Hymn of the Month, February 2016
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “At the Name of Jesus.”
The words of this month’s hymn come from a collection of devotional poetry written by Caroline Noel (1817-1877). Noel, the daughter of an English pastor, “began to write poetry in her late teens but then abandoned it until she was in her forties. During those years she suffered frequent bouts of illness and eventually became an invalid. To encourage both herself and others who were ill or incapacitated, Noel began to write devotional verse again.” Some of her poems, including “At the Name of Jesus," were collected and published in a book titled The Name of Jesus and Other Verses for the Sick and Lonely. A few of these were set to music, but today Caroline Noel is known almost exclusively for “At the Name of Jesus.”
“At the Name of Jesus” was sung to many different tunes early on. After a few decades, however, the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) took it upon himself to compose a new tune specifically for it. His hymn-anthem was first published in 1925, and over time has become the most popular tune for this hymn. This tune, with its combination of festive soaring and longing tone, matches well the testimony of Scripture expressed in this hymn. As such, it is no surprise to see this tune employed in the Trinity Hymnal.
Unlike Caroline Noel, Ralph Vaughan Williams (whose name is pronounced “Rayf Vawn Williams,” however odd that seems to our non-British minds) is known for more than just “At the Name of Jesus.” Vaughn Williams was a talented and prolific composer of both instrumental and choral music, including an oratorio called Sancta Civitas (“The Holy City”), based on texts from the book of Revelation. He also composed other hymn tunes, such as the much-loved, hope-filled tune of “For All the Saints.”
Sources: Psalter Hymnal Handbook, Wordwisehymns.com, and Wikipedia.com.
As the title indicates, “At the Name of Jesus” is a song about Jesus. In it we sing of the majesty and glory of Jesus, praising him for who he is, and calling ourselves to live accordingly here and now, especially in the midst of life’s trials and temptations.
At the name of Jesus ev'ry knee shall bow,
ev'ry tongue confess him King of Glory now.
'Tis the Father's pleasure we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning was the mighty Word.
We begin our song by taking upon our lips the glorious testimony of Philippians 2:9-11: “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Though we sometimes feel helpless and hopeless, the fact of the matter is that our Savior is Lord, as we and all people will one day see with undeniable clarity. Jesus--the mighty Word who was with God from the beginning according to John 1—is the King of Glory, and it’s the Father’s pleasure that we acknowledge that today by looking to Jesus and honoring him as our Lord. Thus, we begin our song doing precisely that, affirming the testimony of God’s Word concerning Jesus Christ.
At his voice creation sprang at once to sight,
all the angel faces, all the hosts of light,
thrones and dominations, stars upon their way,
all the heav'nly orders in their great array.
Here we develop further the closing idea of verse 1, much as the apostle John did in John 1:1-3. Jesus was not merely with God from the beginning; the apostle John goes on to testify, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” That’s what we are singing about here. We are praising Jesus because “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15). Jesus is truly Lord of all!
Humbled for a season to receive a name
from the lips of sinners unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious, when from death he passed.
This third verse leads us in expressing one of the wonders of our faith, namely that Son of God humbled himself even to the point of death on a Roman cross in order to save sinners. Following the lead of Philippians 2, we praise Jesus for faithfully living the life we never could and dying the death we deserved in order to reconcile us to God, or to put it more simply, to save us. The name Jesus literally means “he saves,” and in this third verse we praise our Savior for bearing that name faithfully to the last, and later bringing it back victorious, when from death he passed. The Son of God bore the name Jesus, and he bears it still!
In your hearts enthrone him; there let him subdue
all that is not holy, all that is not true:
crown him as your Captain in temptation's hour:
let his will enfold you in its light and pow'r.
Here in verse 4 the spotlight turns and focuses upon us. Given who Jesus is, we remind ourselves of the call of his gospel. Caroline Noel, the hymnwriter, leads us in doing so by summarizing in her own words the various calls in the New Testament to honor and serve Jesus Christ. For instance, the apostle Peter exhorts his readers in 1 Peter 3:15, “in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy,” meaning to fear him above all others, to acknowledge his lordship. In that light, Caroline Noel rightly leads us to exhort ourselves and each other to enthrone him in our hearts and to crown him as our Captain in temptation’s hour.
Listen to this call as you sing this verse. Whether you have long believed in Jesus Christ or have yet to do so, this call of the gospel is for each of us, all throughout our lives.
Brothers, this Lord Jesus shall return again,
with his Father's glory, with his angel train;
for all wreaths of empire meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him King of glory now.
Moments after Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels appeared to the disciples and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). We wrap up our song by reminding ourselves and each other (male and female) of that glorious hope. Our Lord Jesus shall return again, and with glory that we can scarcely imagine! Why will he be that glorious? Because all the wreaths of empire meet upon his brow, meaning he is King, mighty and victorious. Thus our hearts confess him King of glory now. Does yours?