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THEN SINGS MY SOUL150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories
By Robert J. Morgan
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2003 Robert J. Morgan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Lord Bless You and Keep You
FOURTEENTH CENTURY B.C.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26
The Dead Sea Scrolls were, until recently, our oldest copies of biblical text. But in 1979, Villanova professor, Judith Hadley, was assisting archaeologist, Gabriel Barkay, in excavating a site in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley. In a burial cave, she saw something resembling the metal cap of a pencil. It was a sensational find, a tiny silver scroll of great antiquity. Another was found nearby. These tiny amulets, dating to the Hebrew monarchy seven centuries before Christ, were so small and fragile they took several years to painstakingly clean and open.
When scientists finally unrolled them, they found the world's oldest extant copy of a biblical text, the words of Numbers 6:24-26: The Lord bless you and keep you; The LORD make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
While the amulets date from the seventh century B.C., the original words are far older, coming 1,400 years before Christ. As theIsraelites wandered in the wilderness, the Lord commanded the priests to bless the people with this three-fold blessing.
These ancient lyrics have been set to music many times, but never more beautifully than by Peter Christian Lutkin in his classic tune BENEDICTION. During the Fanny Crosby/Ira Sankey era of gospel music, when so much was written for easy congregational singing, Lutkin wrote more elaborate melodies with a classical flare.
Lutkin was born in Wisconsin in 1888, and devoted his life to church music, studying the masters in Europe, excelling on the organ, and founding the School of Music at Northwestern Illinois. He helped start the American Guild of Organists. He died in 1931 and was buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.
In his Notes from My Bible, D. L. Moody said about the priestly blessing of Numbers 6: "Here is a benediction that can give all the time without being impoverished. Every heart may utter it, every letter may conclude with it, every day may begin with it, every night may be sanctified by it. Here is blessing-keeping-shining-the uplifting upon our poor life of all heaven's glad morning. It is the Lord Himself who (gives us) this bar of music from heaven's infinite anthem."
The Lord bless you and keep you; The Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Be Thou My Vision EIGHTH CENTURY
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19
Only one missionary is honored with a global holiday, and only one is known by his own distinct color of green-St. Patrick, of course, missionary to Ireland.
Patrick was born in A.D. 373, along the banks of the River Clyde in what is now called Scotland. His father was a deacon, and his grandfather a priest. When Patrick was about 16, raiders descended on his little town and torched his home. When one of the pirates spotted him in the bushes, he was seized, hauled aboard ship, and taken to Ireland as a slave. There he gave his life to the Lord Jesus.
"The Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief," he later wrote, "in order that I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God."
Patrick eventually escaped and returned home. His overjoyed family begged him to never leave again. But one night, in a dream reminiscent of Paul's vision of the Macedonian Man in Acts 16, Patrick saw an Irishman pleading with him to come evangelize Ireland.
It wasn't an easy decision, but Patrick, about 30, returned to his former captors with only one book, the Latin Bible, in his hand. As he evangelized the countryside, multitudes came to listen. The superstitious Druids opposed him and sought his death. But his preaching was powerful, and Patrick became one of the most fruitful evangelists of all time, planting about 200 churches and baptizing 100,000 converts.
His work endured, and several centuries later, the Irish church was still producing hymns, prayers, sermons, and songs of worship. In the eighth century, an unknown poet wrote a prayer asking God to be his Vision, his Wisdom, and his Best Thought by day or night.
In 1905, Mary Elizabeth Byrne, a scholar in Dublin, Ireland, translated this ancient Irish poem into English. Another scholar, Eleanor Hull of Manchester, England, took Byrne's translation and crafted it into verses with rhyme and meter. Shortly thereafter it was set to a traditional Irish folk song, "Slane," named for an area in Ireland where Patrick reportedly challenged local Druids with the gospel.
It is one of our oldest and most moving hymns:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, Naught be all else to me save that Thou art. Thou my best thought by day or by night, Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
All Glory, Laud, and Honor
Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey. Zechariah 9:9
The mighty Charlemagne (742-814), King of the Franks, united most of western Europe under his crown. He was a visionary who advanced education and reformed the laws, economy, and culture of Europe.
When Charlemagne died, his son, Louis I, assumed the throne. At first, all went well. But in 817, he began dividing the empire among his nephew and his four sons, causing no end of problems. Twice he was deposed by his sons, and, though he regained his throne both times, he was never again able to rest securely.
Caught in the middle of this epic family conflict was Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans, a city south of Paris. Theodulph, born in Spain about 750, had gone to France as a church leader at Charlemagne's request. He was a brilliant man who worked hard to reform the clergy. He established schools and advanced education. He advocated high morals, built churches, and composed hymns of praise to God.
But during the political intrigues of Louis' reign, Theodulph was accused (falsely, it seems) of conspiring with King Bernard of Italy; and on Easter Sunday, 818, he was imprisoned in the monastery of Angers, a city southwest of Paris.
There, as he meditated on our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem prior to His Crucifixion and Resurrection, Theodulph wrote the great Palm Sunday hymn, "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."
According to a tradition that can be neither confirmed nor denied, when King Louis later visited Angers, he momentarily halted by the monastery where Theodulph was held, and the bishop appeared at the window, singing "All Glory, Laud and Honor." The king was reportedly so moved that he ordered the bishop's release.
For whatever reason, we know Theodulph was released in 821, but he died on his way back to Orleans, or shortly after his return there.
Originally there were 78 verses (39 couplets) to this hymn! Theodulph had lots of time in his prison-monastery. The first several are the ones we commonly sing today. One stanza that has fallen by the wayside is this quaint verse:
Be Thou, O Lord, the Rider, And we the little ass, That to God's holy city Together we may pass.
Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee
These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. John 16:33
When Bernard (c. 1090-1153), a sickly youth in Dijon, France, was unable to fulfill military service, he became a monk. So successful was he that he eventually founded the famous monastery in nearby Clairvaux; in time almost 170 other monasteries sprang from Bernard's leadership. He became the most powerful preacher of his era, and is remembered as a pious man, a deeply contemplative mystic, the "honey-tongued doctor." Martin Luther called Bernard "the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together."
He wasn't a perfect man, as seen in his support for the Second Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim control. But for 800 years, his words have been read and sung, and his good work has continued.
If you've never read Bernard, here are some excerpts from his writings and sermons:
* How do we know that Christ has really overcome death? Precisely in that he, who did not deserve it, underwent it .... But what kind of justice is this, you may say, that the innocent should die for the guilty? It is not justice, but mercy. * I was made a sinner by deriving my being from Adam; I am made righteous be being washed in the blood of Christ. * You will never have real mercy for the failings of another until you know and realize that you have the same failings in your soul. * Thank you, Lord Jesus, for your kindness in uniting us to the church you so dearly love, not merely that we may be endowed with the gift of faith, but that, like brides, we may be one with you ..., beholding with unveiled faces that glory which is yours in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen. * You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God Himself is the reason He is to be loved.
Several well-known hymns are attributed to St. Bernard: "Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee," "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," and a lesser-known hymn entitled "Open Wide are Thine Hands," the second verse of which says:
Lord, I am sad and poor, but boundless is Thy grace; Give me the soul transforming joy for which I seek Thy face.
All Creatures of Our God and King
I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out. Luke 19:40
So many stories have arisen around St. Francis of Assisi that it's difficult to separate truth from fiction. We know he was born in 1182 in central Italy, son of a rich merchant. After a scanty education, Francis joined the army and was captured in war. He came to Christ shortly after his release, renounced his wealth, and began traveling about the countryside, preaching the gospel, living simply, seeking to make Christ real to everyone he met.
Francis loved nature, and many stories spotlight his interaction with animals. Once as he hiked through Italy's Spoleto Valley, he came upon a flock of birds. When they didn't fly away, he decided to preach them a little sermon: "My brother and sister birds," he reportedly said, "you should praise your Creator and always love Him. He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly, and all other things you need. It is God who made your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God's guidance and protection."
The flock, it is said, then flew off rejoicing.
That perspective is reflected in a hymn Francis composed just before his death in 1225, called, "Cantico di fratre sole"-"Song of Brother Sun." It exhorts all creation to worship God. The sun and moon. All the birds. All the clouds. Wind and fire. All men of tender heart. All creatures of our God and King.
Though written in 1225, an English version didn't appear until 1919, when Rev. William H. Draper decided to use it for a children's worship festival in Leeds, England.
But is it sound theology to exhort birds and billowing clouds to lift their voices in praise? Yes! "All Creatures of our God and King" simply restates an older hymn-Psalm 148-which says:
Praise Him, sun and moon; / Praise Him, all you stars of light .... / You great sea creatures and all the depths; / Fire and hail, snow and clouds; / Stormy wind, fulfilling His word; / Mountains and all hills; / Fruitful trees and all cedars; / Beasts and all cattle; / Creeping things and flying fowl ... / Let them praise the name of the Lord, / For His name alone is exalted ... / Praise the Lord!
The God of Abraham Praise
I am the God of your father-the God of Abraham ... Exodus 3:6
The God of Abraham Praise" is perhaps the most Jewish of all Christian hymns, and its writing covers many centuries. Its roots go back to the medieval Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who wrote a confession of faith containing thirteen creeds.
Centuries later, in 1404, another Jewish scholar, Daniel ben Judah, a judge and liturgical poet in Rome, deeply impressed with Maimonides' creed, composed the Yigdal, a doxology of thirteen stanzas widely sung in Jewish synagogues to this day.
Centuries later, in 1770, an opera vocalist named Meyer Lyon sang the Yigdal in London's Great Synagogue, Duke's Place. In the audience that night was Thomas Olivers.
Thomas (1725-1799) had been born in Tregynon, Wales, and orphaned about age four. He studied the craft of shoemaking, but he learned the art of sinning better, "the worst boy known in Tregynon for thirty years."
When he was eighteen, Thomas was thrown out of town, and he wandered down to Bristol, England, where evangelist George Whitefield happened to be preaching from Zechariah 3:2: "Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?"
"When that sermon began," Thomas recalled, "I was one of the most abandoned and profligate young men living; before it ended I was a new creature. The world had changed for Tom Olivers." He became a traveling evangelist and passionate Christian worker.
On that Sabbath evening in 1770, when Thomas heard Meyer Lyon sing the Yigdal, he was so moved that he later approached Lyon, acquired the music, and adapted the Jewish Doxology into a Christian hymn of thirteen stanzas, beginning, "The God of Abraham Praise."
"Look at this," he told a friend, "I have rendered it from the Hebrew, giving it, as far as I could, a Christian character." Thomas annotated his hymn with footnotes, citing Scripture references for almost every line, the first being Exodus 3:6: "I am the God of thy Father, the God of Abraham." It appeared in 1785 in John Wesley's Pocket Hymnbook.
Modern congregations don't have the patience to sing all thirteen stanzas, so here is one of the lesser-known verses for you to ponder:
The God Who reigns on high the great archangels sing, And "Holy, holy, holy!" cry, "Almighty King!" Who was, and is, the same, and evermore shall be: Jehovah, Lord, the great I AM, we worship Thee!
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Psalm 46:1
We think of Martin Luther as a great reformer, Bible translator, political leader, fiery preacher, and theologian. But he was also a musician, having been born in an area of Germany known for its music. There in his little Thuringian village, young Martin grew up listening to his mother sing. He joined a boys' choir that sang at weddings and funerals. He became proficient with the flute (recorder), and his volcanic emotions often erupted in song.
When the Protestant Reformation began, Luther determined to restore worship to the German Church. He worked with skilled musicians to create new music for Christians, to be sung in the vernacular. He helped revive congregational singing and wrote a number of hymns.
Often he "borrowed" popular secular melodies for his hymns, though occasionally a tune brought criticism and he was "compelled to let the devil have it back again" because it was too closely associated with bars and taverns.
In the forward of a book, Luther once wrote: "Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits .... A person who ... does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God ... does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs."
Luther's most famous hymn is "Ein' feste Burg ist unser Gott,"-"A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." Based on Psalm 46, it reflects Luther's awareness of our intense struggle with Satan. In difficulty and danger, Luther would often resort to this song, saying to his associate, "Come, Philipp, let us sing the 46th Psalm."
This is a difficult hymn to translate because the original German is so vivid. At least 80 English versions are available. The most popular in America was done by Frederic Henry Hodge. But an older version appeared in the Pennsylvania Lutheran Church Book of 1868:
A mighty fortress is our God, / A trusty Shield and Weapon; / He helps us free from every need, / That hath us now o'ertaken.
Excerpted from THEN SINGS MY SOUL by Robert J. Morgan Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Morgan. Excerpted by permission.
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