Hymn of the Month, June 2019
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
For the third month in a row our hymn of the month comes from the pen of Charles Wesley (1707-1788), one of the greatest hymn-writers of all time (both in quality and quantity). “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” was born out of a comment Peter Böhler (1712-1775) made to him. Böhler, a Moravian missionary/professor, had told him, “Had I had a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ with them all.” Wesley later created a hymn around that idea in celebration of the one-year anniversary of God renewing his faith after a major crisis of faith in his life. The hymn had 18 verses, but the Trinity Hymnal includes only verses 7-12. Here is how Wesley’s hymn originally began:
Glory to God, and praise and love,
Be ever, ever given;
By saints below and saints above,
The Church in earth and heaven.
On this glad day the glorious Sun
Of righteousness arose,
On my benighted soul he shone,
And filled it with repose.
Sudden expired the legal strife;
'Twas then I ceased to grieve.
My second, real, living life,
I then began to live.
Then with my heart I first believed,
Believed with faith divine;
Power with the Holy Ghost received
To call the Saviour mine.
I felt my Lord's atoning blood
Close to my soul applied;
Me, me he loved - the Son of God
For me, for me he died!
I found and owned his promise true,
Ascertained of my part,
My pardon passed in heaven I know,
When written on my heart.
Wesley’s hymn has become closely associated with a tune by a little-known German musician named Carl Glaser (c. 1784-1829). Glaser’s tune was later arranged into its current form by “The Father of American Church Music,” Lowell Mason (1792-1872). Mason, a music teacher, is also known for the tunes of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Nearer My God to Thee,” and “My Faith Looks up to Thee.”
Charles Wesley wrote this month’s hymn as a song of grateful celebration to God, and it most certainly is. Wesley’s hymn leads us in praising Christ Jesus for his character and his deeds and in marveling that we personally are his beneficiaries.
O for a thousand tongues to sing
my great Redeemer's praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace.
We begin with an exclamation of desire that we had a thousand tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise. We would agree with the psalmist that he is “great… and greatly to be praised” (Ps 96:4). Would that we could sing his praise as vigorously as he deserves and as joyously as our own hearts need!
My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim,
to spread through all the earth abroad,
the honors of thy name.
Since each of us obviously does not have a thousand tongues—and since even the tongue we do have is prone to sing divided praise—we immediately go on to ask our gracious master to assist us to proclaim the honors of his name. We are in good company when we pray this. In Psalm 19:14 we hear David pray for similar help, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” For the believer, the recipient of praise and enabler of praise are the same: the triune God of heaven and earth. According to Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Will you ask God to help you do much the same?
Jesus, the name that charms our fears,
that bids our sorrows cease;
'tis music in the sinner's ears,
'tis life and health and peace.
In this third verse we begin to sing of the honors of Jesus’ name. His is the name that charms or controls over our fears, as the apostle Paul demonstrated in the last part of Romans 8. As the one who is anointed by the Spirit “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “liberty to the captives,” “recovering of sight to the blind,” and “liberty” to “those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18), his is the only name that truly bids our sorrows cease. As the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), his name is music in the sinner’s ears. Simply put, his name is life and health and peace (John 10:1-29; Rom 5:1-11). Is it for you? What do your thoughts, words, and actions say?
He breaks the pow'r of reigning sin,
he sets the pris'ner free;
his blood can make the foulest clean,
his blood availed for me.
In this fourth verse we continue to list the honors of Jesus’ name. In particular, we focus on what perhaps comes first to our minds when we think of the person and work of Jesus: his death and resurrection. We start off this verse summarizing the testimony of Colossians 1:13: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son….” We then continue on to celebrate the cleansing power of his blood, echoing Paul’s testimony in 1 Timothy 1:15: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” His blood availed for me—is that your testimony? Is that your hope and joy?
He speaks and, list'ning to his voice,
new life the dead receive;
the mournful, broken hearts rejoice;
the humble poor believe.
The fifth verse picks up where the fourth left off, focusing on Christ’s work of drawing sinners to himself. When he speaks, the dead receive new life. To borrow Jesus’ words in John 3, we are “born again,” and that, as we proclaim in the second half of this verse, makes a great difference in our hearts and lives.
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
your loosen'd tongues employ;
ye blind, behold your Savior come;
and leap, ye lame, for joy.
In view of Christ’s work of drawing sinners to himself, we finish our song by calling all people to hear the voice of Jesus—to come, be healed, and praise him. Hear him! Praise him! Behold his coming! And leap for joy! How will you do so this week?