Posted by: rcottrill | February 26, 2014

Begin, My Tongue, Some Heavenly Theme

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Words: Isaac Watts (b. July 17, 1674; d. Nov. 25, 1748)
Music: Manoah, from Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (1851), published by Henry Wellington Greatorex (b. Dec. 24, 1813; d. Sept. 10, 1858)

Wordwise Hymns (Isaac Watts)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Watts called this 1707 hymn “The Faithfulness of God in His Promises.” The original had nine stanzas; CH-1, 2, 6 and 8 are often used today. No specific author is identified for the tune. Manoah was the father of Samson.

There have been some word changes in the original (a few of these in Watts’ own later revision). In CH-2, “And the performing God” has been altered either to “And the fulfilling God,” or to “The love and truth of God.” (Performing now often has the sense of putting on an act, which is not what Watts would have intended.) The word “rase” (also spelled raze) in CH-4 is used in the sense of erase. A variant of the first two lines of CH-9 is: “Now shall my leaping heart rejoice / To know Thy favour sure.”

This hymn also provides a lesson in what happens when we try editing a fine hymn. When Augustus Toplady (author of Rock of Ages) published this hymn, decades after it was written, he decided to change the opening line to “Begin my soul.” That would normally be acceptable–though I fail to see the need. However, in this case, the whole hymn is about speaking, not souls! Notice: “speak” (CH-1); “tell,” “sound,” and “sing” (CH-2); “proclaim” (CH3), etc. Often it’s far better to leave well enough alone!

M any years ago, an old Yorkshire preacher named William Dawson announced the singing of this hymn, and commented:

“I was coming once through Leeds, and saw a poor little [mentally disabled] lad rubbing at a brass plate, trying to rub out the name; but the poor lad did not know that the harder he rubbed, the brighter it shone. Now, friends, let’s sing [CH-4]:

Engraved as in eternal brass
The mighty promise shines;
Nor can the powers of darkness rase
Those everlasting lines.

Satan cannot rub it off. ‘His hand hath writ the Sacred Word / With an immortal pen’ [CH-3].”

What is the purpose of music? The answer is it all depends on why the song was written, and how it is used. Among other things, there is music for relaxation and cultural enrichment. There are songs to march to, songs to dance to, and music to express patriotism, or to commemorate some special event.

Not all songs are Christian hymns, of course. There is a great deal of beautiful and wholesome music, which effectively serves other purposes. But without question the highest purpose to which our songs can be put is to be employed in the worship of God, and in a proclamation of truths about Him.

No wonder words such as “sing,” and “song,” and “music” are found hundreds of times in the Scriptures, especially in Psalms, the hymn book of the Bible. Infinitely above all others, the Lord is a subject worth glorifying in song. That is likely a major motivating factor behind most of the hymns that have ever been written.

“Oh, give thanks to the LORD! Call upon His name; make known His deeds among the peoples! Sing to Him, sing psalms to Him; talk of all His wondrous works!” (I Chron. 16:8-9). “My tongue shall speak of Your righteousness and of Your praise all the day long” (Ps. 35:28). “I will sing of the mercies of the LORD forever; with my mouth will I make known Your faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 89:1).

Our hymns are a response to the revelation of the person of God, and to our enjoyment of His blessings. When we sing our sacred songs, we both sing to the Lord, and to one another about Him (Col. 3:16). And “the Lord…is worthy to be praised” says the psalmist (Ps. 18:3).

The saints will sound His praises through all eternity. “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:11). He is forever worth singing about.

CH-1) Begin, my tongue, some heav’nly theme
And speak some boundless thing;
The mighty works, or mightier name
Of our eternal King.

CH-2) Tell of His wondrous faithfulness
And sound His power abroad;
Sing the sweet promise of His grace,
And the performing God.

CH-6) His every word of grace is strong
As that which built the skies;
The voice that rolls the stars along
Speaks all the promises.

1) Why is it that so much of our comment and conversation is taken up with earthly themes?

2) How can we discipline ourselves (and encourage others) to talk more about “heavenly themes”?

Wordwise Hymns (Isaac Watts)
The Cyber Hymnal


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