Hymn of the Month, October 2018
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Last month’s hymn, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds,” came from the pen of John Newton, the former slave ship captain known best for his hymn “Amazing Grace.” This month we focus our attention on a hymn by his friend and collaborator, William Cowper. Cowper contributed 68 hymns to their Olney Hymns, and this month’s hymn—“God Moves in a Mysterious Way”—was one of them.
William Cowper (his last name rhymes with “super”) lived a life tormented by profound grief, trauma, and depression. Six years after his birth in England in 1731, his mother died. Though he eventually excelled in school academically and athletically, he was “profoundly wretched” at his first school. He fell deeply in love with a young lady, but her father broke off the relationship. As time went on, the episodes of depression that had begun in childhood grew darker and more frequent, especially when his own father died. That said, those depressive episodes were nothing like what followed his nomination to be Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. Being examined for that post filled him with such dread and despondency that he became completely unhinged. He suffered a panic attack during the interview and tried three times to commit suicide. Under the care of a wise Christian physician, however, that depressive episode passed, but only for a time, and not entirely. For the rest of his life Cowper relied heavily upon friends, including John Newton. Cowper depended on them to provide for his needs and to help him, especially during subsequent episodes of depression. The deaths of his brother and a dear friend hit him particularly hard in later years.
Through all his suffering, Cowper also matured in faith. With Newton’s encouragement, Cowper gave voice to his growing trust in Jesus through hymns such as “There Is a Fountain,” “O for a Closer Walk with God,” and this month’s hymn, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” These hymns and still others express a believer’s hope in the character and deeds of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
By most accounts, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was the final hymn Cowper ever wrote. He entered his final depressive episode shortly after writing it, and reportedly never escaped. He died from dropsy on April 25, 1800.
That noted, darkness should not get the last word in the story of Cowper’s life. This opening verse from one of his hymns makes for a better end:
The saints should never be dismayed,
Nor sink in hopeless fear;
For when they least expect his aid,
The Saviour will appear.
Since its publication in Olney Hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” has been paired with a variety of tunes, most commonly the tune used in our Trinity Hymnal. The tune’s melody was first published in a 1615 edition of the Scottish Psalter. The English musician Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1582-1635) composed the harmony. This solemn, yet encouraging tune is well suited for the weighty, yet hopeful content of the hymn, allowing both believers who are hurting and believers who are cheerful to sing together with all their hearts.
“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” is a song of hope intended especially for those in the midst of trials. Newton and Cowper organized their Olney Hymns in three parts: first, hymns on select texts of Scripture, such as last month’s “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds”; second, hymns on occasional subjects, such as Newton’s “Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!”; and third, hymns on the progress and changes of the spiritual life. “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” was included in that final part, the first of more than two dozen hymns on the topic of conflict and trials in the Christian life. As already noted, Cowper was well-acquainted with some of those conflicts and trials, and he seems to have written this hymn—the last he ever wrote—to encourage himself and his fellow believers to trust God for his grace. In fact, in Olney Hymns this hymn bears the title “Light shining out of Darkness.”
God moves in a mysterious way
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
This month’s hymn starts with a profound declaration that summarizes well the message of the first two verses: God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform. What does that mean? It means that God, the God “who alone does great wonders” (Ps 136:4), works in ways we sometimes cannot comprehend at all. Even the understanding we do have is limited. God made that clear in his response to Job in Job 38-41. For instance, in Job 38:33 we hear God ask, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth?” Mere humans can neither perform the wonders God does, nor fully understand them. Isaiah 55:9: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” That, however, is not to suggest that we can truly know nothing. God has revealed many things to us through the Old Testament prophets and later his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As Moses declared in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
The second half of this verse expands on the declaration of the first half. Borrowing a pair of images from the book of Psalms, Cowper leads us in acknowledging poetically what we’ve already sung. The God whom we worship plants his footsteps in the sea (Ps 77:19: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.”) and rides upon the storm (Ps 104:3: “He makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind….”). Who of us can thus presume to understand all he does?
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
In this second verse we continue to draw upon the testimony of passages such as the ones quoted above. Here we sing of God treasuring up his bright designs deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill and accomplishing his sovereign will accordingly. By these words we acknowledge God’s wisdom, in an echo of Romans 11:32-33: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” God’s deeds are wise—profoundly wise—and he further carries out each of them with an authority and power that is without parallel. As Psalm 47:8 proclaims, “God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.”
Do you know this God? Is this what you believe concerning him? Your confidence and peace in this world hang on your answer, as the following verses will demonstrate.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Having acknowledged that God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform, and that he does so with unparalleled wisdom and authority, we go on now to call ourselves and one another to take fresh courage. No question about it, even the most optimistic of us can always see at least a few dark clouds on the horizon, poetically speaking. In this third verse we remind ourselves and one another that we may live in hope and even “laugh at the time to come” (Prov 31:25) because our God reigns over those clouds we so much dread. He reigns over them, and will make them break in blessings on our heads. Is that to suggest those blessings will always and immediately feel like blessings? No, as William Cowper would be the first to admit. Yet as Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God deals bountifully with his people (Ps 65:11), and that truth alone can sustain our hope and confidence when we see dark clouds all around, and even moreso when those clouds begin to break.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
Given that God’s blessings do not always and immediately feel like blessings, Cowper leads us in pleading with ourselves and one another not to judge the Lord by feeble sense. In Isaiah 55:8 the LORD reminds us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.” As difficult as it sometimes is, we must not judge him by feeble sense, but instead trust him for his grace. Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face, as Romans 8:31-39 powerfully conveys. In fact, that passage from Romans actually makes Cowper’s word choice here seem a bit weak. To say that God’s face is smiling seems like an understatement. Romans 8 famously concludes, “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Do you trust the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ even in difficult times? Will you, as opposed to judging him by feeble sense?
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding ev'ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flow'r.
In this fourth verse of this month’s hymn we continue to encourage ourselves and one another to trust in God when his mysterious ways are not only befuddling to us, but even bitter.
The simple truth is that some of his unfolding purposes are—no doubt about it--bitter in the bud, as Cowper could attest. Naomi, the Old Testament saint, could too. In Ruth 1:20 we hear her tell the women of Bethlehem, “Do not call me Naomi; call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me. I went away full, and the LORD has brought me back empty.” By the end of the book of Ruth, however, we hear the women of Bethlehem singing God’s praises over her: “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer, and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age, for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has given birth to him” (Ruth 4:14-15). God’s purpose truly had a bitter taste, but sweet was the flower.
That’s equally true for those who die with the bitter taste of God’s purposes in their mouths, as Cowper did. According to Revelation 21:4, in the new heavens and the new earth, “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.
In this closing verse Cowper leads us in acknowledging the limitations of mere human reason, especially blind unbelief. Human reason apart from trust in God through Jesus Christ his Son is sure to err or go astray.
In fact, even believers have a difficult enough time making sense of God’s work! Cowper’s original has a footnote on the first line of this verse, a reference to John 13:7. In that verse we hear Jesus tell Peter, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Only later did Peter understand why Jesus insisted not only upon washing his feet, but also and even more importantly upon dying on the cross. And why was that? Why did he understand? Because God made it plain.
The sufferings of Joseph, first at the hands of his brothers and then at the hands of strangers in Egypt, serve as another example of that. Years later Joseph understood, explaining to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20).
Are you willing to wait for God to make the wherefores and whys of his mysterious ways plain to you? Will you humbly let God be his own interpreter? That’s as important to do as it is difficult for us proud, curious, and sometimes quite anxious people. Will you trust him for his grace in Jesus Christ his Son?
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?