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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Sunday, April 16, 2017


“WERE YOU THERE?” is one of many American spirituals that were sung by plantation slaves in the early 1800s.   The words are based on the New Testament narratives of the trial, persecution, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  

There is no known author, but it is likely that the song just evolved.  It was customary for the slaves to sing together, for comfort and encouragement, while they labored.  And because they had no formally written songs or accompaniment, usually one person would sing out a line.  And then the rest would repeat the line in full harmony.  In that kind of setting, it was not unusual, for several people, to chime in with a new line or thought and so, the song would grow.   These songs were then memorized and passed down through several generations.

This “Negro spiritual” follows that traditional style.

Each verse starts with the same question, “Were you there?” I read a recent account about a tourist who was visiting Golgotha and the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem. And while he was there, he fell on his knees and began to weep.  Someone saw him and asked, “Sir, have you ever been here before?”

“Yes!” he answered, “I was here 2000 years ago.”

How can that be?  Well, it is clear from scripture (Acts 4:27), the death of Jesus was a corporate act of all sinful humanity against God.  We are all together guilty.

That man’s answer is my answer, “I was there.” 

According to God’s Word, before my life began in 1948, I was in Adam, both positionally and spiritually. 

Just as through one man (Adam), sin came into the world, and death came through sin, so death has come to all men since everyone has sinned.  (Romans 5:12)

So, God's Word says, I am a condemned sinner by nature.  The judgment for Adam's sin is my judgment.

But the Good News of the Gospel is that God sent a Redeemer (Jesus Christ).  Just as I was condemned to eternal death by the sin of my natural father, Adam, now I am made alive by the death of Jesus Christ who took my death penalty on Himself.

"Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"   

My answer is “Yes.  I was there.”  My sin nailed Him to the cross.  That’s why that tourist was weeping. 

But the death and burial of Jesus is not the end of story.  Christ arose; He is alive.  And so, the somber mood of this hymn changes to joy in this last stanza:

“Were you there when He rose up from the dead?
Sometimes I feel like shouting, Glory, glory, glory!"

I was there when Christ suffered and bled and died for my sin and now I am made alive and free.

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