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.”
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,
“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.