Category Archives: History

Who Is This So Weak and Helpless?

Manger and Cloth

There are many well-matched hymn tunes and texts in the treasure trove of hymnody. A well-matched tune not only fits the poetic meter of the text, it helps to undergird, emotionally interpret, and express the meaning of the text. Crafting or finding music that aptly conveys and strengthens the message of the lyrics is called text painting. Examples of hymn tunes that beautifully paint the text include:

“Holy, Holy, Holy” by Reginald Heber (1783–1826) 
Set to the tune NICAEA by John B. Dykes, 1861

This hymn echoes the threefold praise of God’s holiness found in Scripture (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). It affirms the doctrine: “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” The motive of the tune accompanies the words “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It consists of a rising arpeggio of the tonic chord: a major triad made up of a root, 3rd, and 5th. It is a musical illustration of the doctrine of the Trinity: 3 notes, one chord.  

“How Firm a Foundation” from John Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, 1787 
Set to the tune FOUNDATION from John Funk’s Genuine Church Music, 1832

This hymn affirms the certainty of God’s Word. All that God has said and promised will surely come to pass. The tune conveys firmness by emphasizing the structural tones of the major scale. Most of the melody consists of the three notes of the tonic triad (the most stable chord of the key). 

“O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” a Medieval Latin poem ascribed to Bernard Clairvaux (1091–1153)
Set to the tune PASSION CHORALE by Hans Leo Hassler, 1601, harmonized by J.S. Bach, 1729

Hassler’s tune in minor with Bach’s harmonization captures well the “grief,” “anguish,” and “sorrow” in the text. Bach concludes with a cadence in the relative major, as the hymn expresses both the suffering of Christ on the cross and God’s grace and love that come to us through Christ’s sacrifice.

“Up from the Grave He Arose” (Low in the Grave He Lay) 
Set to the tune CHRIST AROSE
Words and music by Robert Lowry (1826–1866)

Lowry’s hymn celebrating Christ’s resurrection begins with an 8-measure subdued verse (“Low in the grave He lay”) leading into a 12-measure triumphant chorus with dotted rhythms and expanded range. The chorus opens with an ascending arpeggio on the tonic chord interpreting the words “Up from the grave He arose.”

“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, 1719 
Set to the tune ANTIOCH by Lowell Mason, 1836, based on music by G.F. Handel, 1742

This familiar Christmas hymn proclaims Christ’s incarnation. The tune begins with a descending major scale conveying the text: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” The melody then ascends, returning to the starting note, reaching up with the words: “Let earth receive her King!”

A lesser-known Christmas hymn, whose tune beautifully portrays the text, is “Who Is This So Weak and Helpless.” This hymn begins with the birth of Christ, then points us to His life, suffering, and death on the cross. The first half of each verse focuses on Christ’s humiliation and asks the perplexing question: “Who is this?” The question is tied to the hymn’s motive that begins with the opening notes of the minor scale, rising a minor third from “a” to “c” (from tonic to mediant). The second half of each verses answers the question posed in the first half. We see Christ’s exaltation in stark contrast to His humiliation: “Who is this?” Answer: “Tis the Lord!” “Tis our God!” The motive also begins the second half of each verse, but the notes are raised a third. Now the notes rise from “c” to “e” (a major third), brightening the motive with uplifting wonder.

It seems improbable that the child who “coldly in a manger laid” is “the Lord of all creation.” It seems astounding that “a Man of Sorrows” is indeed “our God, our glorious Savior.” Yet this is the profound mystery of the incarnation. 

Below is the full text of the hymn. As you celebrate this Christmas season look from the manger to the cross and marvel at the wondrous way that God has accomplished our salvation.

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” says the Lord.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
(Isaiah 55:8-9)

Who Is This So Weak and Helpless?

“He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not” (John 1:10).

WHO is this so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered,
Coldly in a manger laid?
‘TIS the Lord of all creation,
Who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting,
And to everlasting God.

WHO is this, a Man of Sorrows,
Walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping,
Over sin and Satan’s sway?
‘TIS our God, our glorious Savior,
Who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth,
Where no tear can dim the eye.

WHO is this? Behold Him shedding
Drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
Mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
‘TIS our God, who gifts and graces
On His church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in holy vengeance
All His foes beneath His throne.

WHO is this that hangeth dying
While the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors,
Torn with nails and crowned with thorns?
‘TIS the God who ever liveth 
‘Mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city,
Reigning everlastingly.

“Who Is This So Weak and Helpless” 
Words by William Walsham How (1823–1897)
Music by John Ambrose Lloyd, the elder (1815–1874)
Words and Music ©Public Domain

Download lyrics and free sheet music (PDF), including guitar chord charts and an arrangement of the hymn tune EIFIONYDD for classical guitar. 

More Hymns from History

More Christmas hymns arranged for Classical Guitar

Wondrous King All-Glorious

Mountain and Lake

Wondrous King, all glorious,
Sovereign Lord victorious,
O, receive our praise with favor!

These words begin a glorious hymn of praise composed by the German Reformed hymn-writer Joachim Neander (1650–1680). According to John Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology, the hymn was based on Psalm 150:6, and intended for “Thanksgiving” with the original title: “Inciting oneself to the Praise of God.” It was published in 1680 (the year of Neander’s death) in a collection with other hymns that he had written, including “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”

Neander composed both the tune and the text for “Wondrous King All-Glorious.” The first 16 measures of the tune are based on an often-used chord progression of his day. It is the same chord progression that Johann Pachelbel also adapted and made famous in his “Canon in D.” Pachelbel’s Canon was written sometime in the 1680s, near the time Neander’s tune was composed.

Wondrous King, All-Glorious

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!
(Psalm 150:6)

Wondrous King, all glorious,
Sovereign Lord victorious,
O, receive our praise with favor!
From thee welled God’s kindness
Though we in our blindness
Strayed from Thee, our blessed Savior.
Strengthen Thou,
Help us now;
Let our tongues be singing,
Thee our praises bringing.

Heavens, spread the story
Of our Maker’s glory,
All the pomp of earth obscuring.
Sun, thy rays be sending,
Thy bright beams expending,
Light to all the earth assuring.
Moon and star,
Praise afar
Him who glorious made you;
The vast heavens aid you.

O my soul, rejoicing,
Sing, thy praises voicing,
Sing, with hymns of faith adore Him!
All who here have being,
Shout, your voices freeing,
Bow down in the dust before Him.
He is God
Sabaoth;
Praise alone the Savior,
Here and there forever.

Hallelujahs render
To the Lord most tender,
Ye who know and love the Savior.
Hallelujahs sing ye,
Ye redeemed, O, bring ye
Hearts that yield Him glad behavior.
Blest are ye
Endlessly;
Sinless there forever,
Ye shall laud Him ever.


“Wondrous King, All-Glorious” 
Words and Music by Joachim Neander, 1680
Translated by William J. Schaefer, 1938
Tune: WUNDERBARER KÖNIG (6.6.8.6.6.8.3.3.6.6.)
©Public Domain

Download free sheet music (PDF) for this hymn, including guitar chord charts, an arrangement of the hymn tune WUNDERBARER KÖNIG for classical guitar, and an arrangement for the tune for instrumental ensemble.

More Hymns from History

A Prayer for the New Year

This hymn, entitled “Prayer for a Blessing” by John Newton is from Part I “Seasons” of Book II of Olney Hymns and was sung “before annual sermons to young people, on New Years’ evenings.”

May God keep us near His throne of grace and may this be our prayer as we begin the new year.

Church and Steeple

Prayer for a Blessing

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:16).

Now, gracious Lord, Thine arm reveal
And make Thy glory known;
Now let us all Thy presence feel
And soften hearts of stone!

Help us to venture near Thy throne
And plead a Savior’s name;
For all that we can call our own,
Is vanity and shame.

From all the guilt of former sin
May mercy set us free;
And let the year we now begin,
Begin and end with Thee.

Send down Thy Spirit from above,
That saints may love Thee more;
And sinners now may learn to love,
Who never loved before.

And when before Thee we appear,
In our eternal home,
May growing numbers worship here,
And praise Thee in our room.

“Prayer for A Blessing”
Words by John Newton (1779)
Music by Robert Simpson (1790–1832)
Words and Music ©Public Domain

Download free sheet music (PDF) for this hymn, including a guitar chord chart, and an arrangement of the hymn tune BALERMA for classical guitar.

More Hymns from History

More Hymns arranged for Classical Guitar

O How Blest the Hour

Church and Clock Tower

We enjoy many wonderful blessings when we gather with the church for worship. Together, we lift up our prayers, sing God’s praise, and hear God’s Word. Yet we can too easily miss these blessings, even when we are present with God’s people. We can say and sing words with our lips—and fail to draw near to Christ in our hearts. We can hear the Word of God read and preached—and thoughtlessly assume we know what is being said. We can take worship for granted and fail to appreciate its wonder and delight.

The hymn, O How Blest the Hour by the Lutheran hymn-writer Carl Johann Philipp Spitta (1801–1859), is a prayer that we not miss the wonder and delight of worship. It was first published in Leipzig in 1843 under the Scripture text John 6:68 with the title “Thou hast the words of Eternal Life” (John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, 2:1078). The opening line in German is “O wie freun wir uns der Stunde” (O how we joyfully look forward to the hour). Richard Massie included a translation of the hymn in English in the second volume of his Lyra Domestica (1864).

The hymn anticipates the joy of drawing near to Christ and being together with the church in worship. It expresses our desire to hear God’s Word and asks that God be at work as we listen—that we would “not hear in vain” but He would impress its truths to our hearts and minds and help us walk in obedience.

Below are the words and link to the hymn set to a tune composed by Tom Wells. My thanks again to Tom for his permission to share and make his tunes available.

O How Blest the Hour

“But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life’” (John 6:68).

O How blest the hour, Lord Jesus,
When we can to Thee draw near,
Promises so sweet and precious
From Thy gracious lips to hear!

Be with us this day to bless us,
That we may not hear in vain;
While Thy saving truths impress us,
Which the words of life contain.

Open Thou our minds and lead us
Safely on our heav’nward way;
While the lamp of Truth precedes us,
That we might not go astray.

Lord, endue Thy Word from heaven
With such light and love and pow’r,
That in us its silent leaven
May work on from hour to hour.

Give us grace to bear our witness
To the truths we have embraced;
And let others both their sweetness
And their quick’ning virtue taste.

“O How Blest the Hour”
Words by Carl Johann Philipp Spitta (1801–1859)
Translated by Richard Massie, 1800–1887
Music by Tom Wells, 2002
Words ©Public Domain
Music ©2002 Tom Wells (Used by Permission)

Download free sheet music (PDF), including guitar chord charts and an arrangement of the hymn tune HARRISON for classical guitar.

More Hymns from History

More hymns arranged for Classical Guitar

 

I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art

One of my favorite hymns from the Reformation is “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art.” The words are attributed to John Calvin, from the Strasbourg Psalter, 1545. The tune (TOULON) was composed by Claude Goudimel, one of the musicians in Calvin’s church in Geneva. It was originally composed as the melody for Psalm 124 and included in the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter.

I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art

Calvin has been criticized regarding his convictions about music. One historian (Münz) wrote:

“The Pope of Geneva, that dry and hard spirit, Calvin, lacked the warmth of heart which makes Luther so lovable … is the foe of all pleasure and of all distraction, even of the arts and music.”

A closer look at Calvin’s thoughts on music, however, reveals that this harsh judgment is unfounded. During his ministry Calvin came to appreciate music as a valuable part of worship. He learned that music is a useful means to point our minds and hearts to Christ. He desired the church to sing Scripture and employed the gifts of renowned French poets in his congregation to set all 150 psalms, some of the canticles, and the Ten Commandments into metrical French. Clement Marot began the work on the Genevan Psalter and Theodore Beza completed the work. Louis Bourgeois, Claude Goudimel and other musicians in the church composed tunes to fit the psalms. The first complete edition of the Genevan Psalter was published in 1562 and was widely used. By 1565 it had gone through at least 63 editions.

Calvin recognized the devotional value of music. He encouraged his congregation to sing praise to God, not just in the worship services at church, but in their homes and places of work. In the preface to the 1543 edition of the Genevan Psalter, he wrote:

The use of singing may be extended further: it is even in the houses and fields an incentive for us, like an organ, to praise God and to lift our hearts to Him, for consoling us in meditating upon His virtue, goodness, wisdom and justice, which is more necessary than can be expressed. Firstly, it is not without reason that the Holy Spirit exhorts us so carefully in the Holy Scriptures to rejoice in God that all our joy may be reduced to its true purpose, for He knows how much we are inclined to rejoice in vanity. So our nature causes us to look for all means of foolish and vicious rejoicing. On the contrary, our Lord, to distract us and draw us away from the desires of the flesh and of this world gives us every possible way to occupy ourselves in that spiritual joy which He desires for us. Among all other things which are proper for recreation of man and for giving him pleasure, music is the first or one of the principal and we must esteem it as a gift of God given to us for that purpose.

Calvin’s hymn “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art” is a wonderful encouragement to remember and meditate on the gospel. It embodies a major theological emphasis of the Reformation: Solus Christus (Christ Alone). Our salvation is accomplished only by the mediatorial work of Christ. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement are alone sufficient for our justification and reconciliation with God. Indeed, “our hope is in no other save in Thee!”

I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art

I greet Thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only Trust and Savior of my heart,
Who pains didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of Thy pure day.

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by Thy pow’r.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast Thou and no bitterness:
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in Thee,
And ever stay in Thy sweet unity.

Our hope is in no other save in Thee;
Our faith is built upon Thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure,
That we can boldly conquer and endure.

“I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art”
Words from the Strasbourg Psalter, 1545
Attributed to John Calvin
Translated by Elizabeth Smith, 1868, alt. 1961
Music by Claude Goudimel (Genevan Psalter, 1551)
©Public Domain

Download free sheet music for this hymn, including chord charts and an arrangement of the tune TOULON for classical guitar.

See more Hymns from History