Hymns have been called the poetry of God’s people, and for good reason. The congregational singing of lyrics deeply rooted in Scripture can help bridge the gap between the head and the heart, even words written hundreds of years ago.
You probably know it was John Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace,” the famed hymn that regularly tops church music charts. Newton, a former slave trader before he was converted to Christianity, once said of his life before Christ, “I sinned with a high hand, and I made it my study to tempt and seduce others.” But the rebel-turned abolitionist wrote hundreds of other hymns, too, including one that strikes me as yet another masterpiece from yesterday that should embolden us as believers today.
“Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” dates back to 1779. Newton is said to have composed it with the assistance of his friend, the Anglican hymnwriter William Cowper. The English poet was known for writing about everyday things – including the frustrations of the world.
Based on Psalm 87:3 and Isaiah 33:20-21, this hymn is confident, upbeat, joyful and even triumphant. In the first verse Newton declares, “On the Rock of Ages founded, what can shake thy sure repose? With salvation’s walls surrounded, thou may’st smile at all thy foes.”
In other words – the toil and trouble of the world? Bring it on. We need not fear it, because with God’s help, it can be handled.
But the hymn really hits its high point in the fourth verse.
“Let the world deride or pity,” we sing. “I will glory in Thy name. Fading is the sinner’s pleasure, all his pomp and show. Solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.”
We may think things have only recently eroded in culture, but here is Newton over two centuries ago urging believers to resist the lure of worldly things in favor of the eternal. Think the egos and carnal pleasures and temptations of today are new? Think again. Yes, names and circumstances change – but human nature does not.
As an increasing minority, we’re often mocked and derided for believing in the exclusivity of Jesus, the sanctity of human life, and biblical marriage, to name just a few of the distinctives of the Christian faith. But as Newton observes, it’s the people who are criticizing and lampooning us who actually need to be pitied.
In the end, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” is music centered on the glory and promises of God, and the glory and benefits of the Church. In a world that is growing increasingly dark, we can and should always take refuge in Him – and celebrate and lift up our local churches, who remain on the front lines of cultural engagement. As Newton wrote and the Lord promises time and time again in the Scriptures, “Glorious things of thee are spoken … He, whose word cannot be broken.”