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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Monday, August 29, 2016


Probably one of the biggest issues that divides Christians, churches, and denominations today is commonly called the “Worship Wars.”   It has to do with how and what music is used in congregational worship.

This is a touchy subject.  There is so much contemporary Christian music available today and much of it is doctrinally weak or unsound.  

But that’s not new; it just seems more prevalent because of the instant access we have to information through the internet.  Throughout the history of the Christian church, most of the songs that were written did not stand musical or doctrinal scrutiny.  We know that to be true because, in spite of the fact that many of history’s most prolific hymn writers wrote thousands of songs, only a few are preserved in our hymnbooks today.
There are lots of battles in the worship wars.  Should we sing only Psalms?  Should we not use any instrumental or digital accompaniment?  Should we avoid all special music?

Those are all questions of methodology.  But that is not what I want to address here.   There are other disagreements about whether or not we should use songs that are written or performed by people who have no authentic Christian faith or who hold to errant or heretical beliefs.
Today there is a very popular praise and worship publishing and performance arm of a major, worldwide evangelical church that is considered, by most fundamental Christians, to be errant. Furthermore, many of the leaders and performers are involved in unrepentant sin. So I understand when some church leaders avoid their music.  Immature or undiscerning Christians might be misled into doctrinal error by looking to the personal lives or beliefs of the artists or the false doctrines of the church.

About thirty years ago, one of my favorite Christian singers was B. J. Thomas.  I listened to his music and I sang some of his songs.  But then, one day, I read an interview in a Christian magazine.  When asked about his Christian faith, he remarked, “Well, if you are asking me if I am a ‘born again’ Christian, the answer is no.”

Another recent example is that of a popular trio who perform excellent and God-honoring, Christian music but they are members of a Christian cult that rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.

So how does that affect worship music here at our church?  The simple answer is, I try to avoid using any music that is currently associated with any controversial musicians who are tainted by openly sinful lifestyles or are overtly errant in fundamental biblical doctrines.

But celebrities fade and people quickly forget, and in a few generations, there remains no more negative context for the music. 

That's because God’s Truth is unchanging; it's always true no matter who utters it.

And that has been the case on numerous occasions here in our own worship services.  We have sung some great hymns of faith and truth that have been written by authors whose faith or practices have been questionable or shameful, yet their songs have survived far beyond their reputations and have been used by God’s people for His glory.
Which brings me to today’s opening hymn.   This was one of those songs.

It was originally written in 1851 by Matthew Bridges who once wrote a book condemning the errors of Roman Catholic theology.  But then later he converted to and embraced Roman Catholicism.  Bridges wrote six stanzas, based upon Revelation 19:12, “His eyes are like blazing fire, and on His head are many crowns.”  

But Bridges' testimony was conflicted and his doctrine was compromised.

Godfrey Thring was a devout clergyman who was concerned that this popular new hymn was being sung by Protestant congregations.  That was a problem because it contained some subtle, aberrant Catholic doctrines (specifically about the virgin, Mary).   So he wrote six new verses.

Apparently, some of his lyrics weren’t all that great either because, through the years, the twelve stanzas have been combined, culled, and edited. 

What remains is one of the great classic hymns of the faith (usually containing six stanzas).  CROWN HIM WITH MANY CROWNS has become an important praise and worship staple of the Christian church.  

Monday, August 15, 2016

*LOVE DIVINE (He, The Pearly Gates, Will Open)

Fred Blom was an immigrant from Sweden early in the 1890s and he served as an officer in the Salvation Army in the city of Chicago.     Later, he went on to pastor a church.

But his life took a radical downward turn around 1915.  Through circumstances that are not quite clear, he had fallen into sin and a life of crime and was eventually sentenced to prison. It was there, sick in soul and body, that he turned to Christ.  That’s when he wrote the words of this song.  It was his expression of joy in the fact that God had “healed his backsliding” and forgiven all his sin.

         Love divine, so great and wondrous,   
                 Deep and mighty, pure, sublime,
         Coming from the heart of Jesus.   
                 Just the same through tests of time!

         Like a dove when hunted, frightened.    
                As a wounded fawn was I;
         Brokenhearted, yet He healed me.    
                He will heed the sinner's cry.

         Love divine, so great and wondrous,    
                All my sins He then forgave;
         I will sing His praise forever,    
                For His blood, His power to save.  

         In life's eventide at twilight,    
               At His door, I'll knock and wait;
         By the precious love of Jesus,   
               I shall enter heaven's gate.

         He the pearly gates will open,    
               So that I may enter in;
         For He purchased my redemption  
               And forgave me all my sin.

The message of this song is simple. It is about God’s saving GRACE in the life of one who has gone astray.  Because of the love of God expressed in Christ, our sins are forgiven, our lives are changed and we look forward to the day we make a joyful entrance into heaven.

It is said that Fred Blom was never released from prison; he died in the custody of the law.  While the gates of prison did not open for him, he knew that Heaven's pearly gates would be swung wide for him by his Redeemer.

Was Fred Blom really saved before his fall or did God save him while he was in prison?  I don’t know.  But I do know one thing; I am no better than Fred Blom.

I am thankful that God is strong enough to destroy my will, my desires, and even my miserable life because left to myself, I would never have chosen Him. 

When I was running away, He sought me.  He bought me; He owns me; He keeps me, and He cleanses me.   He does whatever is necessary or to bring me to repentance and make me fit for heaven. 

It was all His doing.  I had nothing to do with the transaction.  I am saved by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone and not by any effort or merit of my own.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Whenever I have sung or led the congregation in singing, HOW GREAT THOU ART, I have usually omitted verse two.  I often wondered how such a great hymn could have, what I presumed to be, an inane and irrelevant verse about meadows, brooks and singing birds right in the middle of some of the greatest hymn lyrics ever written. 

But when I researched the events that inspired the writer, I found that verse two suddenly has relevance.

Carl Gustaf Boberg, a Swedish pastor, editor, and member of the Swedish parliament, was out walking one day when a severe wind began to blow and suddenly, a fierce, crashing thunderstorm came out of nowhere.

Apparently, most people, today, have a hard time agreeing with God about their wretchedness.  Amazing Grace is the secular world’s favorite hymn; it can be safely sung without any acknowledgment of sin or any reference to a specific deity.  And besides, it sounds good when played on the bagpipes at funerals. But all of this is digression; HOW GREAT THOU ART should be number one, in my humble opinion.

After the storm passed, he gazed out over the beauty of the landscape and the calm, clear bay.   Then he heard a church bell in the distance and the chirping of the birds around him.  He must have sensed the power of God in that storm much the way the writer of Psalm 29 did when he wrote: "The God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.”

And with the sudden calmness and peace at the end of the storm, the words to a poem began to form in his mind.
In 1886, Carl Boberg published his original, nine-verse poem, titled, “O Store Gud” (O Great God) in a weekly newspaper that he edited.  Then he sold the rights to the Mission Covenant Church in Sweden but it never got much public attention. 

A few years later, when he visited a church in Varmland, he heard the congregation singing the words, of his poem, to a traditional Swedish folk melody.  In 1891, Carl quickly published his poem again in his own newspaper, this time, with the musical notations added.

It was later translated into German and then in 1927, it was published in a Russian version of the German text.

But it was a man named Stuart Hine, who has been credited for the text of the song as we know it today.

It was in the 1930’s when Stuart Hine first heard the song (in Russian) while in Poland.  He translated it into English, tweaked the musical arrangement, and some of the lyrics.  He added verse three and then took it home to sing it in an evangelistic meeting in England During World War I.

A few years later, Hine, who was also an editor, published the first three verses (in both English and Russian) in his Russian evangelistic paper, Grace, and Peace.  

At the beginning of World War II, the Hine family was forced to move back to London, where they continued to evangelize among war refugees who were terrorized by the German blitz. The scriptural promise of deliverance at Christ's Second Coming inspired Hine to write the fourth and final verse.  About that verse, Stuart Hine said: “When we reach that heavenly home, we will fully understand the greatness of God, and will bow in humble adoration, saying to Him, O Lord my God, how great thou art.”

But that’s not the end of the story; In the 1940’s, Dr. J. Edwin Orr (you might remember; he was the man who brought us the Polynesian melody for his hymn, Cleanse Me), heard this new version of the song being sung by native tribal people in India, and he brought the song back to the United States.

And yet, the hymn remained relatively unknown.  One of the world’s greatest hymns had a very long and difficult beginning until it was copyrighted and published by Dr. Cyrus Nelson of Gospel Light Publications, and sung, by George Beverly Shea, at Billy Graham’s London Crusade of 1954.  George sang it over 100 times during Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade meetings in New York.  

In 1959 it became Bev Shea’s signature song and the theme song for Billy Graham’s weekly radio broadcast.  Finally, “How Great Thou Art” achieved international recognition and has been popularized by many other notable performers including Elvis Presley, Carrie Underwood, and The Statler Brothers.

In nearly every listing of the greatest hymns ever written, the number one hymn is almost always Amazing Grace.   But, HOW GREAT THOU ART, is consistently ranked as number two probably because, sadly, number one has, in many publications, become so adulterated by politically correct language that is not offensive to the egocentric sensitivities of the unregenerate masses.  For example, the phrase, “…that saved a wretch like me,” has been changed to, “…that saved and set me free.”  

That is not the case with HOW GREAT THOU ART, which is truly one of the world’s most magnificent Hymns of praise to the awesome power of our great God, and our hope in His soon return.  And right between those two themes, is the incredible Gospel message of verse three: “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.” 

Thursday, August 4, 2016

*CLEANSE ME (Search Me, O God)

Dr. James Edwin Orr was a well-known Baptist minister, historian, lecturer, author, and revivalist. He was a participant in the Great New Zealand Revival of 1936.  In one of those meetings, a speaker preached from the text of Psalm 139 “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:  And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Near the end of the meetings, Dr. Orr overheard some Maori girls singing the Maori or (Polynesian) Farewell Song.   You may be familiar with its English translation, “Now Is The Hour When We Must Say Goodbye.” 

It is a beautiful Polynesian melody and, after hearing it, Dr. Orr set the words of Psalm 139: 23-24 to the music.
The text is David’s humble prayer petitioning God to examine him; to search his heart and his mind, and to expose any sin that might hinder his relationship with God.

The Bible has a lot to say about our need to be regularly and continuously cleansed from sin.  So, like David, we should make similar prayers that God would give us the sensitivity to really see the sinfulness of our hearts or our conduct.
And if we do pray that way, how would we expect God to answer?

Well, we shouldn’t expect a booming voice from Heaven, or visit from an angel, or a new prophetic revelation, or a sign; the true and simple answer is this; God reveals our sins in, and He cleanses us with His Word.

In the book of the Exodus, …the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base also of bronze, for washing.  You shall put it between the tabernacle of meeting and the altar.  And you shall put water in it, for Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet in water from it.   When they go into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn an offering made by fire to the LORD, they shall wash with water, lest they die.  So they shall wash their hands and their feet, lest they die.  And it shall be a statute forever to them—to him and his descendants throughout their generations.”

The Laver is a Picture or a type of the Word of God and its sanctifying effect on the Believer.  It was a washbasin located in the outer court where the priests were required to cleanse themselves before they could enter or come near the Holy Place in the tabernacle to worship or offer sacrifices to God.
The cleansing was not for their justification; it was for their continuous sanctification. And it was made from the highly polished brass looking glasses that the women in the assembly used for their mirrors.

And the significance of those mirrors is revealed in James 1:23-25, …If anyone is a hearer of the Word and not a doer, he is like a man seeing his natural face in a mirror: for he sees himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.  But he who looks into the perfect Law of Liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.

Now I know we all do this from time to time; we may be walking along somewhere and we catch a glimpse of our reflection in a window or a mirror.  And we notice something is not quite right; a smudge on your cheek or a wisp of hair out of place.  What is our reaction?  We Wash or we make an adjustment and we double check our reflections in the mirror to make sure everything is right.

So when we look in the mirror of God’s Word, we see the blemishes of our sin revealed. And what should be our natural reaction?  We must be cleansed!

The water in the laver is also a type of the Word of God: Psalm 119:9 asks, “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to Thy Word.”

We've all heard many times, that we need to keep short accounts with God.  Every day, we will go places and do things in this world that stain us or corrupt us and, in order to prevent sin from gaining a foothold in our lives, we need to take a look in the mirror often, and then deal with it as quickly as God reveals it. 

And here is His promise to us: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Monday, August 1, 2016


(This was another service in which I featured the testimony and music of a prolific hymn writer.  All of the songs, in this service, were written by Charles Gabriel.) 

The Apostle Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek [or Gentile]” (Rom. 1:16).

Charles Gabriel wrote SINCE JESUS CAME INTO MY HEART in the spring of 1914 and it was taught to those gathered for a series of Billy Sunday evangelistic meetings in Philadelphia, the following year.  A police officer, named Fowler, had been assigned to the meetings, each night, to maintain order.  God used the message of this song to convict and convert him.  Not only did he put his faith in the Savior, but during the remaining two weeks of meetings, he convinced many of his fellow officers to attend, and more than a hundred of them professed their faith in Christ.

The theme of the song is the transforming power of the gospel; Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. (2 Cor. 5:17).  When God saves us, He works a “wonderful change” in our lives.  That is one of the evidences of true salvation.


Charles H. Gabriel was born on a farm in Iowa in 1856 and, like typical farm children, he rose before dawn to do chores before going to school.  And after school, there were more chores to be done and he often worked until dark.

When he was a teenager, Charles taught himself to play the family’s reed organ.  At age seventeen he left home and began organizing singing schools.  He had a great love for Sunday school, and although he was writing hymns, he also wrote many songs and published 24 books of music for Sunday School classes and evangelistic ministries.  He has been credited with writing between 6 and 7 thousand songs.  One of the remarkable things about Charles is that, as a self-taught musician, not only could he write good songs, he also wrote great music scores for many of them.
MY SAVIOR'S LOVE is one of our finest hymns of praise.  In it, Gabriel captured the humiliation of the Savior in His work for our salvation.  He suffered and died a terrible death under the wrath of God, as our substitute, so that we, through faith in Him, might be forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life.  “How marvelous, how wonderful is my Savior's love for me.”


There are many people, today, who think it’s cool to sneer at those stuffy old hymnbooks; they want to sing a lot of contemporary, ego-centric, songs that make them feel all warm and fuzzy about themselves.

Well, HE LIFTED ME is not one of those songs.  It is a classic, long-forgotten treasure that I had rediscovered just a few years ago.

Psalm 40:2 says,  "He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings."
I was discussing this great song with a friend who explained it something like this:

“It's not like we were in danger of drowning and God threw us a lifeline to grab so that

we could save ourselves.  NO, we were hopelessly buried in the deepest sea, helplessly mired in the sand and mud.  We were dead.   And God reached down, picked us up, brought us up, and breathed new life into us.”

This is an amazing hymn.  It doesn't do much for my own self-esteem, but it does make me feel all warm and fuzzy about my Savior.


Charles Gabriel had a good friend, a minister with the Sunshine Rescue Mission in St. Louis.  His name was Ed Card; a man with an ever smiling expression that earned him the nickname, “Old Glory Face.”  It was his custom to always end his prayers with a reference to heaven, saying, "And that will be glory for me."   Also, during sermons, he would often shout, "Glory," instead of "Amen" to express his agreement.  These recurring statements of Card's faith, hope, and joy became his characteristic “signature” and that was the inspiration that moved Gabriel to write this hymn which describes that time when we shall see the Lord as He is and be like Him. 

Closing Song, SEND THE LIGHT   
Mr. Gabriel believed that his first, really successful, sacred song was SEND THE LIGHT.

Today, this hymn about world evangelism is considered one of the best missionary hymns ever written.  In a four stanza outline, he notes that some need to go, some need to give, some need to pray, but all need to persevere.

The chorus urges us onward to let the light of the Gospel of Christ shine everywhere. None of us can do everything but each can do something.  We have a great God and we are all called to be His witnesses.  We can all share the message of salvation in our world of friends and acquaintances, and where we cannot go, we should do whatever else we can to SEND THE LIGHT.