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Background & Theological Analysis of "O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing"

Tue, Jan 13, 2015

Background

“O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” was written in May 1739 by Charles Wesley in remembrance of his moment of assurance and full conversion. The year before, Charles had become very sick and was cared for by a group of Christians. Their service, prayers, and testimonies during his sickness greatly affected Charles and caused him great reflection. While on the mend after the sickness, he was reading from his Bible and had an experience that would later be mirrored by his brother John at Aldersgate. Charles would point to this even as a great renewal of his faith. Hymn 57 in the United Methodist Hymnal was written in remembrance of this great renewal originally as an 18 stanza poem, but later shorted into a hymn for the Methodist hymnal of 1780.

Theological Analysis

“O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing” - hereafter “Hymn 57” - is a song of praise for the immeasurable grace of God towards humankind. Much more than a song of praise, Hymn 57 acts as a sort of testimony to the transformation that can happen when one accepts Jesus as one’s “gracious Master”, “God and King” and redeemer. In its present setting in the United Methodist Hymnal one can picture Charles and John singing praises to God for their assured salvation and his abundant grace in their lives. It is a shared hymn of praise and reflection for all who have experienced transformative grace of God in a powerful and clear way. As the first hymn in the hymnal it sets the tone for the theological task of the hymnal; to testify of and praise God for the free, transformative grace given to all humankind through Jesus Christ.

The theology of Hymn 57 can be broken into four main themes. First, God calls all humankind to salvific freedom and, secondly, this salvation is unearned and unwarranted. Third this salvation causes an actual change in the life and soul of the affected. Finally, that the correct response to these workings of God is to give him praise.

Jesus speaks his word of salvation to all sinners, even the “foulest” and the “humble poor”. The salvation of Jesus is not just for the good churchgoing folk, but the worst of sinners and lowest of society. There is no limit to his grace and no dark corner of the coal mine or city that his voice cannot reach. The prisoner - both metaphorically (to sin) and literally (actually in prison) - can be set free by the grace of God. The “lame”, “deaf”, “dumb”, and “blind”, too, are not excluded from his call of love. No ailment whether social, economic, or physical makes one incapable of relating to God through Jesus.

Not only does Jesus offer his grace to all of humankind, but he gives his grace to people without them having to earn it; his grace is free. Jesus “breaks the power of canceled sin”, not the works of the sinner. “He [Jesus] speaks” the words of salvation and the sinner “listening to his voice” receives the promised salvation, not by doing any specific action. Jesus “charms” the fears of those who accept him ceases his followers “sorrows”; he is the mover and actor, not the sinner. To those who feel powerless by their social and economic standing, who feel they cannot escape their station in life, the free grace offered by Jesus “‘tis music to [their] ears”. Even the “foulest” of sinners, those who society - and sometimes the church - say cannot be redeemed, by just “listening to his [Jesus’] voice” can be made clean. Jesus’ blood avails for all, not just the saintly.

The grace given by God is not just a mark on a heavenly balance sheet that removes one’s debt from sin, but rather affects an actual change. The grace of God through Christ accepted by a sinner becomes “life, and health, and peace”. The grace of God transforms the person assisting them “to proclaim” the love of God by loosening his or her mouth with the right words, metaphorically opening his or her eyes to see that which previously was unseen in the world, and allowing that which previously held him or her back to push him or her forward, leaping for joy. The forgiveness of sins - which the sinner can feel has happened (“feel you sins forgiven”) - allows the love of God to create a present heaven for the sinner in the sinner’s contemporary fallen world. For those living in the grace of God through Jesus the “mournful broken hearts” of the old self are now hearts that “rejoice”.

The correct response to the unmerited grace of God is not quiet, prayerful introspection, but to praise and glorify God through song and the sharing of his grace to “all the earth abroad”. God, himself, will assist the sinner in proclaiming his grace and building the kingdom of love on earth, that “heaven below”. The triumph and honor of God is not his sovereignty or power, but how he used his divinity toward humankind. Instead of justly keeping the prisoner in chains, he freed him or her. Instead of our justly deserved death in sin, he gives humankind life (“life the dead receive”). The only correct response to this grace is loud praise and words of honors and thanks.

Hymn 57 is a great start to the United Methodist Hymnal and a course on United Methodist Theology. Contained within the hymn are the “peculiarities” that make a “people called Methodist” distinct within Christ’s Holy Church. Hymn 57 affirms the Methodist belief that God calls all to salvation through prevenient grace and that the acceptance of that gift of grace causes a real change in the person, sanctification. With all Christians Methodist praise God for his unwarranted grace and sing songs to his honor.