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

Please follow this blog to keep notified of new entries.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


If you were to Google Search for lists of the greatest Hymns of the Christian faith, HOW FIRM A FOUNDATION, would be on almost all of them.  The title of this song is also its theme- We have a Rock Solid Faith that is built on a Firm Foundation which is God’s Word.  

Some other hymns with similar themes, come to mind like Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation, or how about, “On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”  

This is the kind of stuff that builds confidence.  Authentic Biblical Faith isn’t fuzzy; it’s not iffy; it’s not uncertain.   When someone asks, “Are you sure you’re going to be with the Lord when you die?” we don’t have to offer meek, squishy-sounding, answers like, “I think so," or "I hope so.”   We can respond with absolute assurance, “I Know That My Redeemer Lives, and because He lives, I too shall live.”   Those of us whom God has redeemed can rest assured that our salvation is solid and unshakeable. 

Some people would say (and there are whole denominations that say), that kind of attitude is proud, or arrogant, or boastful; that we can’t possibly know for sure.  And they would be right if our confidence was in ourselves.  

But our confidence is not in anything we do; it’s not in our self-righteousness, our works, or our religious devices.  In fact, this might come as a surprise to you, –-  If you’re saved, it’s not because your walked down an aisle or repeated a prayer.   Salvation is of the Lord. You are saved if you are trusting, totally, in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone.   

Every line, of these lyrics, has a sense of power and authority as though God, Himself, is actually speaking.  And that's because almost all of these lyrics are paraphrases of, allusions to, or quote from some text from God’s immutable Word. 
And so, in verse one, we see that the foundation for our faith is laid in the excellence of His unchanging Word.  The Apostle Paul tells us that we are “members of the household of God, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets;” that foundation being the very Words of God.  And then he anchors that figurative building on the Living Word, Jesus Christ, Himself, being the chief cornerstone.   What more can He say?  We don’t need any new revelation from God.  He has spoken!

The second verse, then, assures us that we have no need to fear anything.  It’s almost an exact quote from Isaiah 41:10: “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”

Aren’t you glad that your salvation is not dependent on your own works of righteousness?    The God who saves us is always with us.  The Spirit of God indwells us.  He helps us; He strengthens us, and He hold us up with His own all-powerful hand.

The third verse contains God’s promise that His grace is completely sufficient for every need.  Even when He takes us through extreme trials and persecutions, He does it to refine us and to purify us for our good and His glory.    

We are weak but God is Strong.  Sometimes we might wonder and question, but we can be confident that the foundation of our faith is Sure.  It cannot fail because Jesus never fails.  And God’s Word is on the record.  “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread…, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you.   He will not leave you or forsake you.”
So the song ends with one of the most powerful promises of assurance ever put to music;  

          The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose,
                    I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
          That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
                   I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.


Monday, May 23, 2016


There aren’t very many good hymns about the Holy Spirit and His work in our lives but SPIRIT OF GOD, DESCEND UPON MY HEART is one that is both doctrinally correct and really rich in good theology.  It was written by George Croly, a pastor in London, in the 1800s.

I think the key thought throughout this prayer, is “We are weak but God is Strong.”

He begins this prayer, with a recognition of his need (which is what we all need).  God commands us to “Be filled with the Spirit.”  But our problem is our flesh.  We were born in this world and we live in this world.  It’ all we know and we love it.  But it is temporal; it’s all going to burn. We need to be weaned from the natural world and drawn close to Him.  But we are weak and unable to love God.  We need the power of the Spirit to “descend on us and to make us love Him.”   If God doesn’t make us love Him, we will not love Him.

The second verse does not appear in many of our contemporary hymnbooks, probably because of errant teachings that began in the Pentecostal denominations in the 1920s.  That’s unfortunate because the implications, of this verse, are important:

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies;
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

It’s a natural human desire to experience God and see Him work in spectacular ways. But that is not the norm.    The hymn writer doesn’t ask for any special signs. 
 Throughout their history, the Jews demanded signs and wonders.  But in these days, God HAS revealed Himself.  The Word of God became flesh, and now, we don’t need signs and wonders.  Jesus said, “It is a weak and adulterous generation that seeks after a sign.”  

God is real and His Spirit indwells His people.  Our problem is that our souls have been darkened by sin and so our faith is clouded.  So Croly prays: “Take the dimness of my soul away.”

The next verse summarizes another command and exposes our weakness. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  We all fail that commandment; we are unable to keep God’s commandments.  That makes us all guilty sinners, deserving of death. 

But the author points to our hope; “I see Thy cross there, teach my heart to cling.”   

The cross is not just the beginning of our salvation.  It’s always at the forefront of our new lives.  It was the blood of Jesus that saved us and atoned for our sin.  It’s His cross that we cling to; It was His shed blood and the sacrifice of His body that Jesus commanded us to remember whenever we gather together.  We cannot save ourselves. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission for sin.”

The verse continues, "O, let me seek Thee and, O, let me find."  That phrase seems contradictory to the modern philosophy of the seeker-sensitive church growth culture today, but according to Scripture, the natural man is hostile to God and does not seek Him.  If God does not seek and save those who are lost; if He does not reveal Himself, we have no power to find Christ.

It’s normal for us to go through times when we feel that God isn’t near.   Sometimes it’s because of doubt which is a weakness of faith.  Other times it is just rebelliousness.  In verse four, the songwriter uses a strange little phrase; "The rebel sigh."  Anyone who has had children has heard it.   You all know what it is:  When Dad or Mom gives an order, the children might obey, but they often do it reluctantly with a rebellious attitude.  And sometimes they do it with a noticeable look of scorn that is often followed by an audible, heavy, disgusted sigh.  That’s the rebel sigh.   We hate that when our children do that but we are all guilty; we do that to God.  Instead of obeying Him cheerfully, we do it with "the rebel sigh." So Croly prays, "Holy Spirit, teach me to check that “rebel sigh."

Finally, in verse five, he writes, "Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, one holy passion filling all my frame."

Do we love God the way His angels love Him?  They are completely dedicated to Him; They obey Him with total submission and they surround Him with adoration.  And that, by the way, is what true worship looks like. So George Croly ends this amazing prayer with a request; that the Spirit of God would descend on him, fill him with a holy passion, and consume him with a burning love for the Lord.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

This Old House

Saturday (March 1, 2014) was my birthday so first I want to say "Thank You" to everyone who wished me a happy day.

But this particular day was different from all the others.  When my pastor emailed a happy birthday greeting to me, I thanked him and then reminded him that “today begins my exit year,”  To which he inquired, “OK, so what’s on your bucket list?

This birthday was #66; a unique day that I have been anticipating for about ten years.  This birthday marks the year that I have been predicting my death since 2004.  I am not going to elaborate on why or how in this column.  It is a whole column on its own and you can read all about it here.

Of course, I say all this with tongue in cheek.  I don’t pretend to have any special gift of prophecy nor am I planning suicide.

However, I do know that as good, and strong, and healthy, and capable as I felt ten years ago, at age 66, I see the evidence of rapid deterioration and I sense the imminent approach of death.  And I am not going bore you all with whiny complaints about my ailments, pains, disabilities, or weaknesses; there are plenty of other people around us who love to do that.  

Instead, I’ll just refer to this old song, written by Stuart Hamblin.   I heard it often when I was a child.  I appreciate it much better now; all the things he mentioned in the song, I understand now by experience.

“This Old House” is a metaphor for the run-down body of an old man.  He was once a strong protector who now, can’t even get up to go hunting with his dog.  He’s weak and worn out.  His joints creak and ache and things just don’t work right anymore.  His senses are dim and his memory is fading.  But he is looking forward to the day when God will raise him up with a brand new, incorruptible "house" and usher him into glory.  What a glorious day that will be.

(Disclaimer - I'm not going to edit any part of these song lyrics.  If you think anything in this song is racist, please spare me from your inane comments.  Get a dictionary, get educated, and then get a life.)

This old house once knew my children
     This old house once knew my wife
This old house was home and shelter as we fought the storms of life
     This old house once rang with laughter
This old house heard many shouts
     Now she trembles in the darkness when the lightnin' walks about.

This old house is getting shaky
     This old house is getting old
This old house lets in the rain and this old house lets in the cold
     On my knees, I'm getting chilly
But I feel no fear or pain
     'Cause I see an angel peeking through a broken window pane.

Now my old dog lies asleepin'
     He don't know I'm gonna leave
Else he'd wake up by the fireplace and he'd sit there, howl and grieve.
     But my hunting days are over
Ain't gonna hunt the 'coon no more
     Gabriel done brought in the chariot when the wind blew down the door,

Ain't gonna need this house no longer
     Ain't gonna need this house no more
Ain't got time to fix the shingles
     Ain't got time to fix the floor
Ain't got time to oil the hinges
      Nor to mend the window pane
Ain't gonna need this house no longer
     I'm getting ready to meet the saints

I guess I kinda identify with this prayer of Moses, "... I am not able to bear all these people alone, because the burden is too heavy for me.   If You treat me like this, please kill me here and now—if I have found favor in Your sight—and do not let me see my wretchedness!”  Numbers 11:14-15

BUCKET LIST?  Are you kidding?  I ain’t got no stinkin’ bucket list.  I have never thought about making a bucket list.  But, since he brought it up, I have been thinking about some things I would like to do before I leave.

  • I think I would like to have a classic Harley Davidson motorcycle.
  • I would like to take an extended road trip across the country with no itinerary, no calendar, no clock, and no destination.
  • I’d like to leave The People’s Republik of Kalifornia and move to an independent, free country like Texas.

But then I realized that I will not be doing any of these things as long as my wife is alive.  And since she is “much” younger, stronger, healthier, kinder, wiser, and better looking than I, she will probably outlast me.  So I will just be content to kick an empty bucket until the Lord sees fit to give me a new "house."

(I wonder if they have Harley Davidson motorcycles in Heaven?)

Monday, May 16, 2016


Philip Paul Bliss, was a well-known teacher, evangelist, and soloist. During his short lifetime of only 38 years, he wrote many hymns among which are “Hallelujah! What a Savior,” “Let the Lower Lights Be Burning,” and “Jesus Loves Even Me.”  And he wrote music scores for several hymns including, “It Is Well with My Soul.”  

Philip traveled frequently with his wife, Lucy, and their children, to assist with music in evangelistic services.  One day, they attended a revival service. The song leader was absent and so the music was weak but Philips’ superb singing voice stood out in the congregational singing.   At the end of the meeting, the evangelist made his way to meet the Bliss family.  That was the beginning of his association with Dwight L. Moody. According to Philip, within about two minutes, Moody had his testimony, his history, and his promise to assist with song leading in future tabernacle services.  

In 1876, shortly after Christmas, Philip received a telegram from Moody, asking him to come to another crusade.   This time, he and his wife left the children with their grandparents and made the trip.   On the last evening of that crusade, Philip Bliss spoke these words in a brief, closing message to the congregation: “I may not pass this way again.”  Then he ended the service with a solo, “I’m Going Home Tomorrow.”   Those words and that song would prove to be prophetic.

The next evening, they began their return trip home.  About 7 p.m. on December 29, 1876, their train was crossing a trestle when the bridge collapsed and eleven rail cars plunged seventy feet down into a cold, icy river at the bottom of the ravine.  Even before all the cars hit the bottom, they were already engulfed in flames set on fire by the kerosene heaters.

Philip escaped the burning car through a window but then, realizing that his wife was still trapped and, against the urgings of others, went back in to find her.  According to witnesses, he said: “If I cannot save her, I will perish with her.”  Their bodies were never found.  Of the 159 passengers, 92 were killed and most of the survivors were seriously injured.

The Bliss’ luggage was recovered from the wreckage and with it was the handwritten, unpublished lyrics to his newest song, I WILL SING OF MY REDEEMER.  Within a few months, the hymn was set to music by composer and evangelist, James McGranahan. That same year, singer and musician George Cole Stebbins made a recording which was one of the first songs ever to be recorded on Thomas Edison’s new invention, the phonograph.

About Philip Bliss, D. L, Moody said, "In my estimate, he was the most highly honored of God, of any man of his time, as a writer and singer of Gospel Songs, and with all his gifts he was the most humble man I ever knew. I loved him as a brother, and shall cherish his memory...."

This hymn is a simple but precise expression the truth of the Gospel;

Sing, O sing of my Redeemer.
With His blood, He purchased me.
On the Cross, He sealed my pardon,
Paid the debt and made me free.


Monday, May 9, 2016


The story behind this hymn was told by Dr. Torrey, who was the President of Moody Bible Institute in the mid-1800s.  He told how he had received a letter from a pastor with a troublesome and rebellious son.  The father hoped that attendance at Moody would help. 

Dr. Torrey advised him that, even though he sympathized with him, his responsibility was to run a Bible school and not a reform school, and so he had to deny the father’s request. 

After many letters of relentless pleading, Dr. Torrey finally gave in with the stipulations that the son must meet with him every day and must abide by the rules and requirements of the Institute.

After months of private counseling, the father’s prayers were answered.  The boy, William Newell, was saved.  He eventually became a minister and later returned to Moody Bible Institute as a teacher.

It was a fascinating story but I want to focus on the text of the hymn.  It makes an excellent presentation of the gospel of grace which he originally wrote as a chronological account of his personal testimony in the form of a poem.

Verse 1 starts with his wasted past.  Note the first phrase, “Years I spent in vanity and pride.”  He was self-absorbed, self-sufficient, arrogant, and, even though he was a preacher’s kid, he was unconcerned about God and unreceptive to the message of the Gospel.
And that is the sinful condition of every man.  We are all born with depraved natures, incapable of doing good and bound for judgment and the eternal wrath of a holy God.  BUT GOD sent His Son to die for our sins AT CALVARY.

In verse 2, are the words, “At last, Then, and Until.”  They follow all those “years in the author’s “past.”
Then there came a turning point in William’s life and it wasn’t of his own efforts or good works.  In his words, it happened when, “By God’s Word, at last, my sin I learned.” That’s when the Spirit of God opened his ears to hear, and the Word of God penetrated his heart.

It’s the through the preaching of the Gospel that men are saved.  We aren’t saved simply by warm fuzzy messages about how much God loves us.  A true Gospel message must bring us to a clear understanding that the law, God’s moral standard, has been broken and we are guilty and deserve judgment.

“Then, he said, I trembled at the Law I’d spurned.” Once William Newell realized that, the Spirit of God convicted him and made him aware of his need for a Savior.  And the result of that was his turning to the Only remedy; the Only way to salvation; the Cross of Jesus Christ AT CALVARY

In verse three William describes the result of his new faith in Jesus Christ.   He expressed it this way, “Now I’ve given to Jesus, everything, Now I gladly own Him as my King.”

When God saves us, there will be evidence of a changed life that surrenders to His Lordship and a heart that is naturally filled with His praises.
And therefore, William Newell finishes his poem with a great song of praise:

“Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan!
Oh, the grace that brought it down to man!
Oh, the mighty gulf that God did span AT CALVARY!”



Warning – Use this song with discretion.
Most of our hymnbooks contain songs that were written by people of weak, questionable, or downright heretical theological beliefs and I have featured several of them on the basis of their doctrinal accuracy and merit. 

 I took some heat the morning I featured this song.  I knew the author was a heretic and a false teacher.  He was a leading personality in the liberal, theological movement known as Modernism.  He was responsible for the propagation a lot of misleading, unbiblical, and damnable doctrine that resulted in a massive exodus of many Baptists, from the Northern Baptist Convention in the early 1900s.
Nevertheless, this hymn is not a reflection of the man's doctrine; it is sound and useful on its own merit, regardless of its origin. Like the old adage goes, “Even a broken clock is right twice a day.”

I deliberately avoided shining any attention on Fosdick other than to simply name him and to put the song in its historical context because I didn't think it would be helpful to unnecessarily stir up irrelevant controversy.

This hymn is a prayer that asks God to save us from the “fears that long had bound us” and to “free our hearts to faith and praise.” 

It is natural for us to be discouraged and fearful, and to doubt that we can face evil when it seems like it’s all around us.   In those difficult times, we are often tempted to retreat, to keep quiet, and to wait for the evil to blow over.  

But evil never blows over, it must be opposed.  And It usually takes real sacrifices of dedicated and courageous men and women to stand for God’s Truth and Righteousness against an evil world.

I thought America, in the 1970s, was pretty bad but we are now living in terrible fearful times of great moral depravity, lawlessness, and spiritual wickedness in high places like I have not seen in MY lifetime.  Trouble is all around us.  There are real threats to our nation, our culture, and our lives so this hymn of petition seems appropriate today, "Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of THIS hour." 

That is a timeless petition because there is never a time when we don’t need God's help "for the facing of this hour."

The song was written by Harry Emerson Fosdick.  He was ordained in 1903 as a Baptist minister.  John D. Rockefeller enlisted him to serve as pastor of a new, liberal church that he was building; the Riverside Church, near Harlem. 

Fosdick wrote the hymn, GOD OF GRACE AND GOD OF GLORY, in 1930, to be sung at the opening day service of the new church.  And it wasn’t because of the hardships he would face in the startup of a new church.  The petition was for grace and courage through troublesome times.  

The “hour” that THEY were facing, at that time, was foreboding.  It was the Great Depression – a terrible economic disaster that had drained lives and hopes out of a nation that had already experience moral decadence, lawlessness, and wickedness for a decade before. 

The song was an appropriate prayer for them then, and it is a good prayer for us today.


God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

Set our feet on lofty places,
Gird our lives that they may be,
Armored with all Christ-like graces,
In the fight to set men free.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
That we fail not man nor Thee,
That we fail not man nor Thee.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.


Monday, May 2, 2016


The opening lines of this song start with some very strange language; “I must needs go home.”

The phrase, must needs, is archaic; it dates back to Middle English texts in the 1500s.  And it was almost always used in its fuller form, which was, “needs must when the devil drives.” 

Shakespeare used it several times in His plays.  For example, in 1601 he wrote this dialogue in, All's Well That Ends Well:

The Countess (addressing the clown) said, “Tell me thy reason why thou wilt marry.”

The Clown answered, “My poor body, madam, requires it:  I am driven on by the flesh; and he must needs go that the devil drives.

In other words, to paraphrase it in modern language, “if the devil is driving you, you have no choice.”

By the 1900s, the phrase had been pared down to just two words, as it was used in this song.  But it is still archaic and strange sounding and has almost completely faded from popular use.

So, back to the text of our song, the two words, must and needs, combined together, form a strong, non-negotiable demand that cannot be any more emphatic; It is as if to say, “I need this, I must have it. There is no other option or choice.  If I don’t have this, I will die.”  

“THE WAY OF THE CROSS LEADS HOME,” was written by Jessie Pounds in 1906, and the tune was composed by Charles Gabriel who explained, later, that Mrs. Pound’s intention was to emphasize the truth, that authentic, heroic Christianity is NOT an easy road; it does not follow the path of least resistance.

The song exhorts us to follow the way of the cross that it might lead us home to heaven.

Image result for one way rhino
Stanza 1 starts with an authoritative warning - the way of the cross is the ONLY way to get to heaven.  Don’t miss it. We are told about two ways; a broad way and a narrow way, but Jesus clearly warns us,” NO man comes to the Father but by Me.” 

Stanza 2 declares that the way of the cross is the blood-sprinkled way; it is ONLY by the shed blood of Jesus that our sins can be forgiven, that we can be redeemed, and be reconciled with God.

Stanza 3 tells us that, to walk in the way of the cross means to bid farewell to the way of the world; Jesus calls us to take up our cross, to turn our backs on the world’s ways, and to be led by the Spirit rather than be drawn away by our own lusts.

Some have suggested that this hymn might have been inspired by this sermon illustration that was popular during those days:

The geographical heart of London is Charing Cross, which is referred to locally, simply as “the Cross”. A London police officer came upon a lost child who was unable to tell him where he lived. Finally, amid sobs and tears, the child simply said, “If you will take me to the Cross, I think I can find my way home from there.”


I must needs go home by the way of the cross,
There’s no other way but this;
I shall ne’er get sight of the Gates of Light,
If the way of the cross I miss.

The way of the cross leads home,
The way of the cross leads home;
It is sweet to know, as I onward go,
The way of the cross leads home.

I must needs go on in the blood-sprinkled way,
The path that the Savior trod,
If I ever climb to the heights sublime,
Where the soul is at home with God.

Then I bid farewell to the way of the world,
To walk in it never more;
For my Lord says, “Come,” and I seek my home,
Where He waits at the open door.