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, March 20, 2017


“You can’t be saved if you don’t know you’re lost.”  We don’t hear that axiom much, anymore, because, in our modern culture, we practice too much self-worship and self-esteem.  We tend to minimize our own sin natures.   We use terms like “missing the mark,” “shortcomings,” or “mistakes.”

We do that to our children too.  We avoid telling them about their sin or calling them on their rebelliousness.  We use phrases like “acting out” to describe their bad behavior.  Instead of disciplining them or allowing them to suffer consequences for their willful disobedience, we give them “time out” and send them to their rooms to play with their video games. 

We are inclined to make excuses for our sin like, “I’m just human,” or “that’s the way God made me,” or, “I’m a good person, I’m not nearly as bad as a lot of other people.”  

But God doesn’t compare people on a sliding scale.

The Gospel is Good News but before we can begin to appreciate the goodness of God’s grace, we need to know how grievous our sin is.  We must first understand the Bad News of the Gospel

In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul, the apostle, quoting from the Psalms and Isaiah, makes a startling, assessment of all men everywhere.  “They are corrupt. They have done abominable works. There is none who does good.  They are dead.  They are as unclean things and their good works are like filthy rags.”  “There is no faithfulness in their mouths; in their body is destruction; their throat is an open tomb. Their mouths are full of cursing and deceit and oppression; under their tongue is trouble and iniquity” (Is. 64 and Rom. 3).

That’s really Bad News.  It’s a blanket indictment against all people. There are NO EXCEPTIONS!  

Humility has been a major theme in my pastor’s sermons for a few weeks and I think this song, ALAS! AND DID MY SAVIOR BLEED? is a truly, humbling hymn.  In the first stanza, Isaac Watts uses an image that has been rejected by a generation that thinks too highly of itself.  The phrase, “for such a worm as I,” has been replaced, in most modern hymnals, with “for sinners such and I” or “for such a one as I.”  Those alterations are unfortunate because they minimize the horrible depth of our sin natures.  But his allusion to a worm is scriptural and is an important set up to the hymn’s contrast between man’s sin and God’s grace.
Bildad asked Job, “How can man be righteous before God?  If even the moon does not shine, and the stars are not pure in God’s sight, how much less is man, who is a maggot, and a son of man, who is a worm?”

Abraham referred to himself as mere "… dust and ashes." (Gen. 18:27).  And Isaiah said, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)

David wrote, “I am a worm and not a man.” (Psalm 22:6).  That was a prophetic statement about the Son of God who would humble Himself to become the One who would be despised and scorned by men, and even forsaken by His Father when He was hung, in our stead, on the cross.

So, the allusion is both fitting and humbling.  Isaac Watts lays out the Gospel in a way that leaves us no room to gloat with pride or self-esteem.  Instead, we are humbled and struck with great grief when we realize our wretched, helpless condition.  That’s the meaning of the word, “Alas.”  There is no place to turn; there is no hope in our own goodness or worth. 

In the second stanza, Watts asks a disturbing, rhetorical question, "Was it for crimes that I had done, He suffered on the tree?”  And the only answer is YES!  We can’t just blend in or hide, unnoticed, with the masses of humanity; this is personal.  This is where our humility suddenly turns to grief and shame as we face the awful truth; Alas!  My sin caused His pain; I am responsible for His suffering and death. 

It’s at this point, we can begin to appreciate and understand the magnitude of the GOOD NEWS.  The Lord laid my sin on Jesus who willingly took my punishment on the cross.  The second verse ends with an expression of humble praise to God for His amazing mercy, grace, and love.


Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die;
Would He devote that sacred head,
for such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done,
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut its glories in,
when God, the mighty maker, died,
for His own creature's sin.

Thus, might I hide my blushing face
while His dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes to tears.

But drops of tears can ne'er repay
the debt of love I owe.
Here, Lord, I give myself away;
'tis all that I can do.

Monday, March 13, 2017


BRETHREN, WE HAVE MET TO WORSHIP is one of America's great revival hymns.  It was authored by George Atkins, in 1819, during the Second Great Awakening.

The title (and some of the lyrics) has been altered in several publications. The word, “brethren” was changed mainly in concession to the modern pressures of political correctness.  It’s frustrating whenever those kinds of changes are made without consideration for the author’s intended use of the language.  Through a careful reading of the text, it is obvious that there was nothing discriminatory in the original uses of the word.  It was a generic noun that referred to both men and women but also for men specifically.  The hymn writer used it both ways; the context makes it clear.

The song begins with a definitive purpose statement; We have come together to Worship the Lord.

In the revised version (sometimes titled “We Have Come To Join In Worship”) the participants, in this act of public worship, are identified as “we” and “us.”  Those pronouns are indiscriminate but, In the original text, the worshipers are more specifically identified as “brethren.”  I think that is an important distinction because the regular, organized gathering of believers for worship is not an open club meeting; it is not our special interests or demographics that hold the Church together.  The Church is a local body of those who have been redeemed and joined together as “brothers and sisters” by our Lord, Jesus Christ. 

After stating the purpose for the meeting - to worship and adore God, the congregation is petitioned to engage in its first and most important order of business - Prayer.   And that prayer has a specific purpose.  God’s people are to pray with sincere expectations that, in our gathering for worship, He will speak to us through His Word. 

Many of you might remember the days when church leaders and some members would come early to church just to pray before the service and to continue, even while the pastor was preaching.  We should all approach our worship services with that kind of prayer.  We should pray for our pastors before they speak and continue our prayers, while they are speaking, asking the Spirit of God to direct their words so that we will hear and understand the very Words of God.  Unless the Holy Spirit is working in us and in our service, everything we do is vanity.

At the end of each stanza, the hymn writer uses a similar phrase of expectation, that God will supply us with an abundance of His manna.   

In Exodus 16, Moses was having a problem with the people. Bible scholars estimate that there were about 2.5 million Israelites, plus a mixed multitude with them, wandering around in the wilderness.  They were hungry and needed food every day.  So, God provided daily bread for them.  It was a complete, perfect food.  It was nutritious, it was satisfying to the taste, and it was all-sufficient for their sustenance.

In this hymn, manna is a metaphor for the Word of God which is our spiritual food; it’s everything we need for our spiritual life and health.  It’s the Bread of Life.

Why did Atkins put so much emphasis on this manna when their purpose was to worship God?   Well, the word, "worship" (in one of its most commonly used forms), means to bow down and obey.  Or to rephrase that, it means to submit to the lordship of God and do what He commands.  And we can’t obey Him if we aren’t hearing (or feeding on) His Words.  That’s why the Word of God is to be preeminent in and central to our worship; we read it, we pray it, we teach it, we sing it, and we preach it.

The hymn also instructs us to look around.  Just like with the children of Israel in the wilderness, we can assume that there will be others among us. We need to be aware of them and pray for them too.  The same manna that sustains our spiritual lives, can give new life to those who don’t know the Lord.

In the second stanza, Atkins reminds us that death is certain and hell is real, so we must preach the gospel.  God saves lost sinners by the preaching of His Word, and by the power of His Spirit.  Paul, the Apostle said, “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost” (1 Thess. 1:5). 

The instructions, for gathering manna, was for each person to gather for their own sustenance.  But some of those who were weak and could not gather enough, ate from what others had gathered so that no one was left needy or lacking.  Besides the strangers among us, there are also likely to be some who are weak in faith or struggling with sin.  We need to be aware of their needs too.  Where their faith or prayers lack, others can help by encouraging, teaching, and praying for their needs.     

This is a great hymn with a biblically accurate guide for why and how the church is to conduct itself in corporate worship.


Brethren, we have met to worship and adore the Lord our God;
Will you pray with all your power, while we try to preach the Word?
All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down;
Brethren, pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.

Brethren, see poor sinners round you slumb’ring on the brink of woe;
Death is coming, hell is moving, can you bear to let them go?
See our fathers and our mothers, and our children sinking down;
Brethren, pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.

Sisters, will you join and help us? Moses’ sister aided him;
Will you help the trembling mourners who are struggling hard with sin?
Tell them all about the Savior, tell them that He will be found;
Sisters, pray, and holy manna will be showered all around.

Is there here a trembling jailer, seeking grace, and filled with tears?
Is there here a weeping Mary, pouring forth a flood of tears?
Brethren, join your cries to help them; sisters, let your prayers abound;
Pray, oh, pray that holy manna may be scattered all around.

Let us love our God supremely, let us love each other, too;
Let us love and pray for sinners, till our God makes all things new.
Then He’ll call us home to Heaven, at His table we’ll sit down;
Christ will gird Himself and serve us with sweet manna all around.

Sunday, March 5, 2017


Adelaide A. Pollard was a sincere Christian lady who, from all indications, was fully dedicated to the work of the ministry.  She spent most of her life serving her Lord.  She was convinced that God was calling her to be a missionary.

Following her education in elocution and native cultures, she moved to Chicago and for several years she worked in a variety of Christian ministries while trying to raise funds and support for her desired missionary work in Africa.

She worked as a teacher in two different schools for girls and she was also engaged as an itinerant Bible study teacher.  She aided in the teaching and preaching circuits of two evangelists and later, she taught at a missionary training school.  Though she spent most of her life in ministry work, she was frustrated; the dream of a calling to Africa was fading.

At the age of 45, while attending a prayer meeting one night, an elderly woman was praying.  As she began her prayer, the woman omitted the usual kinds of requests for God to give them health and shower them with physical blessings.  Instead, she simply uttered the words, "It really doesn't matter what you do with us, Lord -- just have your way with our lives . . .."

On her way home that night, that old woman’s prayer reminded Adelaide of a passage in Jer. 18:3-6, “So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel.  And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.  Then the word of the LORD came to me: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done?’ declares the LORD. ‘Behold, like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.’”

Adelaide began to form the lyrics in her mind, and before going to bed, she had written the lyrics on paper.  That night in 1907, was a turning point in her life as she realized that God is in control; He directs us and uses us in His service for His good pleasure.  Nevertheless, she continued to hold out hope that God would lead her to Africa.

At the age of 60, she finally made a trip to a mission work in Africa but, shortly after her arrival, World War I interrupted her plans and she spent the war years in Scotland.  After the war, she returned to the United States in poor health but continued to work in Christian ministries until she died at the age of 72 in 1934.

Some have speculated that this hymn's third stanza is an autobiographical statement of her personal struggles to discern and submit to God's will fo her life.

In 1989, the scourge of Political Correctness brought about two changes in this hymn.  Before it was acceptable for the new United Methodist Hymnal, it was scrubbed of any perceived inferences to racism or slavery.  

In stanza two, the word, "Master," was changed to "Savior."  But that doesn't really make sense in the context of the song; God as our Savior is already presumed but as the Potter, the Lord IS our Master and He has the right to mold us and use us as He sees fit.

The second alteration they made was to the phrase, "whiter than snow."  It was changed to "wash me just now," which was a pointless redundancy as the very next phrase was a repeat of that phrase.

Those who favored the changes argued that one doesn't have to be white to be perceived as spiritually pure and socially acceptable.  An African American member of the committee said, "You can wash me as much as you wish, but after you've finished, I'll be just as black, which is beautiful." 

But the argument was foolish.  This hymn is not about being socially acceptable; it's about our sanctification and our humble submission to our Lord and Master.

To be fair, there were some, on the committee, who wanted to retain the original text.  They rightly reasoned that the biblical reference, in the text, was about our spiritual cleansing as in Psalm 51:7, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow," or in Isaiah 1:18, "Come now, and let us reason together," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool."

Most other conservative denominations did not allow Political Correctness to redefine the biblical teachings of this hymn, but retained the rich text in verse two, as it was intentionally written:

Have Thine Own Way, Lord!  Have Thine own way!
Search me and try me, Master, today.
Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now,
As in Thy presence, humbly I bow.