Hymn of the Month, September 2018
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
This month’s hymn, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” came from the same pen as the hymn “Amazing Grace!” John Newton published them and others in 1779 in a collection titled Olney Hymns, named after the village in England where Newton served as pastor. Most of the hymns in the collection came from Newton—more than 200 of them. His friend William Cowper contributed the remaining 68.
Born in London on July 24, 1725, into the family of a naval commander, Newton spent his early years primarily in the care of his mother. In his autobiography titled Out of the Depths, he describes both parents as godly, but his mother was the one who mainly shepherded his young soul with Scripture and calls to trust in God. She also began teaching him Latin in order to prepare him to become a minister. She died, however, when Newton was seven. Newton’s life would never be the same. Newton would be well cared for physically, but spiritually left to drift.
And drift he did. Before long Newton joined his father at sea, but in faith and godliness the two of them couldn’t have been more different. The basic details of the rest of Newton’s life are well-known. He sank into ever-greater godlessness and at the age of 23 assumed command of a slave ship. Over the course of the six years of his command, however, God did a mighty work in his heart. Newton finally quit the slave trade, spent the next nine years learning and serving among believers, including George Whitefield and the Wesleys, and in 1764 was ordained to serve as a pastor in the village of Olney. His best works, including Olney Hymns, were written there. In 1780 he received a call to serve in London, and died there years later, on December 21, 1807.
“How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” is accompanied in the Trinity Hymnal by a tune composed by Alexander Robert Reinagle (1799-1877). An organist by training and by career, he composed many psalm and hymn tunes, but few remain in use today. This tune, named St. Peterafter the London church he served for more than 30 years, is by far his popular composition.
As observant singers will have noticed, each of the psalms and hymns in the Trinity Hymnal has a verse from the Bible printed immediately under the title. That verse in some way relates to or summarizes the message of the hymn. The verse published under the title of this month’s hymn was chosen by John Newton himself. The first section of his Olney Hymns consists of Scripture songs meditating on particular verses or passages from the Bible, and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” was included as a reflection upon Song of Songs 1:3: “Your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out.” Through this hymn Newton leads us both in contemplating the beautiful greatness of the name of Jesus and in tell that directly to Jesus.
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
in a believer's ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
and drives away his fear.
This month’s hymn starts with a simple declaration echoing the words of Song of Songs 1:3, quoted above. The name of Jesus sounds sweet in a believer’s ear! Why is that? Is it sweet because of the way it sounds? No, it is sweet because of the character and deeds of the person to whom it points, namely the Son of God who died on the cross to reconcile us to God and rose from the dead to shepherd us for our good and his Father’s glory. In that light, it is no surprise that his name soothesa believer’s sorrows and heals her or her wounds (Ps 147:3). And how could his name not also drive away a believer’s fear (Rom 10:13)?
Is that true of you? Is the name of Jesus sweet to you because of the real person to whom it points? Or is little more just another word to you?
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
and calms the troubled breast;
'tis manna to the hungry soul,
and to the weary rest.
In this verse we continue to list reasons why the name of Jesus is sweet to believers. It transforms a believer, making the wounded spirit whole, gloriously whole (2 Cor 3:18). It calms the troubled (John 14:27). It is manna to the hungry soul, a reference to God’s provision of food in the wilderness, which Jesus explained pointed forward to him (John 6:31-33). Last of all, it is rest to the weary (Matt 11:28). That is not because of some magical power in the name “Jesus,” but because of the one who bears it. In that sense, the name of Jesus is sweet to a believer in the same way the name of a person is sweet to his or her family member or close friend. Would you say that’s true of the name of Jesus in your heart and life?
Dear Name! the rock on which I build,
my shield and hiding place,
my never-failing treas'ry filled
with boundless stores of grace;
This third verse turns from singing about the name of Jesus to singing directly to the one who bears that name. He is the rock on which we who trust in him build (Matt 7:24). It is the privilege of each of us who trust in him also to call him my shield and hiding place (Ps 119:114). Indeed, taking his words in 2 Corinthians 12:9 to heart (“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”), each of us can call upon him as my never-failing treasury filled with boundless stores of grace.” Such are the names of our Lord and Savior, but they are far from the only names we can name, as we demonstrated as we carry on in the next verse--
Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
my Prophet, Priest, and King,
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
accept the praise I bring.
This is the fourth verse in the Trinity Hymnal, but not in John Newton’s original hymn. Like many other hymnals, the Trinity Hymnal omits Newton’s original fourth verse, but it is no less rich and edifying than the rest. Coming on the heels of our testimony that Jesus is a believer’s never-failing treasury filled with boundless stores of grace, Newton wrote:
By thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled,
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
That verse, built so solidly on verses such as Hebrews 7:25 and Revelation 12:10, was not included in the Trinity Hymnal. That noted, it’s not as if its omission leaves us with any uncertainly about the glorious sweetness of the name of Jesus, especially in the light of the list of Jesus’ names in our fourth verse. In a sense, all we do in this fourth verse is call Jesus names, reveling in each one as we do! These names are titles of our Savior, all of which come directly from the Bible. We who trust in him rejoice to call him my Shepherd (John 10:11), Brother (Heb 2:11), Friend (John 15:13-14), Prophet (Acts 3:22), Priest (Heb 4:14), King (Rev 17:14), Lord (Acts 2:36), Life and Way (John 14:6), and End (Rev. 21:6). We then finish the verse with a simple plea to him to accept the praise I bring (Ps 19:14). Is this your prayer? Is this list of names a mere list to you, or an expression of the praise of your heart?
Weak is the effort of my heart,
and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see thee as thou art,
I'll praise thee as I ought.
Immediately following our plea to Jesus to accept the praise I bring, we go on here to acknowledge that we do not currently praise him as we ought. We would do so, but weak is the effort of our hearts (Rom 7:22-23). By God’s grace, however, we one day will, and we look forward to it. 1 John 3:2: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appearswe shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”
Till then I would thy love proclaim
with every fleeting breath;
and may the music of thy name
refresh my soul in death.
Even though here on earth the effort of our hearts is weakand our warmest thoughts are cold, we yet strive to proclaim our Savior’s love and to sing the music of his name. Indeed, we look forward to doing so even in death.
Do you? Is praising Jesus a priority to you, in every area of your life? Or is it something of a dreadfully boring burden?
How will you strive to grow in love for the name of Jesus, as opposed to letting your heart cold?