Here is how author Frances Havergal describes the events that inspired the writing of this hymn:
When this hymn was first published in 1876, Hebrews 9:22 was quoted underneath the title: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin.” This song elaborates on that idea, repeatedly stating that “nothing but the blood of Jesus” purifies us. The third stanza acknowledges that “naught of good that I have done” can save. As the hymn is sung, contemplate the significance of sin in separating us from God, and the great value of Jesus's work on the cross.
Robert Lowry wrote the tune HOW CAN I KEEP FROM SINGING (also called ENDLESS SONG from the opening line of the first stanza) to accompany these words, and it appeared with the text in Bright Jewels in 1869. It was originally written in triple meter (3/2), but some modern hymnals have changed the tune to a slightly irregular duple meter (4/4) with a little syncopation. The tune is pentatonic with a consistent rhythmic pattern (in its original form), and works well when sung unaccompanied.
The opening stanza of this hymn echoes Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his word, obeying the voice of his word! Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers, who do his will! Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (Psalm 103:20-22, ESV) This hymn is based, in part, on the Te Deum laudamus, an ancient hymn that is still used in both the Eastern and Western branches of the Church.
The refrain of this hymn echoes the words of the apostle Paul, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14 ESV) The stanzas are a prayer that the Christian would always remember the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, and live faithfully in that memory.
The psalmist gave Psalm 100 the title, “A psalm of thanksgiving.” The opening verses tell us how this thanksgiving is to be rendered: boldly and jubilantly. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! … Come into his presence with singing!” (Psalm 100:1,2 ESV) The final stanza of this hymn, which is a paraphrase of Psalm 100, tells us why God deserves such unabashed worship: “His truth at all times firmly stood, And shall from age to age endure.” Sing this psalm with your whole being, for our good God deserves nothing less than whole-hearted praise.
The words of this hymn of praise allude frequently to scripture passages. The first stanza reminds one of Philippians 2:10-11, where “at the name of Jesus … every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord …” (ESV). The last two stanzas are especially rich with allusions to scenes of worship in Revelation, including a quotation from Revelation 7:10, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne!”
One of the best-known Bible verses on the topic of joy is Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (ESV). In a fallen world, it is easy to find excuses for being gloomy, but the apostle Paul wrote those words while a prisoner in Rome. In fact, despite his outwardly dreary circumstances, the whole letter to the Philippians is overflowing with joy and thankfulness. This hymn is a good reminder of the joy that Christians should display, regardless of circumstance.
On a Wednesday evening, Joseph Gilmore was preaching at a mid-week prayer service on the topic of Psalm 23. He wrote later, “I set out to give the people an exposition of the 23rd Psalm, but I got no further than the words ‘He leadeth me.’ Those words took hold of me as they had never done before.
The first three stanzas of this hymn explore both the contrast between the glory of heaven that Christ came from and the suffering He endured on earth, and the mystery of the love that motivated Him to make that journey. In stanza four we are reminded how God brings us to salvation in language that reminds us of Peter's experience in Acts 12:6-11, where God sent an angel to open the prison doors and loose Peter's chains. The final stanza is a jubilant celebration of our new state in Christ and the privilege of communion with God that we enjoy.