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Words: Samuel Medley (b. June 23, 1738; d. July 17, 1799)
Music: Lovingkindness, an American folk melody, attributed to William Caldwell (publisher of Union Harmony, in 1837, a book containing forty-two tunes written by him). No other data available for him.
Note: A “lay” is simply another word for a song. But there are several uncertainties about this hymn, both as to the date when it was written, and as to the number and wording of the stanzas.
On one occasion, Samuel Medley was visiting in the home of a Baptist friend named Mr. Phillips. He asked the Phillips’ daughter Betsey (who may have been little older than a toddler at the time) to bring him ink and paper. When these were provided, he retired to the guest room and wrote this particular hymn. The Cyber Hymnal gives the date as 1782, though others have 1785.
As to the stanzas, the Cyber Hymnal currently has seven, but the usually authoritative Lyra Britannica has nine. The mystery doesn’t quite end there, since the Cyber Hymnal’s fourth stanza is not included in the above-mentioned volume! Of the three missing from the Cyber Hymnal, the last one sums up the whole song nicely, by picturing ongoing praise in the heavenly kingdom:
There with their golden harps I’ll join,
And with their anthems mingle mine,
And loudly sound on ev’ry chord
The lovingkindness of the Lord.
Any consideration of the text of this hymn surely must begin with a comment on the biblical word lovingkindness, since it is found in every stanza of the hymn, and it is for this that the author is praising the Lord. The Hebrew word is checed (also written hesed).
“I will mention the lovingkindnesses of the LORD and the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has bestowed on us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has bestowed on them according to His mercies, according to the multitude of His lovingkindnesses” (Isa. 63:7).
The scholarly Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (pp. 305-307) discusses the term at great length, noting that there is a strong connotation of mercy in the meaning, and perhaps of loyalty and faithfulness. (It is sometimes translated “mercy” in the NKJV.) But in the end the TWOT states that the archaic expression “lovingkindness” is “not far from the fulness of meaning of the word.”
The English word (NKJV) is found many times in the book of Psalms, the hymn book of Israel. Clearly, the psalmists felt as Pastor Medley did, many centuries later, that the lovingkindness of the Lord was something precious, something to be celebrated. A few examples will show how this attribute of God was appealed to.
“How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God! Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings” (Ps. 36:7).
“Do not withhold Your tender mercies from me, O LORD; let Your lovingkindness and Your truth continually preserve me” (Ps. 40:11).
“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions” (Ps. 51:1).
“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits…who redeems your life from destruction, who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies” (Ps. 103:4).
“Revive me according to Your lovingkindness, so that I may keep the testimony of Your mouth [i.e. obey Your Word]” (Ps. 119:88).
Awake, My Soul, to Joyful Lays cannot be considered great poetry. Yet it continues to be found in our hymnals more than two centuries after it was written. There is a warmth of joyful piety in it that seems irresistible. For Medley, as stated in the stanzas of his hymn, God’s lovingkindness is to be praised because it is “free” (given in grace), “great,” “strong,” and “changes not.” Amen to all of that!
CH-1) Awake, my soul, to joyful lays,
And sing thy great Redeemer’s praise;
He justly claims a song from me–
His lovingkindness, O how free!
Something of the heart of the man can be detected in his dying words. (And see how these words fulfil the prayer of CH-6 in his hymn.) On his deathbed he said:
“I am thinking on the laws of gravitation: the nearer a body approaches to his centre, with the more force it is impelled; and the nearer I approach my dissolution, with greater velocity I move toward it.” When reminded by a friend that his “centre” was Christ, he said, “Yes, yes, He is, He is….I am looking up to my dear Jesus, my God, my portion, my all in all!…Glory! Glory! Home! Home!”
CH-6) Soon I shall pass the gloomy vale,
Soon all my mortal powers must fail;
O! may my last expiring breath
His lovingkindness sing in death.
1) What experience of the lovingkindness of the Lord have you had in the past week for which you can praise Him?
2) Would it be possible for you to keep a mini-journal, for a week or a month, in which you recorded three particular examples of God’s lovingkindness to you, each day?