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

Please follow this blog to keep notified of new entries.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A Note to Songleaders

"The people come together not to see you as a songster, but to praise the Lord in the beauty of holiness."  

Charles Spurgeon

Monday, February 13, 2017


I had a brief conversation with a friend, one day, about the Gospel.  Jack professed to be a Christian but there was no evidence of it in his speech, his actions, or his life.  When I began to question him about his faith, he said, “Hey! You don’t have to worry about me.  I’m okay with God; I did that thing years ago.”

That “thing” he referred to was a one-time event in his life when he repeated that prayer and accepted Jesus into his heart. 

And so, he had no interest in hearing the gospel.  He believed that he was a good person and that he had done all the things necessary to ensure his favor with God.   Jack passed away shortly after that.

The question each of us should ask ourselves is, What part did I have in my salvation?  What did I do to merit forgiveness and eternal life?  What good have I done that God should show favor toward me?

For those of us who are saved, the answer to all those questions is, “NOTHING.”  We were depraved.  We were destitute.  We were DEAD.  There was nothing any of us could do to merit God's favor.  There was no good that we could do to satisfy Him. 

The Good News of the Gospel is NOT that "God Loves You."  It's NOT that "He has a wonderful plan for your life."  It's NOT that "He is standing and knocking at the door of your heart” hoping that you might invite Him in.

So, what is the Gospel?  In summary, it starts with the bad news; we are all sinners worthy of God’s judgment and wrath, and there is nothing we can do to erase our sin or buy our pardon.  We need a Savior.  We need a Redeemer.

The good news is that Jesus is the only substitute in every aspect of a believer’s salvation.  He lived a perfect, sinless life of obedience to His Father and He did it for us.  He died a horrible death on the cross and endured the wrath of His Father, for us.  He was victorious over sin and death for us.  Our only right response, then, is to turn from our sin and trust Him for our salvation.

And Can It Be? Was written by Charles Wesley and it is one of our greatest Gospel Hymns.  It starts with a series of introspective questions:  Is Jesus’ blood of any concern to me?  Am I the cause of His pain?  Did I cause His death?  And then, as though the lights suddenly came on, the songwriter asks, “What is this amazing love?  How is it that You, my God, should die for ME?”

The whole plan of redemption was decreed, by God, the Father before we were even created.  It was secured by the Son of God, who is our Substitute, while we were yet dead in sin.

And verse two tells us that Jesus, in an act of mercy and grace, left the glory that was His and humbled Himself to become a man.  And He suffered a horrible death for the sins of His people. 

Verse three describes our miserable, helpless condition; we were bound in sin and spiritual darkness without hope until God intervened.  He broke the chains that imprisoned our souls, He shed His Light in our hearts, and He rescued us from the penalty of sin and death.

Finally, verse four is the glorious Good News; There is now, no more condemnation for those who believe.   Jesus paid the penalty for us. God’s justice is satisfied.  He imputed His Son’s righteousness to our account and He gave us new life.  “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  (Rom. 5:8)
This hymn should humble us when we realize that there is nothing we have done or can do to merit God’s amazing love, forgiveness, and salvation.     “(This) is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:10)

The song doesn’t do much for our egos but it does magnify and glorify our Savior.


Sunday, February 5, 2017


A pastor friend of mine, died about a month ago, at the age of 81 years.   Some of you knew him; his name was Tom Hilterman.  Years ago, he told me an amazing story about his friend, Bob Harrah.  In 1954, Bob was a janitor at Akron Baptist Temple, a large church with multiple ministries.

The church staff had planned to start a new church in a small facility about 60 miles away.  They leased a facility for one year, furnished it with chairs and hymnbooks, and assigned one of their associate pastors to start the new ministry.

After several months of unsuccessful efforts, the associate pastor gave up and returned to Akron.   Bob was sent to bring back the chairs and books and lock up the property.

As soon as he arrived, he sensed the Spirit of God calling him to that ministry, and he immediately phoned his pastor with a proposal.  He asked if they would be willing to continue his janitor’s salary for the remainder of the lease, and allow him to try to start up the new church.  His pastor agreed and Bob started to work.

He walked the neighborhood, knocking on doors.  At one home, he met some ladies with their mother and their aunt. They visited for a while and then Bob invited them to come to the very first meeting of the new church.  When Sunday arrived, those ladies were the only ones who attended but Bob conducted the service anyway.  He accompanied their singing with an old, beat up, guitar.

The next Sunday, again, only the six of them attended but Bob was not discouraged. He just kept inviting neighbors to church and preaching the Gospel.  God began to work in that church and, people’s lives were being changed.
One of those first six ladies was my pastor friend’s wife, Barbara.  During that first visit to her home, he asked her to read Romans 10: 9-10.  When Barbara read, “…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved,” she believed God’s Word and He saved her.

Bob pastored there for many years and eventually, that little church grew to about 350 members and they helped start about fifteen other churches.
By most people’s assessment, Pastor Bob Harrah was destined for failure.  He had no credentials, no education, no experience, and no idea what he was doing.  He used no modern marketing gimmicks, no Starbucks Coffee in the lobby, and no opinion polls to find out what the local community wanted in a church.  He didn’t even have a clever, church growth plan published by some megachurch celebrity preacher.

In fact, he didn’t have any books at all.   One day Tom Hilterman saw that Bob’s bookshelves were empty.  He thought, “Every pastor should have a library to help in his studies,” so Tom gave him some of his own books.  Later, during another visit, Tom noticed that there were still no books in Bob’s office, so he asked where they were.  “I gave them away,” he said, “I don’t need any other books.  I have the Bible; it’s enough.”

Every Sunday, Bob stepped up to his pulpit, opened his Bible, and began to do the only thing he knew; He read the Word of God.   And when he finished the passage, he always turned back to Isaiah 1:18 and read, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”
And then he moved the subject directly to the cross and he preached the gospel; he told his people how Jesus suffered and bled and died to pay the penalty for their sins and to provide for their salvation. 

Pastor Bob never deviated from that pattern.  He didn’t have much but he had all he needed; he just preached “The Book, The Blood, and The Blessed Hope.”

Several well-known hymns and gospel songs have been written that build on that three-point doctrinal pattern but my favorite is, MY FAITH HAS FOUND A RESTING PLACE.  Those foundational themes are emphasized throughout the hymn.  As you read through the lyrics, note how many times the author references the Word of God, the sacrificial Blood of Christ, and our salvation which is our Blessed Hope. 

And then, following each stanza is this great declaration of encouragement and assurance; “I need no other argument; I need no other plea.  It is enough that Jesus died and that He died for me.”


My faith has found a resting place,
Not in device nor creed.
I trust the ever-living One;
His wounds for me shall plead.

Enough for me that Jesus saves,
This ends my fear and doubt;
A sinful soul, I come to Him;
He'll never cast me out.

My heart is leaning on the Word-
The written Word of God;
Salvation by my Savior's Name;
Salvation through His blood.

My Great Physician heals the sick,
The lost He came to save.
For me His precious blood He shed;
For me His life He gave.

I need no other argument,
I need no other plea;
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that He died for me.

(see more commentary on this hymn here)

Monday, January 30, 2017


There was a children’s musical, written several years ago, with a song titled, Bullfrogs and Butterflies.   The song uses those two creatures as an analogy to teach children about the miraculous transformation that occurs in the new birth.  

Those kinds of lessons from nature are not accidental.  God has purposefully designed everything in His creation for His own praise and glory.  So, it should be no surprise whenever we find natural object lessons that reveal or teach us something about Him.  

And they occur in His Word too.  For example, the Aesop tale of the “Ant and the Grasshopper” was inspired by Proverbs 6.  In it, a wise man is compared to a hard-working and industrious ant, in contrast to the laziness of a sluggard.   

There is another animal that God uses, many times in Scripture, as an analogy for His people.  If it were up to me, I would have preferred the rhinoceros.  I could get excited about concepts like power, strength, and thick skin.  But Psalm 100 says, “…We are the SHEEP of His pasture.”

Of all the magnificent or beautiful animals in His creation, God compares His chosen people to dumb, helpless, gullible sheep.

Did you know that sheep cannot survive on their own?  If human life suddenly vanished from the face of the earth, all the sheep would be dead within a few days.  Sheep are creatures of habit and, if left alone, they become victims of their own demise.  Without a shepherd, they will do the same things every day.  They will go to the same places and eat in the same pasture. They will ravage the pasture until it is destroyed and they will pollute the ground until it breeds dangerous parasites. When they are thirsty, they indiscriminately drink any water that is available even if it’s dangerously contaminated.

Sheep are tense, “psychological basket cases.”  They are constantly in a state, of fear and aggravation, that keeps them from properly digesting their food.  They can’t clean themselves or shed their own winter coats in the hot summer.

They have no natural ability to defend themselves. They have no weapons, no camouflage, no speed and no sense.

Sheep need shepherds And, it is interesting to note that Jesus said,”My sheep hear my voice and they follow me.”  I think the fact that sheep tend to stay together is noteworthy and should cause us to understand the importance of our fellowship with other believers in a local assembly.  A sheep who wanders away from the flock is in immediate danger and is a convenient, “fast food meal” for any predator that comes along.

That’s why God appoints under-shepherds (pastors) to care for His flocks.  Peter, in his first letter to the churches, used that same figurative language to reminded the elders of their primary pastoral purpose,  He wrote, “Feed the flock of God which is among you…” 

The only way sheep can possibly survive is under the constant, watchful care of a shepherd.  God has given His under-shepherds a very narrow and specific job description.  Pastors are not called for social or political activism. They are not called to be entertainers. They are not to go chasing after goats.  They are called to lead, feed, guide, guard, and protect God’s sheep.   

SAVIOR, LIKE A SHEPHERD LEAD US, is a song that was originally intended for children.  And really, that’s the way we should all come to Him; trusting Him as little helpless little children.  And we should do it early while we still have time. 

In some ways, this hymn is reminiscent of Psalm 23.  It reveals just how needy and dependent we are.  But it also comforts us with many reminders of how our Great Shepherd cares for us:   

  • He feeds us 
  • He calms us for rest 
  • He guides us 
  • He provides for all our needs  
  • We belong to Him; He redeemed us  
  • He is our Friend; our guardian 
  • He chastens us when we stray  
  • He hears us when we call 
  •  He treats us with mercy and kindness
  • He loves us 
  • He cares for us
  • He cleans and grooms us

  We are just like helpless sheep.  We need the LORD to Shepherd us.       

Sunday, January 22, 2017


In our service this morning, 
I wanted to do something a little differently; 
I prepared the script for today’s hymn to speak
directly to the children in our congregation.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

What You Sing Is Who You Are


“It is the hymns repeated,
over and over again,
which form the container
of much of our faith. 

As such, they have taken
the place of our catechisms.
Tell me what you sing,
and I’ll tell you who you are!” 

Albert van den Heuvel 

Monday, January 16, 2017


SING PRAISE TO GOD WHO REIGNS ABOVE is a hymn that was written during a time of several converging events in church history.  

The Protestant Reformation started in Germany when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  That was in 1517, and just a few years later, by the time he died, the new Lutheran Church was strong and fervent and it was the dominant Christian force in Germany and throughout Europe.

Another contributing factor to the rise of Christianity in Northern Europe was the influence of the Bohemian-Moravian Brethren.  They were very zealous followers of John Huss, who, in 1415, had been burned at the stake because of his evangelical views.  The Brethren had migrated into Germany in search of religious freedom.

Then there was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).  It was a miserable time of persecution for Christians in Germany.  The Roman Catholic Church was at war against Protestants throughout Europe.  The German population had been reduced from 16 million to 6 million people.

By the middle of the century (just about one hundred years after the death of Martin Luther) the Lutheran Church was still doctrinally sound but they had lost much of their zeal.  In those days, Philipp Jacob Spener became the pastor of a congregation in Frankfurt.  One of his earliest members and his most trusted friend and helper in the ministry, was a young attorney, Johann Jakob Schutz.

At his suggestion, Philipp Spener began to hold small group gatherings in homes for prayer meetings and Bible studies.  His preaching heavily emphasized the need for repentance and personal piety.  His discipleship moved his people from dead orthodox rituals to active personal faith and holy living.  That became the basis for the Pietistic revival movement in the Lutheran Churches in Germany.

One notable difference between traditional Lutheranism and the new Pietism was the active involvement of the laity in the church.  The regular gathering together of believers became a participatory time of worship rather than a spectator event conducted by the clergy.

(So, what was this thing called Pietism?  The root of the word is “pious” and if you are like me, you might be suspect of it.  That’s because the meanings of words change over time.  Our modern usage has negative connotations; it means to be characterized by a sanctimonious or hypocritical pretense of virtue or religious devotion.

But the classic definition means to have or show a genuine spirit of respect or reverence for God.)

As the father of the new Pietist movement, Philipp Spener outlined his Five Guiding Principles in a document titled “Pious Desires”.  Those included:

• The increased use of scripture.

• Lay participation in small groups, emphasizing prayer and Bible study.

• A balance of faith and actions.

• An emphasis on a pious clergy.

• Sermons that encourage an active faith.

Because of the movement’s new emphasis on hymns and congregational singing, rather than just Psalms only,  many new German hymns were written during those years.   It was pastor Spener’s friend, Johann Schutz, who authored five hymns including “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above.”  His inspiration for the hymn was Deut. 32:3, “For I proclaim the Name of the Lord: Ascribe greatness to our God.”

And that verse is exactly the model he used for each stanza of this hymn. 

Verse 1 proclaims the All-Powerful God of creation and Salvation.

Verse 2 proclaims the Ever-Present God who is our help and our peace.

Verse 3 proclaims the joy of knowing God.

Verse 4 proclaims that our God is Christ, the Lord.

There are two other verses that are not printed in most of our hymnbooks.  One of them proclaims the God Who never sleeps; He is always in control.  

The other proclaims the God of Mercy. 

Each proclamation is followed by the same refrain: "To God, all praise and glory."