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, November 28, 2016


Have you noticed, lately, how many general expressions of thanks we read or hear around this time of year?   People express their thankfulness for friends and family, for health and wealth, and for a myriad of other stuff.  They express their thankfulness to their families or friends for all the things they do.   

But if you listen closely, they often neglect to acknowledge the only One who is the True source of all their blessings.  

As important as it is to thank the people, in our lives, for their kindnesses to us, it is more important to be thankful to God in all things and for all things.

Claire Cloninger was one of the most successful and prolific modern gospel songwriters of the 1980s and 1990s.  She wrote 19 seasonal musicals for church choirs.  She received three Dove Awards from the Gospel Music Association and many of her songs have been recorded by notable gospel artists.  She was commissioned to write a new stanza for “The Star Spangled Banner” that was recorded by Sandi Patti for The National Statue of Liberty Centennial celebration.

Her contemporary hymn, “IN THANKSGIVING, LET US PRAISE HIM,” almost sounds like it could have been inspired by the Puritan pilgrims in the early 1600s.

It was in 1623 that William Bradford, the governor of the Plymouth Colony, proclaimed Thurs., Nov. 29, to be set aside as a day of thanksgiving to God That was probably over three years after their arrival.  The colonists had suffered through extreme hardships and many of them died during their first few months in the New World.
So, three years later, they certainly must have been thankful to God for seeing them through their adversities but what about those earlier days? Were they thankful people even in the midst of their difficult times?

Well, in 1621, one of their leaders, Edward Winslow, recorded this in his log:

“Our Corne did proue well, & God be praysed, we had a good increase of Indian Corne, and our Barly indifferent good, but our Pease not worth the gathering, for we feared they were too late sowne, they came vp very well, and blossomed, but the Sunne parched them in the blossome; our harvest being gotten in, our Governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a more speciall manner reioyce together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst vs, and among the rest their greatest King Massasoyt, with some nintie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed fiue Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed upon our Governour, and upon the Captaine, and others. And although it be not alwayes so plentifull, as it was at this time with vs, yet by the goodneses of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

From that log entry, it certainly seems that thankfulness must have been characteristic of the Pilgrims.  They didn’t have much but it was sufficient and they thanked God for His sufficient provisions.

Consider the words of this hymn and think about how it might have described their thankfulness for just the simple things like the basic necessities of life.
From the first bright light of morning,
To the last warm glow of dusk,
Ev'ry breath we take is sacred,
For it is God's gift to us.

In the season of our plenty;
In the season of our need,
We will find His grace sufficient:
We will find His love complete.

Safe within His hand that guides us,
Hidden in His healing wings;
Day by day His love provides us,
Ev'ry good and perfect thing.

In thanksgiving, let us praise Him;
In thanksgiving let us sing,
Songs of praise and adoration,
To our gracious Lord and King.

Monday, November 21, 2016


WE GATHER TOGETHER is listed as a Thanksgiving hymn in most modern hymnals but its origin predates our first American Thanksgiving.  It began as a Dutch folk song and was crafted into a celebration hymn of petition and praise to God for His guidance and deliverance through times of religious persecution in 1597. 

Some of the political overtones in this hymn are apparent. For example, the phrase, “The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,” is an allusion to the persecution of Christians under the policies of Spain.  The Dutch Protestants struggled against Spain for their political independence, and against the Catholic Church for their religious freedom.   Thousands had been massacred and hundreds of homes burned by the Spanish in 1576 during the siege of Antwerp.

In 1597, in the Battle of Turnhout, Prince Maurice of Orange defeated the Spanish occupiers of a town in, what is now, the Netherlands. 

Prior to that battle, they had been prohibited from worshiping under the Spanish king, Phillip II.   The Dutch Christians celebrated the victory by borrowing a familiar folk melody and giving it new words.  The very first line, “WE GATHER TOGETHER,” was a bold, political declaration of their new freedom to worship together. The hymn first appeared in print in a 1626 collection of Dutch patriotic songs.

Had Prince William of Orange, the brother of Maurice, not led the Dutch to throw off King Phillip’s rule, there, likely, would not have been any safe haven for English, Welsh, and Scottish Protestants who had fled from persecutions under the Roman Catholic and the Anglican national leadership. 

Some of those Dutch Christians were the Puritan Pilgrims.  They brought the hymn with them to the New World in 1620. 

The Thanksgiving feast held at the Plymouth Bay Colony might never have occurred had there not been victories like the one this hymn celebrates.

Dutch Christians rarely sang anything, in their church services, that was not directly from the pages of Scripture (primarily the Psalms).  But in 1937, the Christian Reformed Church made a controversial decision to permit other hymns to be sung in church.  WE GATHER TOGETHER was chosen as the first entry in their new hymnal.

Today, even though much of our nation has turned away from God, our “gathering together” in the name of the Lord still stands as a remembrance of those times of oppression, persecution, and death, in Scotland and England.  And, so we give thanks to God for His protection, for His providential care, and for His abundant blessings.

Sunday, November 13, 2016


We are living in fearful times.  Over the past several months, I have seen many well-meaning Christians who, regardless of their political leanings, using social media to engage thousands of people to pray for the success of their favored presidential candidate as though they really, believed that God would be moved or manipulated by the wishes of the majority.   

And then, in November of 2016, came one of the most divisive and historic elections in our history. Millions of people were apprehensive and fearful about how our country might be changed.  And after we heard the results, we watched as riots broke out in our cities, and the symbols of our republic, our American flags, were being desecrated and burned.  

I know, for my wife and me, these past few months have been especially difficult as we imagined the possibility of our nation, our freedoms, and our way of life being turned upside down by the result of one election. 

So, as I was thinking about our flag, and all that it represents, I began to notice some parallels, to our current politics, in the text of the hymn, REJOICE, YE PURD IN HEART.  It was written about 150 years ago by Edward Plumptre, to be used as a processional for a choir festival at Peterborough Cathedral in England.   But it’s an appropriate hymn for our present times.

The song begins with an exhortation to the people of God, “Rejoice ye pure in heart.  Rejoice, give thanks, and sing. Your festal banner wave on high, the cross of Christ your King.”  The Christian’s banner is the cross of Jesus Christ; He is the King and it represents His kingdom.

So, I had to keep reminding myself that whatever happens in the coming weeks, months and years – God is on His throne; His will is unthwarted and unchanging.  He will accomplish His purpose in this world and He will do it for His glory. 

By God’s grace and with His blessing, we have enjoyed living freely and comfortably in the greatest nation in the history of the world.  And now we are experiencing, first hand, what it might be like when a nation turns against God. 

One of the things that often troubles me, is the thought that I have grandchildren who may never know the liberties that we have enjoyed.  But no matter how much I hope or pray for the next person who will rise to lead this country, neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton can help my grandchildren. Psalm 146 warns us; “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.”  

Why?  "Because his spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day, his plans perish.”

When I am gone, the Lord will still be God.  He will sustain and deliver His own (including my grandchildren).  This hymn is an encouraging rally call for all of us; male and female; young and old, and the strong and weak alike.  It reminds us that we are to rejoice with praise and thanksgiving to our God in ALL things; whether in good times or times of trouble or woe. 

And the reason is that we have a sure hope.  The hymn expresses it like this; “At last the march shall end; The wearied ones shall rest; The pilgrims find their heavenly home, Jerusalem the blessed.”

We know from Scripture, that there is coming an end to this world, but there is a promise of a new and perfect world ahead, and an eternal rest for the people of God. 

So, the song ends with this fitting Doxology:  Praise Him Who reigns on high, The Lord Whom we adore, The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, One God forevermore.  Rejoice, rejoice!  Rejoice Give thanks and sing.

*Although most hymn books contain only five or six stanzas, the original processional had eleven.  Here they are printed below: 

Rejoice ye pure in heart;
Rejoice, give thanks, and sing;
Your glorious banner, wave on high,
The cross of Christ your King.

Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice,
Give thanks and sing.

Bright youth and snow-crowned age,
Strong men and maidens meek,
Raise high your free, exultant song,
God’s wondrous praises speak.


Yes, onward, onward still
With hymn, and chant and song,
Through gate, and porch and columned aisle,
The hallowed pathways throng.


With all the angel choirs,
With all the saints of earth,
Pour out the strains of joy and bliss,
True rapture, noblest mirth.


Your clear hosannas raise;
And alleluias loud;
Whilst answering echoes upward float,
Like wreaths of incense cloud.


With voices full and strong
As ocean’s surging praise,
Send forth the hymns our fathers loved,
The psalms of ancient days.


Yes, on through life’s long path,
Still chanting as ye go;
From youth to age, by night and day,
In gladness and in woe.


Still lift your standard high,
Still, march in firm array,
As warriors through the darkness toil,
Till dawns the golden day.


At last, the march shall end;
The wearied ones shall rest;
The pilgrims find their heavenly home,
Jerusalem the blessed.


Then on, ye pure in heart!
Rejoice, give thanks and sing!
Your glorious banner wave on high,
The cross of Christ your King.


Praise Him Who reigns on high,
The Lord Whom we adore,
The Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
One God forevermore.


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Singing Lies


There are hundreds of popular contemporary praise songs today and some of them are pretty good but many of them are doctrinally weak or unsound.  

For example, Let’s Just Praise The Lord, by the Gaithers, was very popular for several years and is still well-known today.  It’s not a terrible chorus; it is just that the object of its praise is vague and so the song has a comfortable, universal appeal; It can be used and enjoyed by almost anyone who believes in a god but has no saving knowledge of the One True Living God of the Bible.

But even beyond that weakness, the song doesn’t accomplish the biblical purpose of praise songs.   The scriptures command that we are to “Praise the Lord.”  The word, “Praise” when used with God as the object means to rehearse or recite His attributes, perfections, benefits, provisions, and works.

PRAISE THE ONE WHO BREAKS THE DARKNESS is a contemporary praise song that was written in 1987 by Rusty Edwards.   He has pastored churches in Illinois, Nebraska, and Georgia, and recently accepted a grant for extended study at Oxford University.

I like this song because it is full of scriptural references and parallels, it is rich with true, biblical praise, and it is appropriately mixed with sound theology. 

The first stanza begins with a general praise to an unspecific God ("the ONE") but then quickly begins to sharpen its focus on Him.  God is a Spirit but the imagery in the song quickly leads us through some metaphors that undeniably bring us to recognize Jesus Christ even though His name is not yet mentioned.

The second stanza alludes to some of the works of this ONE who is receiving the praise; He is the ONE who blessed the children with a strong, yet gentle, word.  And He is the ONE who drove out demons, and the ONE who brings cool water to the desert’s burning sand.   Yet, even though the scriptural imagery is strong, the identification, of this One in the song's text, remains unnamed.

But suddenly the final stanza definitively declares the object of our praise; This ONE is revealed as the Incarnate Christ who suffered in our place.  And, in case we are still uncertain, the second line identifies Him by His Name, Jesus.  And then, the author clearly presents the Gospel; it is Jesus who died and rose again that we might know God by His grace. 

And the stanza continues, “. . . sing for joy and gladness, seeing what our God has done; let us praise the true Redeemer, praise the One who makes us one.”  

At this point, the writer reveals the triune nature of our God; He is the ONE God who created us, the Savior who redeemed us, and the Comforter who indwells us and hold us all together. 

We should always express our praises to our God with emotion and deep meaning but praise is not dependent on our circumstances or our emotions; we are commanded to praise Him because of the Gospel.    If we come to church expecting or hoping to feel a certain way or to experience a heightened emotional state, we will often be disappointed or we will move from church to church in search of one that heightens our human emotions. 

Real praise and worship, as the final lines of this hymn imply, engages our minds with a knowledge of Who He is and why we worship Him.  If He is to be the object of our worship, our focus must be on Him; we must extol His attributes and His works.  PRAISE THE ONE WHO BREAKS THE DARKNESS