THE PURPOSE OF THIS BLOG

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

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Monday, January 30, 2017

*SAVIOR, LIKE A SHEPHERD LEAD US

There was a children’s musical, written several years ago, with a song titled, Bullfrogs and Butterflies.   The song uses those two creatures as analogies 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

*I SING THE MIGHTY POWER OF GOD

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


WHAT ARE YOU SINGING?



“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

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 Johann's 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, then, is followed by the same refrain: "To God, all praise and glory."    

Monday, January 9, 2017

*AWESOME GOD


Have you ever noticed how quickly our language changes?  Words are important because words mean things but when a language is so fluid that the meaning of a word today is not what it was yesterday and can be something totally different tomorrow, communication is confused and difficult.

Awesome” is a word that has been abused in our culture.   The Urban Dictionary defines it as an overused adjective that Americans use to describe just about everything.  Anything vaguely exciting is awesome.  We use it as a synonym for “cool” or “impressive.”

But the biblical definition of the word means worthy of awe or fear.  It’s related to the
word, “awful,” which is a contraction of the phrase, “full of awe.”  It implies an element of such great fear that it causes someone to experience the emotion of terror, to contemplate evil, or to be in awe of something or someone.  It is the kind of fearful awe that would cause a person to fall flat on his face and worship.  And regardless what the Urban Dictionary says, even our modern dictionaries still define the word in similar terms. If you were to search the word in a thesaurus, you would find synonyms like alarming, awful, dread, fearsome, formidable, frightening, horrible, horrifying, imposing, intimidating, shocking, and terrifying.

In The Old King James Version, the translators were a little more accurate; they understood the word to mean terrible, as in Psalm 66 which says, “Say unto God, How terrible art Thou in Thy works!... Come and see the works of God: He is terrible in His doing toward the children of men.”

OUR GOD IS AN AWESOME GOD.  He is terrible, He is to be feared, and He is to be reverenced.  And one of His most awesome deeds was in His judgment of sin at Calvary.  His terrible, fearful, dreadful, wrath was poured out when He crucified His Son in an act of His awesome mercy and love for His people.  Because of that, throughout Scripture, we find many incidents where God reassures His people with these words of hope and comfort; “Fear not!”   So now we can respond to our AWESOME GOD, not just with fearful reverence, but also, with joy and praise.

OUR GOD IS AN AWESOME GOD, was one of several praise songs written by Rich Mullins who died in 1997 at the age of 41.  About this song, he once said, it is the most popular and, technically, the worst song he ever wrote.

And frankly, I agree with him; It is a poorly written song.  Many of the lyrics are juvenile and vulgar (in the classic sense of the word) and they lack a sense of reverence.  I was reluctant to even use this in our service; It should be used carefully. 

It is popular mainly because most people don’t know all the lyrics and only use the chorus.  Nevertheless, in the right context, the chorus can be a very worshipful song of praise by itself.

Because the chorus is short, it is often repeated too much.  One recording, I listened to, was over 5 1/2 minutes in duration.  When I mentioned to a friend that I found the repetition to be mindless, boring, and annoying, he told me that I should just get in the spirit and use it to create a worship experience. 

And therein is the danger.  I think that has become a problem in too many churches today.  John 4:24 says, “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in Spirit AND in Truth.”

Historically, one of the primary purposes of congregational singing was to teach the Word of God.  In Col. 3:16, the Apostle instructs the church to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

Too much of contemporary church music is not used to teach Truth; it is used to create a mood or an experience.  Although this chorus is often abused by people who worship a “cool” god, when we understand the biblical meaning of awesome, it can be both instructive and worshipful.  It appropriately focuses on the Truth of God’s wisdom, power, and love.

In just 22 words it mentions at least five of His attributes.  He is Sovereign and He is Omnipresent.  He reigns!  And His reign presumes His active, controlling presence in and over all His creation. He is Omniscient; He rules with all wisdom.  He is Omnipotent; He reigns with all power.   And He rules with Love; He does what is best for His children.

Our God is an Awesome God. 
He reigns from Heaven above,
With Wisdom, Power, and Love.
Our God is an Awesome God.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

*FAIREST LORD JESUS (Beautiful Savior)

For over forty years, from the late 1930s, the Breck Shampoo Co. enjoyed the longest running and most successful campaign in advertising history.   The centerpieces of the ads were the romanticized pastel portraits, of over 300 girls and young ladies, which idealized the perfect, wholesome look of the American woman for several generations.

The iconic pictures of the Breck Girls blended feminine beauty with purity. They were all delicately portrayed with a subdued focus, soft haloes of light, and warm colors.  The artists did then, with oil pastels, what photographers do today with Photoshop.  They portrayed their subjects with unblemished skin, smiles accented with bright, perfect teeth, and they all had beautiful, radiant hair.   In short, the portraits were stunning; they seemed to leap off the pages of the magazines to command the attention of casual browsers.  Everyone immediately recognized, and paused to gaze at, the Breck Girl.

Throughout the last 20 centuries, artists have portrayed Jesus in similar ways: the soft warm glow of a pleasant countenance, the halos, perfect features, blue eyes, a commanding stature, and that long, beautiful, glorious hair.  In most illustrations and movie clips, whenever He is portrayed in a crowd, unlike Waldo, His image is immediately discerned; Everyone recognizes Him.  He stands taller, His robe is whiter, and His hair is longer. They have tried to portray Jesus as a Breck Girl.   But no matter how skillful the artists, their best efforts produce nothing more than imaginary caricatures.  

We don’t know anything about His physical appearance.  In God’s wisdom, He didn’t give us a description.  But there are some things we can presume from what we read in scripture.

We know that Jesus was a Middle Eastern man; not a blue-eyed, Northern European white man.  And He didn’t have beautiful, long, soft hair; it was probably coarse, wiry, short, and dark.  If we could obtain a real picture of Him, we would not recognize Him at all.

If there is anything we can learn from Scripture, it is that His physical appearance was unremarkable and unimportant.  He was probably an average-looking Galilean Jew.  He blended into the crowds.  In fact, Judas had to point Him out to the soldiers who came to arrest Him.  He didn’t have any unusual physical attractiveness.  Isaiah prophesied that "He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him and no beauty that we should desire Him."

“No beauty that we should desire Him.”  And yet, in this hymn, "FAIREST LORD JESUS," He is described as the most beautiful of all who have ever lived.  So how can that be?

Well, Peter gave us a clue as to what is real, godly beauty, when he told us not to be overly concerned about our own outward attractiveness, but rather to "let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious."

Did you catch that?  According to God, that inner beauty is very precious.

The word “fair,” occurs many times in the Old Testament and it means beautiful.  It was used to describe both women and men. One of those references occurs in the Song of Solomon, The bridegroom says of his beloved: “You are all fair…there is no spot in you.”

Christ’s beauty was not in His physical appearance; it is in His holy character.  This hymn is a devotional text focused on the “fairness” (or the beauty) of Jesus Christ as something of great value to be carefully treasured.  He is more precious, more beautiful, and more glorious than anything else in the world.   Jesus Christ is above everything.  And regarding that kind of precious value, the Apostle Paul said, “I count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord.”

"Jesus is more precious than silver; more costly than gold; more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing we desire compares with Him." 
(adapted from, "More Precious Than Silver")