In ancient times, people believed that as the planets revolved in the universe, they made music or harmony. This is the belief Maltbie Babcock referred to in the line, “and round me rings the music of the spheres.” Though this belief has since been disproven, we know that objects in space do in fact emit sounds. Even more amazing, the ocean is also making noices at its very lowest and darkest depths - sounds which scientists are still unable to identify. The whole universe is singing a song of its creation, revealing something to us about He who created it.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Bishop John William Colenso of Natal raised a ruckus in the Catholic Church when he challenged the historicity and authority of many of the Old Testament books.
This song is an African-American spiritual, but the time and place of origin are unknown. It is a song of declaration using water as a simile to describe the qualities of peace, joy, and love in three stanzas. The image of the first stanza, “peace like a river,” may have come from Isaiah 66:12, where a similar picture is used.
In Revelation, the apostle John describes his vision of heaven and the new Jerusalem. Not only is it a gorgeous place, “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2 ESV), with pearls, gold, and jewels, but it is also a place of joy and light. “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4 ESV). “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5 ESV).
Samuel Trevor Francis is the author of this hymn. Nothing else about it is known for sure. There is a legend that he wrote it as a personal testimony after nearly committing suicide as a young man by jumping into the Thames River off London’s Hungerford Bridge. While this suggests a certain dramatic angle for interpreting the hymn, no reputable evidence has been found to corroborate the story.
In 1752, a young Robert Robinson attended an evangelical meeting to heckle the believers and make fun of the proceedings. Instead, he listened in awe to the words of the great preacher George Whitefield, and in 1755, at the age of twenty, Robinson responded to the call he felt three years earlier and became a Christian. Another three years later, when preparing a sermon for his church in Norfolk, England, he penned the words that have become one of the church’s most-loved hymns: “Come, thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace.”
Sometimes during His earthly ministry, Jesus would withdraw to a secluded place to pray (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, etc.). The early church followed His practice of regular prayer (Acts 2:42), and Paul encouraged its continuance in some of his letters. He wrote, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2 ESV). This hymn is an expression of the joy that can come when believers, individually and corporately, pray regularly.
The content of the hymn centers on the power and necessity of music in worship. Similar to the great reformer Martin Luther, Fred Pratt Green believes that music is an integral part of our faith practice. He boldly states that music can open new dimensions that bring profundity to our lives. All people who have a voice should lift in song.
When William Cowper, who had suffered from severe depression since the death of his mother when he was just six years old, was faced with the prospect of a final law examination before the House of Lords, he experienced a mental breakdown that he never fully recovered from. Having been sent to St. Alban’s asylum for eighteen months, he began to read the Bible, which brought some peace to his mind, and he was able to leave and live with his good family friend, famed author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton.
Confession is one of the most important practices of the Christian faith, and it is emphasized in this hymn based off King David’s Psalm 51. In Psalm 51, David cries out to the Lord for mercy, begging for cleansing and renewal. We see the pleas of a fallen man, desperate to make things right with God. It does not hold back any sin, but confesses all. This hymn is powerful both in and out of scriptural context. It takes the confession of an ancient king, and applies it to all sinners in every age.