Words: John Newton (b. July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807)
Music: St. Peter, by Alexander Robert Reinagle (b. Aug. 21, 1799; d. Apr. 6, 1877)
Note: The word “Husband” in CH-5 is often changed to “Brother,” today. However, Newton, a seaman, may have intended the imagery, in the nautical sense of the day, to refer to the man in charge of a ship’s provisions. He was spoken of as the ship’s husband. The tune St. Peter is sometimes called Reinagle, after its composer.
When it comes to romantic love between a man and a woman, the name of the loved one has a special significance, a unique beauty. In the 1961 musical West Side Story, Tony meets Maria and falls in love. He sings of her:
“The most beautiful sound I ever heard,
All the beautiful sounds of the world
In a single word – Maria.”
In ancient poetry, the Shulamite maiden with whom King Solomon had fallen in love is praised by his attendants, who sing, “Your name is ointment poured forth” (S.S. 1:3). Like the fragrant aroma of a treasured perfume was the sound of her name to her beloved. In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon says in a similar vein, “A good name [reputation] is better than precious ointment” (Ecc. 7:1).
It was the text from the Song of Solomon that inspired John Newton to create a lovely seven-stanza hymn about the name of Jesus. He exclaims, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear!” (CH-1). Then, he proceeds to describe some of the reasons why the name of the Lord Jesus Christ is so precious to him, sometimes heaping names and titles, one on another, to indicate the many-faceted perfections of his Subject. It is a kind of sacred version of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, which begins: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”
Since the names of the Lord present who He is, and what He is like, and what He has done, to revel in His name is to delight in His Person. David exclaims, “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is Your name [Your reputation for being who and what You are] in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:9).
In the One represented by the name “Jesus,” there is soothing for sorrows, healing for wounded hearts, and settled assurance and peace in place of fear (CH-1). In Him there is spiritual health and wholeness, and nourishment for the soul (CH-2). He is our Rock, our Shield, our Hiding Place, and a Treasury of “boundless stores of grace” (CH-3). He is our Shepherd, Husband [Provider], and Friend, fulfilling the offices of Prophet, Priest, and King (CH-5).
The third line of the fifth stanza is worthy of special note. John Newton describes Jesus as “My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End.” As believers, we affirm that the Lord is both the source of our lives, the sustainer and guide of our lives, and the ultimate goal of our lives. It can hardly be said more simply or more profoundly!
In a stanza sometimes omitted today, Newton adds:
By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.
In spite of all this eloquent outpouring, the hymn writer is conscious of the inadequacy of his words to express what’s in his heart. But he is encouraged with the thought that in our resurrection bodies we’ll have both purified hearts and more eloquent tongues to praise the Lord (CH-6):
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.
This stanza expresses a similar thought to that of Newton’s close friend and associate, poet William Cowper, who says in his hymn, There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood:
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing Thy power to save.
1) So many times our prayers tend to be filled with requests for this or that. Nothing wrong with bringing our requests to the Lord (Phil. 4:6; I Pet. 5:7). But there also needs to be worship and praise. What are some things you can praise the Lord for today?
2) What would cause a name to be like a revolting stink? Why is the name of the Lord Jesus so different to the believer?