I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.

Ralph M. Petersen

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Sunday, May 21, 2017


        At six weeks old Fanny Crosby developed an infection in her eyes.  Her doctor treated them with a mustard paste.  Fanny screamed with pain and her parents begged the doctor to remove the ointment. 

       But he insisted that it be left on her eyes for a full day to kill the infection.  When it was finally removed, the damage was done.  Her corneas were severely burned and Fanny spent her entire life in total blindness.

       About a year later her father died and her 21-year-old mother took a job as a maid to provide for herself and her daughter.  So Fanny was left in the care of her grandmother, Eunice, who devoted her life to raising and educating her granddaughter.  Eunice spent many hours reading the Bible to Fanny.  She taught her the importance of prayer and a close relationship with God.  

       Fanny had an amazing capacity for memorizing large passages of Scripture. She could quote the entire Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.  

       She considered her blindness a blessing from God.   She wrote, "It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it.  I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things around me."

       That attitude was evident early in her life.  When she was just eight years old, she wrote this poem:
"Oh, what a happy soul am I!   
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world,  
Contented, I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy,  
That other people don't.
To weep and sigh because I'm blind,  
I cannot and I won't."

       Those words remind us of Paul’s admonition to the church in Philippi.  “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me.”

       Fanny Crosby was the most prolific gospel songwriter in American History.  She wrote nearly 9000 hymns.  Her eyes were blind but her spiritual sight was razor sharp.  Many of her songs contain allusions to the day when she would finally see her Savior.   Here are some examples that you might recognize:

In “BLESSED ASSURANCE,” she wrote, “Visions of rapture now burst on my sight.

Or “HE HIDETH MY SOUL in the cleft of the rock, where rivers of pleasure I see.”

In ALL THE WAY MY SAVIOR LEADS ME, are the words, “Lo! A spring of joy I see.

And in, TO GOD BE THE GLORY, “But purer and higher and greater will be, Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Or in, TELL ME THE STORY OF JESUS; a story of love “so tender, clearer than ever I see.”

“NEAR THE CROSS! O Lamb of God, bring its scenes before me;”

REDEEMED has this phrase, “I know I shall see in His beauty, the King in whose law I delight;”

And in GIVE ME JESUS, these words; “let me view His constant smile.”

       Fanny once told her mother, "if I had a choice, I would choose to remain blind ... for when I die; the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my blessed Saviour."

       That remark may have been her inspiration for at least a couple songs; MY SAVIOR FIRST OF ALL has these great lyrics; “When my lifework is ended and I cross the swelling tide, when the bright and glorious morning I shall see; I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side, and His smile will be the first to welcome me.”

Or this one that we will sing today; And I shall see Him Face to Face and Tell the Story, SAVED BY GRACE.

1.  Someday the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing;
But, oh, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

2.  Someday my earthly house will fall;
I cannot tell how soon ’twill be;
But this I know—my All in All
Has now a place in heav’n for me.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

3.  Someday, when fades the golden sun
Beneath the rosy tinted west,
My blessed Lord will say, “Well done!”
And I shall enter into rest.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

4.  Someday: till then I’ll watch and wait,
My lamp all trimmed and burning bright,
That when my Savior ope's the gate,
My soul to Him may take its flight.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Early every Mother’s Day, my friend, Mike, always called his mother to sing “The Mother’s Song.”  But it wasn’t the original version most of us have heard; he kinda changed it up little – well, he sorta changed it a lot.  Actually, he butchered the song.

Here are his words to this Mother’s Day Serenade:

M- is for the MILLION things you gave me,
O- is for the OTHER things you gave me,
T- is for the THOUSAND things you gave me,
H- is for the HUNDRED things you gave,
E- is for EVERYTHING you gave me,
R- is for the REST of all you gave me.
Put them all together they spell MOTHER, 
The one who gave so much to me.

I’m sure his mother really appreciated his attention. And, even though the song was funny, it did acknowledge his mother’s the generous, giving nature.

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, suddenly announces that she never did care for pie.”

I didn’t realize it when I was young but my mother’s life was all about hard work and sacrifice for her seven children.  It wasn’t until I became a parent and saw my wife doing the same things, that I understood just how much mothers sacrifice for their kids.  That’s what mothers do.

And just about the time a mother thinks her work is done, she becomes a grandmother.  My wife’s giving never stops.  Just as my mother continued to give to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, my wife continues to give to our children and grandchildren.
I think God created mothers to demonstrate something of His sacrificial love for us.  Speaking through the prophet, He asked this rhetorical question, “Can a woman forget her nursing child or lack compassion for the child of her womb?”  

The obvious answer is NO!  But then He goes on with this promise of assurance; “Even if these forget, Yet I will not forget you.” 

My mom died about two years ago and, as I was sorting through some of her old stuff, I came across an interesting item that was tucked away in a page of her Bible.  It asked, “If you had a chance to tell your children something just before you died, what would you say?”

Her short answer was; “I would tell them to never stop going to church.”

She was a little awkward in expressing her faith but, I know what she wanted most.  If she could, she would have given each of us the gift of salvation; but she couldn’t.   All she could do was pray for us.  And I know that she didn’t really believe that church attendance would guarantee our salvation.  But she did know that regular church attendance would expose us to hearing God’s Word which has the power to convict us of sin and to save our souls.

Did you know that Motherhood is a blessing from God?  “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord.  The fruit of the womb is a reward.” (Psa. 127:3)

The song, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, is probably one of the most appropriate songs we could sing for Mother’s Day.  Every mother should praise God for the gift of her children.  Fathers, too, can be thankful for the mothers of their children.  And children should thank God for their mothers.

Now, I realize that this day is not pleasant for everyone.  In fact, it can be very painful.  Life is hard, there are many disappointments, and some of us may be called to bear unpleasant or terrible burdens or losses.  Like many of you, my mother experienced the pain and sorrow of seeing her own children suffering through cancer, divorce, sinful living, and even premature death.

Nevertheless, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS is a song for all Christians to sing.  In fact, it is more about our thankfulness in and through times of difficulties and sorrows than it is about our ease or comfort.  As Christians, we have so much to be thankful for.  

Paul, the Apostle reminds us that, “God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.  In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” (Isa. 49:15)

Sunday, May 7, 2017


John’s mother was a godly woman who took him to church every Sunday.  She taught him to read and memorize Scripture and hymns.  She prayed that God would use him in Christian ministry.  But when he was seven years old, she died and John was left with his stepmother who allowed him to run free and do whatever he wanted.  He got himself into a lot of trouble.

At the age of eleven, his worldly sea-captain father took him into the slave trading business where he worked as a seaman.  The sailor’s life was not a friendly wholesome environment for a young boy and John became vile and wretched; he had a reputation for his profanity and debauchery.  He was a really, really, bad dude.  

Not only did he grow to reject his mother's Christian faith, he actually led other sailors into unbelief.  Most people thought he was beyond hope and beyond saving.

He was 24 years old when his ship had become severely battered in a fierce storm that had raged on for nearly two weeks.  The canvas sails were thrashed to shreds and the wood planks on one side of the ship had been splintered and torn open.  The ship was taking on water.  They had little hope of survival, but they continued, night and day, working the mechanical pumps, trying to keep it afloat. After eleven days, John was too exhausted to pump so, he was tied to the helm and tried to hold the ship on its course.

That was when he remembered his mother’s teachings and his thoughts began to turn to Christ.  He realized that his life seemed as ruined and wrecked as the battered ship he was trying to steer through the storm.  A little later, he found a Bible and opened it to Proverbs 1:24-31 and, in that storm, he saw his own desperate condition reflected on the pages as if God had written these words just for him: 

“I tried to help, but you refused to listen. I offered my hand, but you turned away from me.  You ignored my advice and refused to be corrected.  So, I will laugh at your troubles and make fun of you when what you fear happens.  Disasters will strike you like a storm.  Problems will pound you like a strong wind.  Trouble and misery will weigh you down.

“Fools will call for me, but I will not answer. They will look for me, but they will not find me.  That is because they hated knowledge. They refused to fear and respect the LORD.  They ignored my advice and refused to be corrected.  They filled their lives with what they wanted. They went their own way so they will get what they deserve.”

That was a day John would never forget.  Almost 60 years later, he would write in his diary, "…I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise.  On that day, the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters."

He began a disciplined schedule of Bible study, prayer, and reading the works of other theologians.  At the age of 39, John began serving God in the pastoral ministry and he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ for 43 years.  He wrote and published hundreds of hymns, of which the most famous is "AMAZING GRACE."

John Newton was known as “The Great Blasphemer,” a nickname he had given himself because he knew what he once was; a rude, profane, slave-trading enemy of God.  And he knew that it was only by God’s AMAZING GRACE that he was saved from that storm and saved from God’s wrath.  John Newton never stopped being amazed by God's grace.  At the end of his life, he told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."

Sunday, April 30, 2017


Miss Cecil Humphreys was just 21 years old when she published her first book entitled "Verses for Holy Seasons." It was a children’s book that contained a hymn or poem for each Sunday of the year.

In her Sunday School classes, her students were often confused about the meaning of some of the statements in the Apostle’s Creed. So, she began to write easy to memorize verses in the children’s terminology.  Many of those verses were developed into hymns, some of which are familiar to us.

For example, the first phrase of the Apostle’s Creed is, "I believe in God the Father Almighty."  The song she wrote to explain that phrase was, All Things Bright and Beautiful. For "Born of the Virgin Mary" she wrote, Once in Royal David's City. And to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus who was crucified and buried, she wrote, There is a Green Hill far Away.

In 1848, she married the Rev. Mr. William Alexander and in that same year, she published her second book titled, "Hymns for Little Children," which included the songs that were inspired by the Creed. 

In total, she wrote over four hundred hymns and poems but, of all her works, JESUS CALLS US is the most often sung and best loved.  

It has been said that prayer is like having a direct telephone line to God.  We can call Him anytime.  But have you ever thought about the fact that the phone line goes in two directions? Do you realize that JESUS CALLS US

In our prayers, we tend to call out to God as if we think He should serve us or that He should do what we tell Him.  We expect Him to fix our messed up situations, patch up our bad relationships, bail us out of financial difficulties, or heal our diseases.  And sometimes maybe that is His will, but usually, that’s not the case.  Our place is not to make demands or impose our wills on Him but rather to yield to His will for us.

JESUS CALLS US to serve Him regardless of our circumstances.  Paul’s words, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, are helpful.  “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things, I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:11-13)

I think our best example, though, is Christ, Himself, when He was tempted in the wilderness.  He was weak, hungry, lonely, and despised.  Satan tempted Him with great promises of wealth, and political power, and physical comfort.

Yet Jesus didn’t grasp for those things.  He loved and trusted His Father more than His own life. And just as He had instructed His disciples when He taught them to pray, “Thy will be done,” He obediently did what He was sent to do.   It was His Father’s will that He should suffer and die for our sins.

And that’s the way God works in our lives too; He doesn’t normally just make us comfortable or give us lots of stuff.  He molds us in the presses and tests us in the fires because He wants to make us Holy.

The hymn starts with a note of encouragement; when our lives are full of hardship and turmoil, JESUS CALLS US, not to remove our difficulties but to follow Him in and through them.

Our God is a jealous god and He wants first place.  If people or hobbies or wealth or other vain idols dominate or control our lives, JESUS CALLS US to “dump the junk” and love Him more.

Whether we are happy or sad, whether life is easy or tough, whatever conditions or circumstances we are in, JESUS CALLS US to love Him more than anyone or anything else.

The final verse begins with a subtle reminder; the very fact that JESUS CALLS US is evidence of His love and mercy toward us.  The hymn concludes with a prayer, that, by His Spirit, we may hear Him, and that He would soften our hearts to serve Him and love Him best of all.

Sunday, April 23, 2017


Martin was an alcoholic who hated God; he wanted nothing to do with church or any kind of religion.   But his wife, Bertha, was a Christian who faithfully prayed for her husband’s salvation, for years.
Eventually, the light of the Gospel penetrated Martin’s heart.  God saved him and then delivered him from the grip of alcoholism.  At the time of that event, he publicly declared, “I would rather have Jesus than all the gold and silver in the world, and all the houses and lands that money could buy.” 

Later, Martin became a pastor.

He and Bertha had a daughter, named Rhea, who married Howard Miller, one of the young men in his church.

Howard was studying for the ministry and eventually pastored until he was recruited to serve as Dean of Religion at Northwest Nazarene College in Idaho. In 1940, he was elected a General Superintendent of the Nazarene denomination. 

After his death in 1948, Robert’s wife, Rhea, began teaching piano lessons to make ends meet.  But she had an unusual goal for her vocation; she taught free to children of pastors because, by the time they reached maturity, she wanted them to have skills they could use to serve God in His church.

One day during her devotions, Rhea recalled the words her father spoke at the time of his conversion, and she crafted them into a poem which is the song we have today.  Some sources indicate that she probably wrote a music score too, but her song remained unknown until a new score was composed years later.
George was born in 1909.  His father was a Wesleyan Methodist pastor in Canada and then later in New York.

As a young boy, George had a natural affinity for music and taught himself to play some chords on the piano.  He became a Christian at the age of 18 and, for a while, he attended Annesley College in Ottawa and later transferred to Houghton College in New York where he studied music until his funds were depleted.  He dropped out of school in 1929, the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, and landed a professional position as a medical clerk for the Mutual Insurance Company of New York. 

While working there, he met Fred Allen, the host of a national radio talent show.  Upon learning of George’s singing talent, Allen arranged for an audition.  A few weeks later George was singing on the National Broadcasting Company where he took second place and was offered a substantial salary to sing on the radio.

He was well on his way to fame in the broadcasting industry but shortly after that, something happened that changed the course of his life.  He tells about it in his book, How Sweet the Sound:

“At the age of twenty-three, I was living at home with my parents, continuing to work at Mutual Life Insurance and studying voice. Going to the piano one Sunday morning, I found a poem waiting for me there. I recognized my mother’s handwriting. She had copied the words of a poem by Mrs. Rhea F. Miller, knowing that I would read the beautiful message.  

"As I read these precious words:
‘I’d rather have Jesus than men’s applause. I’d rather be faithful to His dear cause,’ “I found myself singing the words in a melody that expressed the deep feelings of my heart.”

So, right there, that morning, George worked out the melody and wrote the music score.  When his mother heard his singing, she encouraged him to sing the new song in church the following Sunday.

George turned from secular entertainment to using his voice for the gospel in Christian radio and television broadcasting, and, from there, George Beverly Shea caught the attention of a young evangelist who recruited him as a gospel soloist for his Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1947.  

I’D RATHER HAVE JESUS became George Beverly Shea’s testimony and signature song which he sang at the close of the Billy Graham crusade meetings for about fifty years.   

Sunday, April 16, 2017


“WERE YOU THERE?” is one of many American spirituals that were sung by plantation slaves in the early 1800s.   The words are based on the New Testament narratives of the trial, persecution, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  

There is no known author, but it is likely that the song just evolved.  It was customary for the slaves to sing together, for comfort and encouragement, while they labored.  And because they had no formally written songs or accompaniment, usually one person would sing out a line.  And then the rest would repeat the line in full harmony.  In that kind of setting, it was not unusual, for several people, to chime in with a new line or thought and so, the song would grow.   These songs were then memorized and passed down through several generations.

This “Negro spiritual” follows that traditional style.

Each verse starts with the same question, “Were you there?” I read a recent account about a tourist who was visiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. And while he was there, he fell on his knees and began to weep.  Someone saw him and asked, “Sir, have you ever been here before?”

“Yes!” he answered, “I was here 2000 years ago.”

How can that be?  Well, it is clear from scripture (Acts 4:27), the death of Jesus was a corporate act of all sinful humanity against God.  We are all together guilty.

That man’s answer is my answer, “I was there.” 

According to God’s Word, before my life began in 1948, I was in Adam, both positionally and spiritually. 

Just as through one man (Adam), sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to all men since everyone has sinned.  (Romans 5:12)

So, God's Word says, I am a condemned sinner by nature.  The judgment for Adam's sin is my judgment.

But the Good News of the Gospel is that God sent a Redeemer (Jesus Christ).  Just as I was condemned to eternal death by the sin of my natural father, Adam, now I am made alive by the death of Jesus Christ who took my death penalty on Himself.

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"   

My answer is “Yes.  I was there.”  My sin nailed Him to the cross.  That’s why that tourist was weeping. 

But the death and burial of Jesus is not the end of story.  Christ arose; He is alive.  And so, the somber mood of this hymn changes to joy in this last stanza:

“Were you there when He rose up from the dead?
Sometimes I feel like shouting, Glory, glory, glory!"

I was there when Christ suffered and bled and died for my sin and now I am made alive and free.

Monday, April 10, 2017


How big is your God?  I noticed last week, in our Bible study (Behold Your God), one commentator made this statement: “(Our) great goal…is to be amazed with the bigness of God and to allow that to infiltrate and affect our lives in every arena of our lives.”

It seems like our culture, our country, and the whole world is rushing headlong into destruction.   Immorality, lawlessness, and godlessness is all around us and every day seems worse than the one before.  Consequently, many people, including Christians, are insecure, worried, and fearful.

It's NOT sufficient to simply acknowledge that God can or may use bad situations for our good.  We need to understand that God is much bigger than all our problems.  So, I continually remind myself; God is Sovereign.  But is He sovereign in ALL THINGS?  Do we really believe that?  Are we sure?

I know that most Christians will admit that God is in control but I wonder if we really believe that He controls ALL THINGS.   I sometimes ask that question of my Christian friends and almost every one of them answers "Yes, God is sovereign." 

But then, when I dig a little deeper and ask more specific questions about things like His control over our health, our environment, our finances, or even our salvation, the answers I get are often surprising.  One person answered, "Well, He is sovereign to a certain extent."

No!  God is not sovereign to an extent.  There is no extent to God; He is immeasurable and infinite.  He is not limited in any of His attributes.  If your god’s sovereignty is limited, then your god is not the true God as revealed in His Word.

A God who is truly Sovereign is NOT reactive; it's not simply that, because He knows the future, He manipulates circumstances and works to change the outcomes of bad things.  He is not on the defensive.  The truth is that He is proactive.  He has ORDAINED ALL THINGS for His Glory.

HYMN TO A GRACIOUS SOVEREIGN (sometimes called, O God, The Deep Immutable), is a hymn about the “bigness” of God.  It focusses our attention to the mighty power of a sovereign God who rules over ALL His creation.

The first stanza begins with one of His attributes; God is immutable; He NEVER changes.  He doesn’t change His mind or His plans.  And He is not changed by His creation.  He doesn’t learn anything; nothing has ever occurred to Him so He is not caught off guard by anything men do.

God is not changed by time either.  He doesn’t grow older, He doesn’t forget, and He isn’t uncertain or surprised about the future.

The second stanza assures us that He is not caught off guard by nature.   All creation, the entire universe, changes at His command.  (Are you worried about global climate change and the threat of rising sea levels?)  Well, Proverbs 8:29 informs us that, even the boundaries of the seas are set by God’s spoken Word.  He is the Sovereign ruler over ALL things.

He is not only a SOVEREIGN ruler; He is also a GRACIOUS ruler. After the song proclaims the vast, immeasurable wonder of His power and glory, the hymn writer uses the final two stanzas to reveal His grace, love, and mercy. Because He is immutable, His care for us never diminishes; “He who began a good work in us will complete it.” (Phil. 1:6)

God is in control and He, intricately, works all things together for the good of those He is saving.  And that is why, as Christians, we can find peace and great comfort even during times of hardship, persecution, or tribulation.  But, as the songwriter indicates, the greatest evidence of God’s graciousness is that “(He) demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8)

Sing to the tune of, "O Sing a Song of Bethlehem"  KINGSFOLD c.m.d.
O God, the deep immutable,
The changeless, wise and still;
The absolute, eternal One;
You wield the sov’reign will.
Deep Heav’n itself and even time,
Must bend beneath Your sway.
With whispered thought You banish night,
With flash of blinding day.
The seas are bounded by Your Word;
Great mountains heed Your call.
Majestic swirls of galaxies,
Adorn Your royal hall.
The centuries are lumps of clay,
Shaped by Your strength and skill.
You mold the long millennia,
To the dictates of Your will.
The boundless, black-robed skies proclaim,
Your vast, astonishing might;
Their flaming jewels rejoice for You,
In silent shouts of light.
With sure and sovereign strokes, Your hands,
Finger the cosmic strings,
And play celestial symphonies.
As all creation sings.
And silent now, the angels stare;
Stunned seraphs blush, amazed;
Great Michael sheaths the sword that, at,
The Gate of Eden, blazed.
And Gabriel sets his trump aside,
And listens to his Lord,
As Love, incomprehensible,
Becomes the Living Word.
Now, space and time have cracked before,
The size of this event:
The glorious Godhead shudders as,   
The Son, to Hell, is sent.
Though Very God of Very God,
He counts it all but loss,
And comes and suffers as a man,
From manger to the Cross.

Words by Neil Barham (used by permission)