It is my plan, whenever I have a post that is music-related, to share it on Monday. Thus, this day shall hitherto be known as “Musical Mondays.” Why Mondays, you ask? Because, who doesn’t love alliteration? 😉 I admit I have a weakness for it. Case in point, this page: Alliterative Antics…And Assonance Also!
Now, on to today’s subject: a (semi) brief study of a beautiful hymn.
I’d like to start by admitting that I’m very picky about my worship music. To be honest, the majority of modern “praise” music drives me up the wall. So much of it is shallow, and sometimes just plain annoying. Call me old fashioned if you will, but to me there is nothing as beautiful as hymns, with deep, biblical text and good music. I love to study these hymns, to pick apart their meaning and the way the music complements it. Today’s hymn happens to be the one that inspired me to write such thoughts down. Most likely, my studies of other hymns will focus more on my area of expertise–the music (particularly how it reflects the meaning behind the text). But for today’s hymn, while I will devote a little time to its musical analysis, I actually want to focus on its biblical context (hopefully with theological correctness).
Musical Mondays, Hymn Study
Great is Thy Faithfulness: A Hopeful Prayer in the Midst of Darkness
What peace and comfort this hymn beautifully presents! It has been a long-time favorite of mine, to be sure. And since its publication in 1923, it has been sung by Christians the world over. For my part, I have known the hymn basically my entire life (or, at least, for as long as I can remember). However, it was not until recently that I really became aware of its context. Before we go there, however, I would like to take a moment to look at the music itself. A quick analysis of the melodic line reveals just how brilliantly it complements the text:
The verse begins low and soft, with a relatively straight, even rhythm. A succession of repeated notes lends not only a contemplative mood, but also reflects God’s unchanging nature–an important aspect of true, perfect faithfulness. This line is simple and unembellished, allowing the beauty of the words to shine through. For the rest of the verse, the line gently rises and falls in a continuous motion, like the constant ebb and flow of ocean waves on the seashore:
I particularly like how these three phrases use the exact same rhythmic pattern. This use of repetition again places emphasis on the words, and parallels the fact that each phrase is building upon the last. If you look at the first verse, you can see that the same idea is basically being conveyed each time: God doesn’t change. But each phrase approaches this truth from a different angle. So they are related, building upon and supporting each other.
Then comes the climax with the chorus. It is here that the phrases ascend higher and higher, always reaching upward until they burst out with the final cry of “Great is Thy faithfulness!” The natural crescendo that accompanies this section artistically displays the certainty of reliance upon God:
Then, almost abruptly, the final words “Lord, unto me” descend again into peaceful, quiet assurance rather than ending on a moment of high emotion—perhaps a subtle reminder that human emotions, while not necessarily bad of themselves, are not to be trusted implicitly. It is in God’s faithfulness, not ours, that we find our trust.
It is a moving melody, to be sure. And if I really wanted to get technical about it, I could discuss the harmonic analysis as well, and its use of secondary chords and tonicization to highlight important moments within the song. But that is not my purpose here today. So never fear! The music theory ends here. 😉
Before, if I had been asked to describe the song’s overall mood, I probably would have chosen something along the lines of “joyful” or “confident” or “peaceful.” That is why, when I came across the passage during my personal Bible reading from which the inspiration was clearly drawn, I was shocked by its context. It was perhaps the last place one would expect to find such a hopeful, confident prayer. Yet there it was, clear as day.
I should mention that, some time ago, I decided to start at the beginning of the Bible and read straight through. How encouraging it has been to my soul, as I have worked my way slowly and steadily through the Old Testament, to read from a New Testament perspective. It is a great blessing indeed to be able to see God’s hand in every event, and how it all is pointing to an even greater event to come: the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
So it was that I finished the book of Jeremiah and moved on to Lamentations. As the name suggests, it is not exactly the most cheerful of books. And for good reason. Having read Jeremiah first, and with its content still fresh in my mind, I had a somewhat better comprehension of what the Israelites were suffering and why. Granted, I do not claim by any means to be an expert theologian (far from it). So consider this my disclaimer before I begin, and bear with me please as I try to remember and piece it all together as best I can.
Israel was God’s chosen people in the Old Testament, bound to Him by a covenant. Along with this covenant came stipulations: blessings if they remained faithful, and curses if they did not. Simple enough, right? Well, as one would expect, the Israelites failed miserably. And not just once, but time after time…after time. I think we all can relate to this problem. For those of us who have been saved by God’s grace, we will never be perfect on this side of heaven. Although we battle constantly against our sin, there are still times (more frequent than we would care to admit) that we fail. It is this realization that makes our dependence on God’s grace, and on the perfect works of His Son, so striking.
In the time of Jeremiah, the Israelites had once again relapsed into idolatry. God sent Jeremiah as His prophet to admonish the people and call them to repent, while warning them of their otherwise inevitable judgment. Yet every time Jeremiah brought the Lord’s message to the people, they ignored his warning and did not repent. Worse, he was often persecuted for speaking the unpopular truth. Even so, he faithfully obeyed God’s command and prophesied again and again.
By the end of the book, the Israelites’ judgment finally comes. God sends the Babylonian armies to destroy Israel and carry away the survivors into captivity. The people of God have been cut off. They are exiled, homeless, humiliated and reviled among the nations. The temple, once a spectacular symbol of their unique relationship with God, is burned to the ground–their place of worship which they had long neglected was now denied them in turn. It is no wonder that the words of Lamentations were recorded during the exile. The outpouring of grief and shame, and the desperation for God’s mercy, bleeds through every page and pierces the heart. This is the text I found myself reading:
I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath. He has led me and made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely He has turned His hand against me time and time again throughout the day….He has also broken my teeth with gravel, and covered me with ashes. You have moved my soul far from peace; I have forgotten prosperity. And I said, “My strength and my hope have perished from the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:1-3, 16-18, NKJV)
The writer’s anguish is vivid. He records how clearly they felt the Lord’s judgment, without sugar-coating any of it. It’s as if they have been abandoned. To pour salt on the wound, he knows it is deserved:
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that woe and well-being proceed? Why should a living man complain, a man for the punishment of his sins? (Lamentations 3:38-39)
For those who read this book, they find themselves dropped into a dark time in Israel’s history. By the third chapter, the author’s pain is so powerful it feels like no alleviation will come. Then, right smack in the middle of this chapter, the author adds a line so unexpected it seems almost out-of-place:
Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall. My soul still remembers and sinks within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. (Lamentations 3:19-21)
Wait—what? You just spent two and a half chapters describing in intense detail the affliction your people have experienced as punishment for their sins, and now you’re going to say that you still have hope? How could such a statement be inserted here, of all places? Yet it is exactly because of this placement that the power of its truth shines through.
Praise be to God, for the author does not end there. Instead, he fleshes out the reason for his hope in these glorious, familiar words:
Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I hope in Him!” (Lamentations 3:22-24)
How is the author of a book full of grief and pain, after all he has experienced, able to write these words? How can he be so confident? The answer is clear: because God is faithful. This is true both of His mercy and justice. He kept His word to punish Israel for their sins—but, He would also keep His promise to restore a remnant. The question then should be, why on earth would He choose to restore a sinful, unfaithful people at all? Well, not because of any good in them, certainly; but for His glory, and to display His incredible mercy (how incredible it is!). But let us also not forget the future context: God promised to preserve the line of David, from which would come the Messiah. He kept this word, too. And thank God He did!
Knowing the biblical context of this beautiful hymn only makes me appreciate it all the more. It is in the darkest of places that hope shines the brightest. No matter the depth of the valley we travel through, if we belong to God, we need not fear for our souls. Our hope is in His faithfulness, not ours. How beautiful, how comforting it is to know and understand this. And how humbling it is to know the price Jesus Christ paid for my worthlessness.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
God willing, I will try to post a new hymn study each month. In the meantime, what are your favorite hymns? Is there a particular melody or text that you treasure?