Who Is This So Weak and Helpless?: A Hymn of Defeat

This month’s hymn is less widely known than some–a regrettable truth that should be remedied at once. The song is full of gems, from its encouraging text, to a chilling melody (in the best way possible) and an intricate harmonic structure, all of which work together to produce a foretaste of Christ’s glory. How blessed we are that William Walsham How, a nineteenth-century English bishop, was inspired to pen these beautiful words:

Who Is This

There are a couple notable themes in this text. Firstly, the verses cover the life of Jesus on Earth, beginning with His birth and ending with His death on the cross and resurrection. This progression makes the text easy to remember, while offering a full picture of Christ’s sacrifice.

The second theme of the text is a question and response format.

Each verse begins with a “Who is this?” question, which describes Jesus solely from a physical/visible viewpoint. Visibly, He is only a weak and helpless baby. Visibly, He is a mere human with the same physical weakness as the rest of us. At the end, Christ’s appearance is declined still further to a man who is beaten, bloodied, mocked, and pierced with nails. The first half of each verse really drives into you the suffering Christ endured and the extent of His sacrifice on our behalf. If that was where the text ended, it would be incredibly depressing, not to mention hopeless. After all, if Christ was only a good man who suffered and eventually died for His teachings, what would be the point?

If the defeat of death, the satisfaction of God’s justice and the salvation of the elect were all truly accomplished, then there must be more to Jesus Christ than meets the eye.

Thankfully, it doesn’t end there. Instead, each verse shifts the focus from the physical/visible to the spiritual/invisible. Yes, He suffered and bled and died, which was a vital part of His work, but that is far from the end! For He also was raised from the dead, which allows us to answer the questions in this hymn in full confidence: Who is this? It is the Lord of all creation, our glorious Savior, the God who pours grace on His church and vengeance on His foes, who has conquered death, prepares a place in heaven for His elect and reigns everlastingly.


The music, composed by John Ambrose Lloyd in the mid 1800’s, fulfills its purpose splendidly; it supports the text while adding richness and beauty, and even a kind of imagery to enhance the truths being sung.

This piece is structured in a musical form which is quite common for hymns: Ternary form (A-B-A). That is, there is the first idea (which is repeated in the first two lines), then a new idea is introduced in the third line, while the last line returns to the beginning idea. Furthermore, the climax happens at the usual place (between the end of the third line and the beginning of the last line), and the whole song comes to rest at the end.

For those who have read my previous hymn analyses, none of that should come as a surprise. It is a very common formula in hymns. And as I’ve explained before, the main reason for the use of this formula is the ease of learning. It gives a familiarity to the hymn, at least in its structure, and makes it easy to follow and remember. In this way, the focus can be on the praise of God and the edification of the saints through the text, rather than trying to keep up with something too complex and foreign.

Looking at the beginning, one of the first things that strikes me is the moving parts. The lines are not as blocked and vertical as one usually finds in hymns. This constant motion gives a sense of pushing forward, and adds interest to the lines; but again, while there is intricacy present (in the sense of detail), complexity is kept to a minimum.

Who Is This 1_0002

One way this is accomplished is by small movement. Each line moves almost exclusively by short intervals and the voices all stay relatively close to each other as well. There are very few leaps or broad gaps. This movement and structure supports the text. Broad leaps and gaps tend to communicate a “grand” and sweeping gesture. Small movement and gaps, on the other hand, are a much more intricate and gradual thing. The changes are often so close together that the music almost creeps forward, pulling you along with it and creating a sense of yearning for resolution.

Another detail worth noting is that each voice is almost independent of the others, and is equally interesting to hear alone. But if only one part was sung, it would obviously be lacking in fullness. Much like a church is made up of different members of the same body (the body of Christ), so this song is made up of unique voices that work together to form a cohesive whole. The result is unity.

The last thing I would like to draw your attention to is the moment of tonicization in the second measure (for a brief explanation of tonicization, see this post). In the second chord (on the word “and”), the alto part (the lower voice on the top line) sings two eighth notes. The second note is a D-sharp. But D-sharp doesn’t belong in the key of A-minor. Instead, the note is “borrowed” to create the illusion that the song is visiting a new key. By looking at the following chord, we can discover the key we are visiting: E major. According to the rules of music theory, the tonicized chord is always followed by the chord of the “visited” key.

Here’s one way to think of it: the tonicized chord is the door through which one must walk to step foot into the new key, like a new room in a house.

As I’ve said before, one purpose of tonicization is to draw the listener’s attention. It stands out, thus is an easy way to highlight a certain thought in the text or accentuate an emotion. In this case, the moment is so fleeting that it creates a drifting, uncertain mood which fits with the idea of weakness and helplessness.

The second line is an exact copy of the first, in terms of harmony. The chords used and the melody are all the same. So the same mood applies here, extended for full effect:

Who Is This 2_0002

The only difference is some of the notes for the other voices are altered. Thus it is the same, but with a slight audible change. In particular, there is even more movement in the voices the second time around (notice the extra notes in the line above). This increase in motion adds more intricacy, and continues to push forward. In a way, it feels more unstable. The voices are deprived of rest, and feel in danger of unraveling.

But–then you come to the third line:

Who Is This 3_0002

The melody suddenly soars high in glorious exaltation of Jesus Christ’s deity. There’s still some movement, although not as much as before–as if the revelation of who Christ is has calmed our fear and uncertainty. We can stand firm in Him.

Also note how the distance between the four voices have suddenly broadened. Remember how I said that broad gaps communicate a “grand” feeling? Here that very idea is put into practice. As the glory of Christ shines out in this bursting forth of praise, the distance between the four voices lengthens to match the grandness of the declaration.

The last detail I’d like to draw your attention to is the very last chord of the line. In the previous two lines, the music always ended on the tonic chord. That is, the primary (or “home”) chord of the key, which offers a momentary sense of relief and resolution, as it comes to rest. The respite is brief, but it is there, like a quick gasp of air before the mouth is submerged underwater again.

But in this third line, it ends not on the tonic, but on the dominant, or fifth chord. As a brief reminder, the dominant is the chord that usually leads back to the tonic, because it creates a pull. When one hears a dominant chord, ones ears naturally want to hear it resolve into the tonic. So leaving this line “hanging,” as it were, gives an obvious clue that the song is not yet finished. One expects more to come. And so it does.

Who Is This 4_0002

What’s interesting about the last line is that it is a return to the first idea, yes, but it has a clear difference: the first half of the line is not the same. Whereas in the first two lines the melody begins on a lower note, A, and then gradually ascends, in the last line the opposite happens: the melody starts way up on a high E and instead descends.

This high note on the first word is really the climax of the song, and highlights the final declaration of the text, which in turn points to Christ’s glory and sovereignty. By the last two measures, the voices return to the original idea without further embellishment, thus coming to rest on the truth of who Christ is.

In conclusion, the final line takes the original idea presented in the first two lines with uncertainty and yearning and turns it around to exude confidence in the truth it represents.

This mood is further carried out in the “Amen” at the end of the song–a part that is often overlooked. But what makes this particular “Amen” noteworthy is that it ends on what is called in music theory a Picardy Third. What that means is, while the rest of the song was in a minor key the entire time, instead of ending on the minor chord as expected, it is altered so that it’s now a major chord. It stands out in contrast with everything that came before, highlighting the truth at the end of the song. And it provides a steady and level foothold on which to stand firm and shout your praise.

Furthermore, because major keys are usually associated with happy and peaceful feelings, it is appropriate to end thus in this context.

So when you think of Jesus as the cute little baby in a nativity come Christmas time, don’t forget what He really is and what He came to accomplish. Bethlehem was only the beginning of His earthly ministry. That baby lying in a crude manger is the God of all creation–sovereign, just, gracious, and glorious.

And when you think of the resurrection at Easter time (and any other time of the year), don’t forget what it means and what He accomplished that day. It means that He vanquished death, prepares a place in heaven for His elect, and rules on high for all eternity.

This is a hymn of defeat–but not of the weak and helpless baby. Rather, it reminds us that it is He, Christ, who has defeated death and sin.

And that is worth singing about.


6 thoughts on “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless?: A Hymn of Defeat

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