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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Sunday, May 28, 2017


(This was another service in which I featured the testimony and music of a prolific hymn writer.  All of the songs, in this service, were written by Charles Gabriel.

Opening Song, "Leaning On The Everlasting Arms" 

A teacher, Anthony Showalter, had received letters from two former students on the same day, with similar, heartbreaking news; both men's wives had just died.  He responded to his students with personal letters of encouragement and comfort, and he included these words from Deut. 33:27 in his comments: “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” 

As he thought about that verse, the lyrics and melody began to develop in his mind, and before he finished his letters, the refrain was written.

He sent a letter to his friend, Elisha Hoffman, who was a songwriter and composer.  He asked Elisha for his help to write a hymn for his new chorus.  Within a few days, Elisha Hoffman had written the three stanzas of LEANING ON THE EVERLASTING ARMS.  

"I Must Tell Jesus"

Elisha Hoffman was ordained in 1868, and he preached the Gospel for nearly 45 years. There was a family, in his parish, that had become overwhelmed with an onslaught of various afflictions and sorrows.  During a pastoral visit, he found the mother in great despair and depression.  He prayed with her and read some Bible verses that he thought should help, but she wasn’t encouraged and he didn’t know how to help.
It’s likely that he recalled these words from Peter, “…humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.  (1 Peter 5:6-7)
That’s when he told her, “The best thing you can do is take all your sorrows to the Lord.  He can help you.  You must tell them to Jesus."

The woman thought for a moment and then suddenly cried out, "Yes, I must tell Jesus."

When Pastor Hoffman left her, those words were still on his mind and, soon after he arrived home, he scrawled out the words of this song that remind us of our inability to carry all our burdens alone; we need the intervention of our Mighty God.  I MUST TELL JESUS! 

"Are You Washed In The Blood Of The Lamb?"

There is a tendency, in churches today, to present an anemic gospel!  They avoid references to the shed blood of Jesus Christ.  But when we remove the blood from the preaching of the Gospel, we remove the power of the Gospel.

Rev. 1:5-6 says, “…To Him (Jesus Christ) who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”  

Elisha Hoffman knew that God has ONLY one cleansing agent for our sin-sick souls; “…the blood of Jesus, His Son that cleanses us from all sin” (John 1:7).  

No one can clean himself up and make himself acceptable to God.   If we are not saved by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, who shed His blood for our redemption, then we are still in our sin, without hope, and we face eternal judgment and torment.

So, the question in the song, Are You Washed In The Blood Of The Lamb?” is worthy of the many repetitions. 

Elisha Hoffman concluded this song with this urgent invitation to anyone who is still lost in his sin.  “Lay aside your garments that are stained with sin” (That is an allusion to our natural tendencies to cover ourselves with our own acts of righteousness and our own good religious works.  That started way back in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve tried to cover themselves so that they would be presentable to God.  But they were wrong; He wouldn't accept that.  Blood had to be shed and so God covered them.   God calls all our righteous coverings, filthy rags.).

The song ends with this Good News of hope, “There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean” (That fountain is the shed blood of Jesus and it is sufficient to cleanse all who believe.); “ARE YOU WASHED IN THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB? 

"What A Wonderful Saviour"  

Pastor Hoffman had a passion for creating appropriate, gospel-centered music for his congregational worship and he often composed original hymns specifically for use with his weekly sermons.   During, those years, he wrote more than 2,000 hymns and he composed the music for most of them.

In this short Hymn of just a few short stanzas, Elisha Hoffman identifies at least 12 things our Savior has done for us.

*He has made atonement for our sin. 
*He has redeemed us, 
*His blood has cleansed us. 
*He reconciled us to the Father. 
*He lives within us. 
*He walks with us. 
*He keeps us faithful and 
*He gives us overcoming power in times of trouble.

So, after each of these declarations, the hymn repeats the same response of praise; "WHAT A WONDERFUL SAVIOR!"  

(closing hymn) "Glory To His Name"

When Pastor Hoffman wrote this song, he may have been inspired by Psalm 29:2, “...give unto the Lord the glory due to His Name.”   

It’s a simple presentation of the Gospel that, in some ways, parallels, What a Wonderful Savior.  It lists several things that Jesus has done and continues to do for us.

Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay our debt of sin.  When we call on Him in faith, He cleanses us, and we are redeemed by His blood.  We have eternal life, His Spirit lives within us, and He keeps us from the power of sin.

And again, Elisha Hoffman ends this song with an invitation;

“Come to this fountain so rich and sweet,
Cast thy poor soul at the Savior’s feet;
Plunge in today, and be made complete.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017


        At six weeks old Fanny Crosby developed an infection in her eyes.  Her doctor treated them with a mustard paste.  Fanny screamed with pain and her parents begged the doctor to remove the ointment. 

       But he insisted that it be left on her eyes for a full day to kill the infection.  When it was finally removed, the damage was done.  Her corneas were severely burned and Fanny spent her entire life in total blindness.

       About a year later her father died and her 21-year-old mother took a job as a maid to provide for herself and her daughter.  So Fanny was left in the care of her grandmother, Eunice, who devoted her life to raising and educating her granddaughter.  Eunice spent many hours reading the Bible to Fanny.  She taught her the importance of prayer and a close relationship with God.  

       Fanny had an amazing capacity for memorizing large passages of Scripture. She could quote the entire Pentateuch, the Gospels, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and many of the Psalms.  

       She considered her blindness a blessing from God.   She wrote, "It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it.  I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things around me."

       That attitude was evident early in her life.  When she was just eight years old, she wrote this poem:
"Oh, what a happy soul am I!   
Although I cannot see,
I am resolved that in this world,  
Contented, I will be.
How many blessings I enjoy,  
That other people don't.
To weep and sigh because I'm blind,  
I cannot and I won't."

       Those words remind us of Paul’s admonition to the church in Philippi.  “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:  I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.  I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me.”

       Fanny Crosby was the most prolific gospel songwriter in American History.  She wrote nearly 9000 hymns.  Her eyes were blind but her spiritual sight was razor sharp.  Many of her songs contain allusions to the day when she would finally see her Savior.   Here are some examples that you might recognize:

In “BLESSED ASSURANCE,” she wrote, “Visions of rapture now burst on my sight.

Or “HE HIDETH MY SOUL in the cleft of the rock, where rivers of pleasure I see.”

In ALL THE WAY MY SAVIOR LEADS ME, are the words, “Lo! A spring of joy I see.

And in, TO GOD BE THE GLORY, “But purer and higher and greater will be, Our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Or in, TELL ME THE STORY OF JESUS; a story of love “so tender, clearer than ever I see.”

“NEAR THE CROSS! O Lamb of God, bring its scenes before me;”

REDEEMED has this phrase, “I know I shall see in His beauty, the King in whose law I delight;”

And in GIVE ME JESUS, these words; “let me view His constant smile.”

       Fanny once told her mother, "if I had a choice, I would choose to remain blind ... for when I die; the first face that shall ever gladden my sight will be that of my blessed Saviour."

       That remark may have been her inspiration for at least a couple songs; MY SAVIOR FIRST OF ALL has these great lyrics; “When my lifework is ended and I cross the swelling tide, when the bright and glorious morning I shall see; I shall know my Redeemer when I reach the other side, and His smile will be the first to welcome me.”

Or this one that we will sing today; And I shall see Him Face to Face and Tell the Story, SAVED BY GRACE.

1.  Someday the silver cord will break,
And I no more as now shall sing;
But, oh, the joy when I shall wake
Within the palace of the King!
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

2.  Someday my earthly house will fall;
I cannot tell how soon ’twill be;
But this I know—my All in All
Has now a place in heav’n for me.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

3.  Someday, when fades the golden sun
Beneath the rosy tinted west,
My blessed Lord will say, “Well done!”
And I shall enter into rest.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

4.  Someday: till then I’ll watch and wait,
My lamp all trimmed and burning bright,
That when my Savior ope's the gate,
My soul to Him may take its flight.
And I shall see Him face to face,
And tell the story—Saved by grace.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Early every Mother’s Day, my friend, Mike, always called his mother to sing “The Mother’s Song.”  But it wasn’t the original version most of us have heard; he kinda changed it up little – well, he sorta changed it a lot.  Actually, he butchered the song.

Here are his words to this Mother’s Day Serenade:

M- is for the MILLION things you gave me,
O- is for the OTHER things you gave me,
T- is for the THOUSAND things you gave me,
H- is for the HUNDRED things you gave,
E- is for EVERYTHING you gave me,
R- is for the REST of all you gave me.
Put them all together they spell MOTHER, 
The one who gave so much to me.

I’m sure his mother really appreciated his attention. And, even though the song was funny, it did acknowledge his mother’s the generous, giving nature.

“A mother is a person who, seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, suddenly announces that she never did care for pie.”

I didn’t realize it when I was young but my mother’s life was all about hard work and sacrifice for her seven children.  It wasn’t until I became a parent and saw my wife doing the same things, that I understood just how much mothers sacrifice for their kids.  That’s what mothers do.

And just about the time a mother thinks her work is done, she becomes a grandmother.  My wife’s giving never stops.  Just as my mother continued to give to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, my wife continues to give to our children and grandchildren.
I think God created mothers to demonstrate something of His sacrificial love for us.  Speaking through the prophet, He asked this rhetorical question, “Can a woman forget her nursing child or lack compassion for the child of her womb?”  

The obvious answer is NO!  But then He goes on with this promise of assurance; “Even if these forget, Yet I will not forget you.” 

My mom died about two years ago and, as I was sorting through some of her old stuff, I came across an interesting item that was tucked away in a page of her Bible.  It asked, “If you had a chance to tell your children something just before you died, what would you say?”

Her short answer was; “I would tell them to never stop going to church.”

She was a little awkward in expressing her faith but, I know what she wanted most.  If she could, she would have given each of us the gift of salvation; but she couldn’t.   All she could do was pray for us.  And I know that she didn’t really believe that church attendance would guarantee our salvation.  But she did know that regular church attendance would expose us to hearing God’s Word which has the power to convict us of sin and to save our souls.

Did you know that Motherhood is a blessing from God?  “Behold, children are a gift from the Lord.  The fruit of the womb is a reward.” (Psa. 127:3)

The song, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, is probably one of the most appropriate songs we could sing for Mother’s Day.  Every mother should praise God for the gift of her children.  Fathers, too, can be thankful for the mothers of their children.  And children should thank God for their mothers.

Now, I realize that this day is not pleasant for everyone.  In fact, it can be very painful.  Life is hard, there are many disappointments, and some of us may be called to bear unpleasant or terrible burdens or losses.  Like many of you, my mother experienced the pain and sorrow of seeing her own children suffering through cancer, divorce, sinful living, and even premature death.

Nevertheless, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS is a song for all Christians to sing.  In fact, it is more about our thankfulness in and through times of difficulties and sorrows than it is about our ease or comfort.  As Christians, we have so much to be thankful for.  

Paul, the Apostle reminds us that, “God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved.  In Him, we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” (Isa. 49:15)

Sunday, May 7, 2017


John’s mother was a godly woman who took him to church every Sunday.  She taught him to read and memorize Scripture and hymns.  She prayed that God would use him in Christian ministry.  But when he was seven years old, she died and John was left with his stepmother who allowed him to run free and do whatever he wanted.  He got himself into a lot of trouble.

At the age of eleven, his worldly sea-captain father took him into the slave trading business where he worked as a seaman.  The sailor’s life was not a friendly wholesome environment for a young boy and John became vile and wretched; he had a reputation for his profanity and debauchery.  He was a really, really, bad dude.  

Not only did he grow to reject his mother's Christian faith, he actually led other sailors into unbelief.  Most people thought he was beyond hope and beyond saving.

He was 24 years old when his ship had become severely battered in a fierce storm that had raged on for nearly two weeks.  The canvas sails were thrashed to shreds and the wood planks on one side of the ship had been splintered and torn open.  The ship was taking on water.  They had little hope of survival, but they continued, night and day, working the mechanical pumps, trying to keep it afloat. After eleven days, John was too exhausted to pump so, he was tied to the helm and tried to hold the ship on its course.

That was when he remembered his mother’s teachings and his thoughts began to turn to Christ.  He realized that his life seemed as ruined and wrecked as the battered ship he was trying to steer through the storm.  A little later, he found a Bible and opened it to Proverbs 1:24-31 and, in that storm, he saw his own desperate condition reflected on the pages as if God had written these words just for him: 

“I tried to help, but you refused to listen. I offered my hand, but you turned away from me.  You ignored my advice and refused to be corrected.  So, I will laugh at your troubles and make fun of you when what you fear happens.  Disasters will strike you like a storm.  Problems will pound you like a strong wind.  Trouble and misery will weigh you down.

“Fools will call for me, but I will not answer. They will look for me, but they will not find me.  That is because they hated knowledge. They refused to fear and respect the LORD.  They ignored my advice and refused to be corrected.  They filled their lives with what they wanted. They went their own way so they will get what they deserve.”

That was a day John would never forget.  Almost 60 years later, he would write in his diary, "…I endeavor to observe the return of this day with humiliation, prayer, and praise.  On that day, the Lord sent from on high and delivered me out of deep waters."

He began a disciplined schedule of Bible study, prayer, and reading the works of other theologians.  At the age of 39, John began serving God in the pastoral ministry and he preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ for 43 years.  He wrote and published hundreds of hymns, of which the most famous is "AMAZING GRACE."

John Newton was known as “The Great Blasphemer,” a nickname he had given himself because he knew what he once was; a rude, profane, slave-trading enemy of God.  And he knew that it was only by God’s AMAZING GRACE that he was saved from that storm and saved from God’s wrath.  John Newton never stopped being amazed by God's grace.  At the end of his life, he told his friends, "My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior."