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, 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.

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