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, within those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and support the text and the 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 few 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 these commentaries 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.

A complete list of hymns is located on the right side panel.

Ralph M. Petersen

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Sunday, April 15, 2018


WE’RE MARCHING TO ZION is another hybrid song.  It combines an excellent, old Isaac Watts hymn, COME WE THAT LOVE THE LORD, with an added refrain written by Robert Lowry.

Watts’ original hymn had at least ten stanzas; most hymnbooks today contain only four or five.

Isaac Watts lived in a time when most English churches insisted on singing Psalms only.  You may remember, young Isaac didn’t like that and complained to his father who said, “…if You don’t like it, then why don’t you write something better?”  

So, he did.  In fact, he gave us over 600 hymns most of which focus on the Sovereignty of God.

Today’s worship wars are nothing new.  Those hymns, written by Watts and others, stirred up a lot of conflicts, anger, and violence in the Church of England during the early 1700s.   In some cases, people were beaten, imprisoned, or even killed.  

In their attempts to avoid conflicts, some congregations split or dissolved.   Others, like many churches today, tried to mitigate their disputes by arranging a sort of compromise.   They didn’t go so far as to offer a choice between traditional and contemporary services; they just rearranged their services by singing Psalms at the beginning and then, after the preaching, they would sing hymns. 

But that wasn’t really a compromise because church members remained at odds.  What usually happened was that many of those who could not accept the hymn singing would just stand up walk out of the services after the preaching. 

Isaac Watts was an obnoxious genius who had a finely developed skill in the art of sarcasm.  There are some historians who suspect that his sarcasm may have been at play here in this hymn where, in his second stanza, he wrote, “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God,” as a cutting indictment against people who walked out of the church services during the hymn singing.

The refrain, composed later by Robert Lowry, was a good addition both musically and lyrically.  The transition from Watts’ verses to Lowry’s refrain is natural and comfortable in its style.  Musically, it feels right.   Lyrically, it picks up the theme from the fifth stanza -- “We’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground to fairer worlds on high.” 

When Lowry wrote “We’re Marching upward to Zion,” it was a reference to the City of God.

We are exhorted to, “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again, I say, Rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4)

And scripture gives us encouragement by the example of Christ; “…let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

This hymn is a picture of God’s people rejoicing.  We don’t always feel joyful; our conditions in this world are sometimes difficult and disappointing but we don’t just wander aimlessly through life dragging our feet with uncertainty.  As heirs of God’s love and grace, we can rejoice and march through life with purpose and confidence because we know where we are going.  WE’RE MARCHING TO ZION, that beautiful city of God.

Sunday, April 8, 2018


Throughout most of church history, some musicians have attempted to revive old hymns, make a few alterations, and reintroduce them to a new generation.
Sometimes writers make legitimate changes to correct doctrine or to clarify language difficulties.  And sometimes authors will add other stanzas that greatly improve the hymns.
That practice, however, is not without due criticism because sometimes those altered hymns border on plagiarism.

Probably the most notable hymn pirate today is Chris Tomlin who has earned an unseemly reputation by taking great hymns, changing the score, adding a refrain, renaming them, and then copyrighting them as his own creations.

But not all hymn changes are the result of piracy.
AT THE CROSS is one of those hybrid hymns.  It was originally written, without a refrain, in 1707 by Isaac Watts with the title, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?”

In 1885, Ralph Hudson republished it, complete and intact, with his added refrain and the new title, AT THE CROSS.  In every hymnbook, the lyrics are still attributed to Isaac Watts.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of critics who complain that the added refrain breaks the serious mood of Watts’ hymn.
But I would argue that the structure of this altered hymn is similar to the structure of Christ Arose.  It starts with a dark and somber feel because Jesus was crucified and buried.  But then, suddenly, the song explodes in joyful gladness because He is alive.

AT THE CROSS begins with Isaac Watts’ vivid picture of the crucifixion of Christ at Calvary and the seriousness of our sin.  It is not uncomfortable for most people to think or talk about the crucifixion in universal and impersonal terms (eg. “Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world”).  It is much more difficult when it is personalized.  The lyrics of this hymn are deliberately painful and designed to convict us.

When I think about that cross, I see the Son of God who was crucified for me.   He took the humiliation and shame of being stripped naked and paraded through the mocking crowds; He endured the beatings and scourging that tore His flesh to shreds and laid it open to expose His bones.  He is the One who was forsaken by His Father.  And He did all that for me.
The truth is, there is nothing good in me.  I can do NOTHING to merit God’s mercy and grace. So, in the last stanza, Isaac Watts concedes, “Drops of grief can never repay the debt of love I owe.”

It grieves me that I stand here, alive, knowing that His punishment should have been mine.  I deserved that death sentence.

I love Watts' hymn but I praise God for the message of Ralph Hudson’s added refrain.  It proclaims our hope.  The Light of God has penetrated our hearts.  Because of Calvary, the burdens of our sin and guilt are gone.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and THAT not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  (Eph. 2.8-9)  

(My other commentaries on Watts' hymn, "Alas!  And Did My Savior Die? can be seen here, here, and here.)

Sunday, April 1, 2018


My pastor and I frequently discuss the music we use in our church and we are in total agreement.  Things like style, instruments, and even the quality of the musical compositions are all secondary to the words; the message must be scripturally accurate and doctrinally sound because music is a great teaching tool and so much of what we believe about our faith, is often learned through our songs.

Robert Lowry held to that same conviction.  He was a popular Baptist preacher and educator in New England during the late 1800s.  Kenneth Osbeck, a noted hymnologist, wrote, “Lowry was recognized as a most capable minister of the gospel.  And he became known as a thorough Bible scholar and a brilliant and captivating orator; few preachers of his day had greater ability to paint word pictures and to inspire a congregation.  Music and …hymnology were his favorite studies, but always (and only) as a hobby.”

When asked about hymn writing, Lowry said, “It must be readily apprehended by the Christian consciousness, coming forth from the experience of the writer, and clothed in strong and inspiring words.”

"Music, with me, has been a side issue,” he said.  “. . . I would rather preach a gospel sermon to an appreciative audience than write a hymn.  I have always looked upon myself as a preacher and felt a sort of depreciation when I began to be known more as a composer."

Well, whether he liked it or not, it was his music, not his sermons, that made him famous.  Among his hymns are “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus,” and “Shall We Gather At the River.”   He also composed music scores for other writer’s texts, such as Isaac Watts’ hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion,” “I Need Thee Every Hour,” written by Annie Hawks, and Fanny Crosby’s hymn, “All the Way My Savior Leads Me.”

Robert Lowry wrote both the music score and the lyrics, of CHRIST AROSE, in one brief spontaneous setting one day while thinking about this account in Luke 24.  Some women had come to the tomb early Sunday morning and found the stone rolled away, and Jesus’ body missing.  The text says, “…And it happened, as they were greatly perplexed about this, that behold, two men stood by them in shining garments.  They said to the women, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here but is risen!’” 

Of all Lowry’s hymns, this is my favorite.  The dramatic contrast between the stanzas and the refrain is stunning.  The verse starts with a heavy, depressing feel.  Jesus had been crucified.   His body was sealed in the grave.  His weeping followers were in mourning.  Spiritual and physical darkness had covered the earth.
But then, suddenly, the refrain explodes with triumphant gladness.  Morning has come; Light penetrates the darkness.  The tomb is empty, He is not here! Jesus has risen from the dead and He is alive! 

After three days in that sealed tomb, Jesus rose just like He said He would.   And we know that to be true.  He really did rise from the dead.  Acts 1:3 records for us how, “after His suffering and resurrection, He appeared to His followers by many infallible proofs.”
And in his letter to the Church at Corinth, Paul records how Jesus was “seen alive by over 500 of his followers.”

They saw Him, they spoke with Him, and they touched Him.  He is the Son of God, He is alive.  And He is our Savior.  HALLELUJAH!  CHRIST AROSE!

Sunday, March 25, 2018


If you have lived here in So. California for any length of time, you’ve probably seen this historic landmark.  It is one of two giant red neon signs over Los Angeles that say, “JESUS SAVES.”

They were first installed on the downtown campus of The Bible Institute of Los Angeles, (BIOLA) in 1935 by the congregation of the Church of the Open Door under the pastorate of Dr. Louis Talbot.

In 1959, during the pastorate of Dr. J. Vernon McGee, BIOLA was relocated to La Mirada.  The original location of the Church of the Open Door was taken over by Gene Scott, the arrogant, obnoxious, cigar-smoking pastor known as “The Cussing Preacher of Faith Church.”  The facility was torn down in 1988.

Gene Scott salvaged the signs and installed them on his newly acquired location in the former United Artists Theatre on Broadway.  After he died, his widow assumed his pastorate and moved one of the signs to her relocated facility in Glendale.  The other sign still shines from its current location on top of the United Artists’ newly renovated Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

In 1954, Pricilla Owens wrote the song, JESUS SAVES, for a missionary service in her church, in Baltimore.

That phrase, JESUS SAVES, is the heart of the Gospel.  Salvation is a gift from God.  You cannot be saved by your good works, your church membership, or your sacrificial offerings.  (Eph. 2:8,9)

 “…for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Acts 4:12

And Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father, but by me.” John 14:6

The first stanza of the hymn alludes to Jesus’ instructions to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Mk. 16:15).

In the second stanza is a reference to the Year of Jubilee.  In the Mosaic Law, every 50th year, slaves were set free.  Spiritually speaking, that’s what happens where the Gospel is preached; sinners are set free from the bondage of sin.

If I tried to summarize the Gospel in just two words, I doubt that I could do better than the message of those neon signs.  And today, nearly eighty years later and despite an obnoxious preacher and a giant Hollywood corporation’s upscale hotel, the message, “JESUS SAVES,” is still boldly proclaimed in bright red neon lights over Los Angeles every night.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was a brilliant, highly educated man and one of England’s most revered Poet Laureates. But he was a fragile and emotionally, unstable mess. 

He was born in 1731 in England. Before the age of six, three of his siblings died, and then, his fifth sibling died at birth, along with his mother.

His father, a pastor, sent him to a boarding school where William learned very little about the Christian faith. He suffered with feelings of anxiety, isolation, disappointments, and a cold, weak relationship with his father, who pushed him into an education and law career for which he had no interest. 

At the age of 21, he began experiencing severe attacks of depression. His father died; his stepmother died, and his best friend drowned. He failed several suicide attempts and the woman he loved dumped him.

Facing a public bar examination, he suffered a mental breakdown and slipped into full clinical insanity. 

His brother committed him to a mental asylum. 

It was there he met a therapist who was reading one day. William asked him what he was reading and the therapist read to him, these words from Romans 3; …being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

When he finished that passage, the therapist explained the gospel to William. That was when Cowper understood that Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient to cover all his sin. 

After 18 months, he was released from the asylum, and he met a minister, Morley Unwin, who invited him to live with him and his family. Pastor Unwin died two years later so, Cowper and the Unwin family moved to the village of Olney where he became a friend and ministry assistant to John Newton.

But he could never stop slipping back into his episodes of mental darkness. To help him through, John Newton suggested they work together on hymn writing.

Even though Cooper struggled his entire life with the feeling of being under God’s wrath, he held on to the assurance that one day he would finally be free. 

In 1770, he wrote a hymn based on of Zech.13:1: “In that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for uncleanness.”

The hymn paints a vivid picture of Christ’s atoning blood and God’s forgiveness. 

THERE IS A FOUNTAIN filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins, and sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.” 

Saturday, March 10, 2018


There is a myth about the origin of many of our hymns that goes something like this:
"The melodies for some of our great hymns of the Christian faith were originally bar tunes."

Even though that's been debunked many times, it just won't go away.   The problem is a misunderstanding of musical terminology.  

Hymnwriters did, and still do use bar tunes, but that doesn't mean what we think.  The correct terminology is a “bar form,” which is a specific musical form where there are two identical or similar lines followed by a contrasting one.  That form would be noted musically, as AAB or in some cases, AABA.  (An example of that form would be the hymn, "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.")

Image result for rhino pirate
Although today’s Hymn was not written in a pure, classic bar form, it does fit the formula.  And the tune was associated with a well-known old tavern song, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd,” the infamous Scottish pirate.

That 18-verse ballad tells a very dark and stunning story about an arrogant man who, in the late 1600s, rejected his godly upbringing, thumbed his nose at God’s laws, and terrorized and murdered a lot of people.  Ultimately, he was hanged, publicly, in a cage and left to rot along the River Thames.

The first stanza says:
My name was William Kidd, as I sailed, as I sailed,
My name was William Kidd when I sailed,
My name was William Kidd; God’s laws I did forbid,
So wickedly I did, as I sailed.

In contrast to that ballad of a ruined sinful life, is an American Folk Spiritual, that shares the same tune and structure.  WHAT WONDROUS LOVE IS THIS? is a song of praise to God for His great grace and mercy.  It originated in the revivalist camp meetings of the American South.

Written music was rare in the early 1800's, and spiritual songs were passed down orally.  So, for ease of memorization, the writers kept their texts simple and used a lot of repetition.

This is a personal, introspective hymn that addresses our souls.   And, even though it’s simple, it is not shallow. 

It starts with a profound question and a fearful sense of overwhelming awe.  What kind of love is this that would cause the Lord to “bear the dreadful curse for my soul?”

It’s reminiscent of another hymn, written by Charles Wesley.  The first stanza of, And Can It Be, ends with similar language, "Amazing love!  How can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?"

WHAT WONDROUS LOVE IS THIS?  is a simple and biblical summary of the gospel.  It was God’s love that sent His Son to earth to bear the punishment for our sins.  Therefore, we should praise Him in this life and we look forward with assurance that we will sing His praises for eternity.

(the entire 18 verses of The Ballad of Captain Kid can be viewed HERE.)

The Ballad of Captain Kidd (Lyrics)

The lyrics for this ballad are printed here in full.  This song is referenced here in What Wondrous Love Is This.

My name was William Kidd, when I sailed, when I sailed,
My name was William Kidd when I sailed.
My name was William Kidd; God's laws I did forbid,
And so wickedly I did, when I sailed.

I was born in Greenock town, afore I sailed, afore I sailed,
I was born in Greenock town, afore I sailed
I was born in Greenock town, from where great ships they did abound
And they sailed the whole world round, afore I sailed.

Image result for rhino pirateMy parents taught me well, when I sailed, when I sailed,
My parents taught me well when I sailed.
My parents taught me well, to shun the gates of hell,
But against them, I rebelled, when I sailed.

I'd a Bible in my hand, when I sailed, when I sailed,
I'd a Bible in my hand when I sailed.
I'd a Bible in my hand, by my father's great command,
And I sunk it in the sand when I sailed.

I murdered William Moore, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I murdered William Moore, as I sailed.
I murdered William Moore and laid him in his gore
Not many leagues from shore, as I sailed.

I was sick and nigh to death, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I was sick and nigh to death, as I sailed,
I was sick and nigh to death, and I vowed with every breath
To walk in wisdom's ways, when I sailed.

I thought I was undone, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I thought I was undone, as I sailed.
I thought I was undone, and my wicked glass had run,
But health did soon return, as I sailed.

My repentance lasted not, as I sailed, as I sailed,
My repentance lasted not, as I sailed.
My repentance lasted not; my vows I soon forgot,
Damnation was my lot, as I sailed.

I steered from sound to sound, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I steered from sound to sound, as I sailed.
I steered from sound to sound, and many ships I found,
And all of them I burned,  as I sailed.

And being cruel still, as I sailed, as I sailed,
And being cruel still, as I sailed,
And being cruel still, my gunner I did kill,
And His precious blood did spill, as I sailed.

I spied three ships from France, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I spied three ships from France, as I sailed.
I spied three ships from France, and to them, I did advance,
And took them all by chance, as I sailed.

I spied three ships from Spain, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I spied three ships from Spain, as I sailed.
I spied three ships from Spain, I looted them for gain,
‘til most of them were slain, as I sailed.

I'd ninety bars of gold, as I sailed, as I sailed,
I'd ninety bars of gold, as I sailed.
I'd ninety bars of gold and dollars manifold,
With riches uncontrolled, as I sailed.

Thus, being o'ertaken at last, I must die, I must die,
Thus, being o'ertaken at last, I must die.
Thus, being o'ertaken at last, and into prison cast,
And sentence being passed, I must die.

Farewell, the raging main, I must die, I must die,
Farewell, the raging main, I must die.
Farewell, the raging main, to Turkey, France, and Spain,
I’ll never see you again, for I must die.

To the Execution Dock, I must go, I must go,
To the Execution Dock, I must go.
To the Execution Dock, while many thousands flock,
But I must bear the shock, and I must die.

Come all ye young and old, and see me die, see me die,
Come all ye young and old, and see me die.
Come all ye young and old, You're welcome to my gold,
For by it I've lost my soul, and I must die.

Take warning now by me, I must die, I must die,
Take warning now by me, For I must die,
Take a warning now by me, and shun bad company,
Lest you come to hell with me, for I must die.