Unchanging words

Unchanging words

The book is new.  The lyrics are ancient.

This year, I’m committing to sing a hymn every day.  I have loved hymns for all of my long life as a Christian, so this is a natural extension of my passion.  But this goal was spurred by a thoughtful Christmas gift from my daughter: a new book on the backstories of hymns.

I find the insights fascinating.  For instance, All Things Bright and Beautiful (the hymn from which the titles of James Herriot’s book and the current PBS series All Creatures Great and Small come from), was written by an Irish woman in the mid-1800s as one of a series of hymns designed to teach the Apostles’ Creed to her Sunday School children.  (Once in David’s Royal City also comes from that effort.)

What surprises me the most, in these historical tidbits, are the stories of upheaval surrounding changes in hymns.  Louis Bourgeois, who penned the melody we sing with the Doxology in the mid-1500s, was once jailed in Geneva, Switzerland, for revising tunes of hymns without a license.

Isaac Watts, one of the greatest of hymn writers, was hugely controversial in his day.  In the late 1600s, English churches sang the psalms.  When he began to express the psalms in new words, people were outraged.  Many walked out of services when his compositions were sung.  He persevered, literally bringing Joy to the World.

I admit, it bothers me when the words to hymns I love are altered.  Most often, the changes simply dumb them down, as if modern worshippers lack the curiosity to look up a word or reference they don’t understand.  (Sigh.  Maybe we do.)  But after reading about favorite hymns of mine that have evolved to the form that I know and love, I’m trying to be more open-minded.

We are all creatures of the moment, trying to hold onto our tiny slice of time.

But there is One whose words span all of history.  So says Isaiah:

“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.   (Isaiah 59:21)

Here, the LORD is speaking to who my commentary calls the Covenant Mediator, the focus of this last section of the book of Isaiah.  This Mediator speaks the very words of God, and in doing so, cascades those words down through countless generations.

Jesus is that Mediator of the Covenant.  And I am one of those distant descendants on whose lips those words have landed.  I pray that you are, too.

What a joy to know that his ancient words are timeless.  Trustworthy.  And still as powerful an agent of transformation as the day he uttered them.

Undimmed by time, the Word is still revealing
To sinful men thy justice and thy grace;
And questing hearts that long for peace and healing
See thy compassion in the Savior’s face.  
Sarah E. Taylor (1883-1954)

Reader: Share with me a line or two of one of your favorite hymns.

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Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.