lord our King,
The Lord our righteousness;
Triumphant over the world and sin,
The Prince of Peace
On Zion’s sacred height
His kingdom still maintains,
And glorious with his saints in light
For ever reigns.

The whole triumphant host
Give thanks to God on high;
Hail Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
They ever cry:
Hail Abraham’s God and mine!
I join the heavenly lays
All might and majesty are thine,
And endless praise.

Great Hymn, Great Tune: How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

Last week I featured a “Great Hymn, Not So Great Tune.”  This week I want to feature a “Great Hymn, Great Tune.”  I have discovered several gems in the Trinity Hymnal this year and one of my favorites of these gems is “How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place.” Not only do I love the words, I believe that the tune is great as well. It really does reinforce the words that we are singing. The tune has a sense of awe and wonder and evokes a sense of God’s faithfulness and mercy to an undeserving people. The midi file here doesn’t do the tune justice, but here are the words for you to meditate on:

How Sweet and Awesome is the Place

How sweet and awesome is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

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.