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Words: John Newton (b. July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807)
Music: Austria (or Austrian Hymn), adapted from the melody of a Croatian folk hymn (Vjatvo rano se ja vstanem) by Franz Joseph Haydn (b. Mar. 31, 1732; d. May 31, 1809)
Note: Newton published his hymn in Olney Hymns, in 1779. He provided a number of footnotes, with Scripture references, showing the inspiration for particular lines.
Haydn’s tune was written for a patriotic song celebrating the birthday of the Austrian Emperor in 1797. It has been used for a number of patriotic songs since, including the Nazi’s Deutschland Über Alles (“Germany Above All”), and the current German national anthem. It was published as a hymn tune in 1802, and first became associated with Newton’s hymn in 1889.
The Cyber Hymnal includes a second possible tune, Abbot’s Leigh, by Cyril Vincent Taylor (1907-1991). It was written in 1941, and is considered one of the finest hymn tunes of the twentieth century. It is indeed a beautiful tune, though I think Austrian Hymn is better, especially to the triumphant mood of the present hymn. However, a reason for sometimes using this alternative is suggested by the following incident from the Companion to the United Church Hymnal, by Carlton R. Young (p. 354).
“This writer shall never forget the puzzled and pained expression on the face of Elie Wiesel, famed survivor of Hitler’s death camps, as the audience gathered in the spring on 1983 at Cannon Chapel, Emory University, and spiritedly sang the insensitively selected Newton hymn, prior to [Wiesel] receiving an honorary degree and giving a paper on “Remembering the Holocaust.” Music, like words, may hurt as well as heal.”
T he hymn’s original title was “Zion, or the City of God.” referencing Isaiah 33:27-28. (This seems to be an error, as there are only twenty-four verses in the chapter. Newton may have meant vs. 20-21, which does speak of Zion.) It is important to establish the identity of “Zion” and to understand Newton’s use of the name. Zion was originally a Jebusite stronghold in the southern part of what was to become the city of Jerusalem. David conquered it, and it became known as the City of David (I Chron. 11:5). Later, the name Zion came to be used as a synonym for Jerusalem as a whole.
Once, in the New Testament, the term “Mount Zion” is used of the “heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22-24), “New Jerusalem” (Rev. 21:2), the heavenly city where the throne of God is found. The writer of Hebrews uses this term to make a contrast between the Old Covenant (the Law of Israel) and the New Covenant established through the shed blood of Christ. Mount Sinai, where the Law was given, demonstrated the fearful separation of sinners from a holy God (vs. 18-21). But in the heavenly Jerusalem the redeemed are gathered with the angelic hosts, brought by grace into the presence of God.
So far so good. However, John Newton’s amillennial theology does not accommodate the earthly millennial reign of Christ. He seems to make Old Testament texts that refer to earthly Jerusalem symbolic of heaven. Historic and prophetic earthly Zion disappears from his view.
Consider the first line of CH-1. It is virtually a quotation of Psalm 87:3, “Glorious things are spoken of you, O city of God!” It is a city that will be established by God Himself (vs. 5), where all nations gather to pay tribute to Him (Ps. 86:9). Other passages that Newton says apply are Psalm 132:13-14, and Isaiah 26:1–which await the second coming of Christ for their literal, earthly fulfilment. Thoroughly mixing his symbolism, Newton says the fourth line of CH-1 applies to the church, referencing Matthew 16:18! So, is his Zion heaven, or the spiritual body of Christ? (Confusing!)
It is the same with other stanzas. Line 2 of CH-2 references Psalm 46:4. However, the psalm clearly has to do with the millennial kingdom when the Lord brings wars to an end and is “exalted among the nations” (vs. 8-10). Line two of CH-3, concerning an overshadowing pillar of cloud and fire, references Isaiah 4:5-6, plainly describing the earthly millennium, when the Messiah-King reigns for a thousand years. Revelation 1:5-6 (cf. I Pet. 2:5, 9) speaks of the saints as they are, at the present time “kings and priests” of God (cf. line 4 of CH-4).
Even if one ignores where Newton thinks he got his inspiration, it is difficult to pin down what the author is speaking of. Is it the church in the present age, the spiritual body of Christ? Or is it the city of Jerusalem in the Millennium? (Not likely, given Newton’s theology.) Or is it heaven? It seems to be a little of each!
The hymn contains some fine poetry, set to a truly great tune. But if we don’t really know what we’re singing about, what is the point! One hymn book I have places the song in a section called “Fellowship and Faith;” another puts it in a section called “Praise and Worship;” several include it in hymns about “The Church.” Albert E. Bailey, in his book The Gospel in Hymns, suggests that may be the meaning, but he’s not sure.
“When we ask just what the author meant by it [the hymn] and when we try to visualize the city, we are baffled. It seems to be a conglomerate of many vague figurative elements” (p 128).
For a different reason, some have also called into question the opening couplet of CH-5.
Saviour, if of Zion’s city,
I through grace a member am…
“If?” It’s been supposed that Newton’s Calvinism led him to some uncertainty as to whether he would prove to be one of the elect in the end. However, I don’t think that’s the point here. The “if” may be better understood in the sense of “since”–a word that is substituted by some editors.
CH-1) Glorious things of thee are spoken,
Zion, city of our God!
He, whose Word cannot be broken,
Formed thee for His own abode.
On the Rock of Ages founded,
What can shake thy sure repose?
With salvation’s walls surrounded,
Thou may’st smile at all thy foes.
1) If you use this hymn, what is your understanding of what “Zion” stands for in it?
2) What are some other hymns about heaven that contain mixed messages, or erroneous doctrine?