Who understands the need for forgiveness better than the one who has faced their own wickedness? And who appreciates the true depth of their wickedness more than the one who has glimpsed the perfect goodness of God?
When we truly begin to realize the state of our soul in comparison with God’s glory, it brings the shock of His undeserved mercy into sharp relief. Why would One full of light, beauty and holiness ever look upon something as dark, ugly and worthless as the human soul with love? Why should He grant any forgiveness?
This is not a fickle forgiveness either, based upon the changing mood of the giver, for He changes not; nor is it based upon the merits of the recipients, for such merit can never exist. No. It is a forgiveness based solely upon the sacrifice of the holy Son, the One who took our place, the One who covered us in His righteousness that we might be justified before the great Judge and welcomed as children and heirs into His everlasting kingdom.
God truly is a never-ceasing Fount of blessing!
Perhaps the 18th-century English pastor Robert Robinson was meditating upon this very truth when he penned the words to his poem, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:
Come, thou Fount of ev’ry blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing, Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, Sung by flaming tongues above;
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, Mount of God’s unchanging love.
Here I raise my Ebenezer, Hither by thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger, Wand’ring from the fold of God:
He, to rescue me from danger, Interposed his precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor Daily I’m constrained to be;
Let that grace now, like a fetter, Bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, Seal it for thy courts above.
There’s something about this text that fills my heart with joy every time I hear it, and the accompanying music only enhances it. But first, I would like to share the history of the author’s conversion, which I came across during my research. When considering the presence of God’s providence and mercy in this man’s life, even while on such a wayward path, it makes the truth of the hymn even more poignant. For these words could only have been written by one who understood his own depravity, and the necessity of God’s mercy alone to save him.
Robert Robinson’s father died when he was only eight years old. And through the years, Robinson became increasingly troublesome and difficult for his mother to handle. At age 14, she sent him to London to become an apprentice to a barber, but he unfortunately fell into a life of drinking and gambling. It would seem that he was sinking deeper and deeper, without any desire for repentance.
But God had other plans.
By the Lord’s great providence, George Whitfield happened to be preaching at an evangelical meeting in town a few years later. The then 17-year-old Robinson and some of his friends drunkenly decided to go to the meeting, with the sole purpose of heckling the preacher and those in attendance. No doubt it was meant to be a great joke to them. Upon hearing the sermon, however, Robinson was convicted of his own sin and the words of Whitfield continued to haunt him afterward.
So God used this young man’s bad intentions for good. As a result, Robinson was eventually converted and soon after entered into the ministry, becoming the very man he had once set out to mock.
Robinson wrote the poem “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” later on to go with a sermon he planned to preach, but it wasn’t set to music until after his death.
(As a side note, the composer was Asahel Nettleton–a reformed pastor from Connecticut, who apparently was influential in the 2nd great awakening and in re-establishing Calvinism, from what I’ve read. So, that’s a plus in my book. 😉 )
If you have read any of my past hymn analyses, you might have started to pick up on a pattern (pun intended): that is, the use of repetition in the melody. After all, hymns are written with a specific purpose in mind: the entire congregation (even those with no musical training) should be able to learn it, sing it and remember it. Furthermore, the focus is always on God, and not on the talent of the singers.
“Come Thou Fount” is no exception to that rule. In fact, lines 1, 2 and 4 of the hymn are exactly the same, note-for-note (including the harmony). Line 3 alone stands apart. Once you’ve got the first line of the song down then, you’ve learned 75% of the entire piece:
That’s it. So simple, yet so beautiful. There’s a tranquil feeling about it that seems to serve as a reminder to rest in God’s promises (and don’t we need the reminder!).
It is worth noting that the song begins with an upbeat, also known as “pick-up notes.” This means that it starts with an incomplete measure–you see those first two notes all by themselves before the first barline? That’s the upbeat. So, since the first beat of a measure usually receives the stress in music, the pick-up notes serve almost as a preparatory “breath” leading you to the first actual downbeat, or stress, of the song. The beauty of the upbeat here is that it sets up the rest of the song so the stress usually falls on the important words of each line:
“Come Thou FOUNT of ev’ry BLESSing, tune my HEART to sing Thy GRACE.”
I particularly like that the very first stress of the song is on God, the FOUNT (i.e. source) of blessing.
You might have noticed already that even the rhythm within the line has a pattern: short-short-long-long (the groups are marked in red above). Not only that, but the notes themselves rise and fall in a continuous, fluid movement. This ebb and flow of both rhythm and movement throughout the song invoke a picture, at least in my mind, of the constant motion of a river.
But the repetition serves another purpose as well: to highlight the idea being fleshed out in the first two lines. In verse one, that idea is God’s streams of mercy and how it provokes the singer to praise. In verse two, it is the reliance upon God’s help to sustain us. In the last verse, it is dependence on God’s grace and the insufficiency of one’s own merits.
From this peaceful, low tune, the third line suddenly bursts out and soars high–like a smooth and calm river that turns unexpectedly into a rapids, gushing and splashing into the air:
Though the melody changes here, there is again a repetition of a smaller theme within the line itself, marked in red above. The same rising/falling pattern in the movement of the notes is also here, but now it’s extended, both higher and longer–like the waves in the river analogy that increase in size and power as they tumble through the rapids.
The end of the line leaves the singer hanging on the highest note of the entire song, like a shout of praise. But it’s not over yet.
No sooner have you entered into the rapids than they cease and everything is calm again. The fourth line returns immediately to the first theme, and the singer comes to rest finally on the truth of God’s promises, thus ending where we began:
In what promises exactly do we rest at the end of the song? In the first verse, it is the promise of God’s unchanging love. In the second, it is the promise of the interposition of Christ’s blood on our behalf. In the last verse, the promise is to seal our hearts for heaven. Encouraging promises to remember, indeed!
Now, for those who have ever scratched their heads and wondered, “Why on earth is Ebenezer Scrooge mentioned in a hymn? I don’t see the connection,”–allow me to clarify.
Obviously, the text is not referring to a Charles Dickens character–although the image of someone holding up Scrooge high into the air like a human version of the Lion King is certainly entertaining.
The reference is instead taken from the Bible. To be exact, from the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 7. Allow me to set the scene:
Israel is under attack from the Philistines. The prophet Samuel, admonishing Israel for their worship of idols, tells them:
“If you return to the LORD with all your hearts, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths from among you, and prepare your hearts for the LORD, and serve Him only; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 7:3).
So Israel does as commanded. They get rid of their idols and repent. Then Samuel calls everyone to gather together at a place called Mizpah, where he will pray to God on their behalf. However, the Philistines find out where they are and show up at Mizpah to attack them. Filled with fear, Israel turns to Samuel and begs him to keep praying for them, because they know only God can help them.
Samuel prays and offers a sacrifice. Then God answers in a big way.
The Lord creates a loud thunder that sends the Philistines into such confusion that they are overcome by the Israelite army and driven back. Afterwards, Samuel does something interesting:
“Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the LORD has helped us'” (1 Samuel 7:12).
The word “Ebenezer” actually means “Stone of Help.” In the case of 1 Samuel, it was quite literally a “Stone of Help,” or a monument to serve as a reminder of God’s help in time of need. When Robinson then writes, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’m come,” he is simply reminding himself that it is God’s help alone that brought him near and sustains him. Scripture itself is the best Ebenezer of all, for the believer who studies it can recall it to mind as a source of comfort and encouragement to persevere, even (or perhaps especially) during dark times in their life.
Thank you for reading, and I hope it has been of some encouragement to you. I would like to leave you with one of my favorite psalms, as an Ebenezer of the promised help from God:
I will lift up my eyes to the hills–
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The LORD shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The LORD shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.