Another “favorite hymn,” “great old hymn,” that I’d like to add to the discussion is one I stumbled upon essentially by chance—or, as we ought to say, purely by God’s grace.
Somewhat early in my studies at Calvin College, when it was my turn to choose our family hymn, I was browsing through the indexes and happened to see John Calvin listed as one of the “Authors, Translators, and Sources.” So I picked the hymn listed there that night, and that hymn—this hymn—has become a favorite in our family.
I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Savior of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.
Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place;
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of Thy pure day.
Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
Sustain us by Thy faith and by Thy power,
And give us strength in every trying hour.
Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast Thou and no bitterness;
O grant to us the grace we find in Thee,
That we may dwell in perfect unity.
Our hope is in no other save in Thee;
Our faith is built upon Thy promise free;
Lord, give us peace, and make us calm and sure,
That in Thy strength we evermore endure.
This is, as I said, by—or at least attributed to—John Calvin. And so we should not be surprised that the theology this hymn expresses is solid, nor that the hymn (which was almost certainly written as a devotional poem, rather than a hymn, given the forms of worship in Calvin’s Geneva) is an effusion of thoughtful praise.
There’s so much in this hymn that we could go line-by-line finding proof-texts and exploring implications. But I mainly want to focus on its central theme: that Jesus Christ is the sole center, source, and goal of all of life. As the Apostle Paul put it in another context, “Christ is all, and in all.” When we sing this hymn, we remind him of his perfect attributes and entreat him to fulfil his sure promises.
One minor item that I’d like to bring out is in the last stanza, the line “Our faith is built upon thy promise free.” So often, it seems, “faith” is understood as this nebulous undefined thing that you either have or you don’t, but that doesn’t have any real connection to the real world. But the usage here matches my understanding of the Bible’s usage of the term: faith is simply trust, in God and in his promises (all of which “find their ‘yes’ in Christ”). Had God not made promises to us, we would have no reason to trust him.
The third stanza also talks about “faith,” alluding to the fact that without a firm confidence in Jesus and his promises, we cannot stand firm or endure to the end … and that this trust is not something we can produce on our own, but it, too, comes from God.
An interesting feature of this hymn is its meter. You don’t see many hymns written with ten syllables per line; lines of eight, seven, or six are far more common. (“Common Meter” is 188.8.131.52, and “Long Meter” is 184.108.40.206; both of those are so common that they have those names and are referred to by them in every hymnal published in the last century and more, while 10.10.10.10, like other less-common meters, is identified only by those numbers.) This isn’t quite the iambic pentameter (“blank verse”) that I write in, since the stresses fall in very different places, but it’s much closer than any other hymn I sing often enough to notice.
The tune that accompanies this in our hymnal, and in most hymnals, is “Toulon.” The hymnody I have to hand says it’s from the 1551 Genevan Psalter, and if so it’s not surprising that it’s fairly straightforward in both tune and harmony. After singing it as often as my family has for these six years or so, I can almost sing my part from memory (just not without the other parts going on around me). But “straightforward” does not mean dull! There are a few interesting moments in the harmony, the progression never leaves any of the parts sitting on a single note for measures on end, and there are even a few places where the inner parts (tenor and alto) can improvise to ornament the piece (by suspending a chord before it resolves, for example).
There’s one artistic touch that I like to try to do when we sing this. (I say “try to do” because my part, the alto part, is pitched at a slightly awkward point for my voice, moving between the bottom of my upper register and the top of my lower register; by the point in the hymn where I try this, I’ve gotten to where I can fairly comfortably sing my part, but I often can’t adjust tone colors very much without making my throat sore.) The fourth verse of this hymn speaks of Christ’s gentleness. So I like to sing that verse with a softer and warmer tone color, which I do by mixing in more of my falsetto or upper register and as little of my lower register as I can. I then go back to normal, and sing out as much as I can without breaking the part balance, for the last verse.
And there’s one place in the text that works particularly well with this tune, at least as the hymn is sung in our family: in the first line of the third verse, the comma after “Thou art the life” becomes a fairly hard break, as we all take a breath there.
Do you have any thoughts about this hymn?
- Hymn: “O the Depth of Love Divine” (shinecycle.wordpress.com)