Palm Sunday & Songs behind the Hymns

Palm Sunday & Songs behind the Hymns

Palm Sunday & Songs behind the Hymns

Contains Kevin’s Palm Sunday mini-sermon and Phil’s two mini-sermon “Story behind the Hymns” … When I survey the Wondrous Cross and Thine be the Glory. Enjoy!

Isaac Watts wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” in preparation for a communion service in 1707. Originally, the hymn was named “Crucifixion to the World by the Cross of Christ,” following the practice of the day to summarize a hymn’s theme in the title.  

Isaac Watts, the author, was born at Southampton, England, on July 17, 1764.   Watts was the first son of a family of the Dissenting tradition. English Dissenters opposed state interference in religious matters, and founded their own churches, educational establishments and communities.  Isaac Watts was trained in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and was offered the opportunity to become an Anglican priest, he chose to pastor a Dissenting congregation.  He preached his first sermon when he was twenty-four years of age.

Besides his preaching, Watts also was a distinguished writer, but it was his hymn writing that he was most known for.  The story goes that at the age of eighteen Watts was one day ridiculing some of the poor hymns then sung in the churches, when his father said to him, sarcastically, “Make some yourself, then.”  So he did.  Watts wrote around 600-700 hymns and was one of the main drivers moving hymns from the psalmody (words based off a Psalm) to a more theologically based hymnody.  

He explained that “hymns should echo the theme of the sermon not just be supplements to the Psalms; that hymns should be freely composed and give straightforward expression to the thoughts and feelings of the singers and not merely recall events of the distant past.”

He also wrote texts to fit the most common psalm meters, allowing them to be sung by any congregation to a variety of tunes in such a way that each line contained a complete thought.   This was important since the hymns, like the metrical psalms before them, were lined out by a song leader. The leader would sing a phrase and then the congregation would echo back what had been sung.   You can see this coming through in When I Survey.

When I survey the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of Glory died,

My richest Gain I count but Loss,

And pour Contempt on all my Pride.

The hymn was loosely based around Galatians chapter 6.  In Galatians 6:4, Paul ponders what a person can have pride in?  Pride is not always bad, but it can be especially if it related to comparing yourself to others “I am so much better than them”.  Ultimately Paul says in verse 14 that he never boasts in anything except the cross of Jesus.  This is the verse that Isaac Watts picks up on in his famous hymn.  First line of the second verse…

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,

Save in the death of Christ my God!

All the vain things that charm me most,

I sacrifice them to His blood.

This is a wonderful intertwining of Galatians 6 with the theology of the cross. 

The third verse (and the often unsung 4th verse) of the song is a literal expression of the songs title.  Watts surveys the cross of Jesus and writes about what he sees and feels:

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

And the fourth verse that is not often sung:

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

The last two lines of that verse is almost word for word the second half of Galatians 6:14. 

As we come to the last verse, I have one last piece of trivia for you about the hymn … When I Survey the wondrous cross is the first known hymn to be written in the first person.  “When I survey”.  Not when we survey, or even “The cross is wondrous” – the whole hymn is written in the first person.  Watts is forcing us to consider the cross from a very personal point of view.  The cross is personal.  For Watts, considering the cross is a personal religious experience.  And this is summed up in the final verse.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Did you find that helpful?  Would you like to sing the song?

SermonThe story behind the Hymn “Thine be the Glory”

I grew up in the church and it is interesting looking back to when I was very young what memories stick out from my church experience.  I remember mum squeezing my leg as we sat on the pew if I was getting to noisy or restless.  I remember passing along the offering plate and wondering if we were allow to take money from it if we needed it.

And I have this memory of singing Thine be the Glory at Easter time, especially the bit when you slow down the tempo before you sing the last chorus.  I don’t know why I remember it, but thine be the Glory is one of these hymns that is part of my childhood, part of the early seeds of faith that was sown into me. 

In this series we have been looking at the story behind the hymn – and we learnt the amazing story of When I survey the wondrous cross.  Would you like to hear the story behind the hymn – “Thine be the Glory”?

Thine be the Glory was written in 1884 by Edmond Budry and initially it was not a well-known hymn at all.  It took about 50 years for the hymn to become one of the best known and loved hymns ever.  Why is this?

Well the original title for Thine be the Glory was “A toi la gloire” – which is French.  You see. Edmond Budry was a French-speaking Swiss evangelical pastor from the north shore of Lake Geneva. And while he was a skilled linguist and was asked to translate a number of German or English hymns into French, he really was a humble church pastor who worked in local churches.  He was not in the right circles for his work to be known around the world!  And note that I said he was a skilled linguist, not necessarily a skilled musician and songwriter.  Edmond Budry had a special gift of being able to “borrow” other people’s work and adapt it to his own context, sometimes making it even better than the original.  (I love this about Edmond Budry because if I am honest, I am a bit like this too.  I love “borrowing” other people’s great ideas and adding my own touches to them).

So when people approached Budry to translate a hymn from say German to French, he would not only do a translation, but also reshape some of the phrases to make them flow better or rhyme better or sometimes even add extra ideas or theological points to the song that went originally there – and ending up with a new hymn that is similar to the original but different – and some people would argue better.

And this is where Thine be the Glory was born.  Budry was listening to a piece of music by George Frederick Handel based on the life of Joshua and then adapted into the tune now known as Judas Maccabaeus or just Maccabaeus.    This tune was well known and contained a powerful line in the chorus that said “See, the conquering hero comes”, talking about Maccabaeus.  Budry was listening to this song and his thoughts was turned to the resurrection of Jesus, the way that Jesus triumphed or conquered the grave.  And you can almost imagine what Budry’s brain was doing … instead of thinking about the Old Testament hero Maccabaeus, he was already rewriting the words to this well known chorus to be

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son;
endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.

We will come back to the theology in a moment, but to finish the story, Budry wrote the song for his local church and while it was picked up in some French hymnbooks, it sort of just stayed a local song for another 30 years until Richard Birch Hoyle was commissioned to translate the hymn from French into English in 1923.  Now, remember when I said that Budry used to “value add” to any of the hymns that he translated adding some of his own thoughts and ideas to make the hymn better?  The irony is that Richard Hoyle did the exact same thing when translating “A toi la gloire” into “Thine be the Glory”.  Hoyle strengthen the references to the Easter Story (such as the folded grave-clothes and the 1 Corinthians line “death has lost its sting”) and also added the bits about doubt “no more we doubt thee”. 

Once it was in English, with the popular tune Maccabeus behind it, it spread quickly to churches all around the world, with its place as a classic hymn cemented in 1933 when it was included in the Methodist Hymn Book.

But I think that the real reason this hymn is so well loved and well known is that it captures as aspect of resurrection theology so well – the idea that the resurrection of Jesus has conquered the power of death.  This strong theological statement comes in the very first refrain…

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son;
endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.

In our reading today, the apostle Paul reminds us all of this great news, that “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…”

But Paul goes on to stress the importance of this good news.  You see, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then … we don’t have the hope of a resurrection to eternal life either.  If Christ did not rise from the dead then our preaching is useless and so is our faith.

But, Paul says, But … Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  In other word, Yes – Jesus was raised and so will we!!!

That is why Paul can say that Death has been defeated, death has lost its sting.  The victory is victory over death and the prize is eternal life … and it all is done through the resurrection of Jesus. 

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son;
endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.

Budry and Hoyle then use the rest of the hymn to explore the Biblical story of the resurrection and how the resurrection impacts us:. 

  • The angels who rolled away the stone from the empty grave, left the grave clothes because they are of no use to a man who is alive.
  • Proof of the resurrection is shown in the way that the risen Jesus meets and transforms people.  The women in the garden, the disciples in the room, their fear and gloom are transformed with the truth that Jesus is alive!
  • Even Thomas – Thomas who is struggling with doubt and asking hard questions – stops doubting and believes

All of this is captured in the three verses of the hymn.  But both Budry and Hoyle add an extra profound twist.

They could have wrote the hymn from the perspectives of the Biblical characters … referring to the women and the disciples

  • Lo Jesus meets them, risen from the tomb
  • Lovingly he greeted them, scattering fear and gloom

Or referring to Thomas

  • No more he doubted ,

But they didn’t write the hymn that way.  They included us in the hymn…

  • Lo Jesus meets US, risen from the tomb
  • Lovingly he greeted US, scattering fear and gloom
  • No more WE doubt thee

We are part of the Easter Story.  We are included in the resurrection.  We are called to be join in this victory song over death.  And to make sure that we understand that, they included the line:

let the church with gladness hymns of triumph sing,
for the Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.

This endless victory might have started on Easter morning but it still rings throughout history.  We are part of this story and this song and we are called to continue to proclaim …

Thine be the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son;
endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.

Did you find that helpful?  Would you like to sing the song?