This hymn was written by William Cowper, a man who was afflicted with mental illness and depression for a large portion of his life. His illness got so severe that he tried to commit suicide three times. With treatment and the inspiration of his friend John Newton, he began to recover and write hymns. This hymn captures the mystery of God’s power, without questioning God’s goodness. The first line and title of the hymn, “God moves in a mysterious way,” has become a common saying to justify strange or tragic occurrences.
The theme of the hymn is the significance of the Christ-child. In the first stanza, he is depicted as a lowly, unremarkable human baby; some doubts exist as to whether someone so apparently ordinary could be so special. After the second stanza recounts the spectacular appearance of angels and wise men glorifying the Christ, the third stanza describes how the picture changed with this new understanding – no longer is he a stranger of dubious ability, but the undefiled Son of God who has come to save the world.
This hymn by Charles Wesley was written within a year of Wesley’s conversion. Thus, as Albert Bailey writes, “the inspiration of his newly-made contact with God was still fresh” (The Gospel in Hymns, 100). Rather than simply tell the nativity story, Wesley pours theological truths into this text. The first verse tells the story of the angels proclaiming Christ’s birth, and the second and third verse go on to make it very clear why the angels sang. Simply by describing Christ, Wesley tells us the entire Gospel story.
It’s a simply beautiful image: the shepherds in a great field, staring up in wonder at a sky full of the heavenly hosts, singing out their praise and joy, the echoes of their song of reverberating off the mountains to add to the cacophony. It isn’t hard to imagine the shepherds’ response. This group of young boys must have looked at each other wide-eyed, then whooped and cheered and run as fast as they could into the village, a stampede of sheep following them. Giddy with excitement and out of breath, did they burst into the stable and crowd around the manger?
This text is unique from Crosby’s other hymns because, rather than focus on our experience of God, the words are wholly about God and His perfect glory. In a sense, the hymn perfectly displaces us, removing us from the pedestal on which we so often place ourselves. This displacement is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. It feels very natural for us to seek attention, approval, and our own glory. We like to be in control and present our own image to the world, an image we seek to improve through any means possible.
In this song, we acknowledge our human inability to live righteously, but we also express awareness of the grace and strength that God gives us in our daily walk. Even such an esteemed saint as the apostle Paul acknowledged his need for this grace: “But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a, 10b ESV)
This song is about the importance of God's presence in times of sorrow and trial. As we beg for God's presence, we are echoing the call of God's people through many centuries: “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!” (Psalm 55:1 ESV) We can ask with assurance, for Jesus said, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV)
This song is about freedom from bondage. In the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, God sent Moses to Pharaoh repeatedly to carry the divine message, “Let My people go,” but each time Pharaoh refused. Sometimes the bondage of the Israelites became worse, yet God told Moses to persist, and eventually, the Israelites were freed after God had shown His power through the ten plagues. True freedom never comes unless the power of God is behind it; yet when God moves, He is irresistible.
This hymn paints a picture of communion with God in which fear and gloom have disappeared, and delight and joy saturate one's existence. This attractive life, however, is not free. The Christian must totally surrender control of his life to God and commit to trusting obedience of God's wishes. As the final stanza says, “what He says we will do, where He sends we will go.” Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30 ESV).
The last psalm in the Bible, Psalm 150, ends with this invitation: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.” German composer Joachim Neander gave us words to do just that when he wrote his most well-known hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Hymnologist John Julian declares this to be “a magnificent hymn of praise to God, perhaps the finest production of its author, and of the first rank in its class” (Dictionary of Hymnology).