When William Cowper, who had suffered from severe depression since the death of his mother when he was just six years old, was faced with the prospect of a final law examination before the House of Lords, he experienced a mental breakdown that he never fully recovered from. Having been sent to St. Alban’s asylum for eighteen months, he began to read the Bible, which brought some peace to his mind, and he was able to leave and live with his good family friend, famed author of “Amazing Grace,” John Newton.
Confession is one of the most important practices of the Christian faith, and it is emphasized in this hymn based off King David’s Psalm 51. In Psalm 51, David cries out to the Lord for mercy, begging for cleansing and renewal. We see the pleas of a fallen man, desperate to make things right with God. It does not hold back any sin, but confesses all. This hymn is powerful both in and out of scriptural context. It takes the confession of an ancient king, and applies it to all sinners in every age.
John records in his gospel the long discourse Jesus gave before his Passion, where Jesus foreshadowed what was to come. First, he foretells Peter's denial: “Very truly I tell you, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!” (John 13:38b, NIV). Later, he describes what he will do: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13, NIV).
As this hymn is sung, contemplate the lessons we can learn from Jesus through His Passion. Consider how Jesus prayed fervently in the face of certain death that He would do God's will, and how He warned His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40, ESV). In the scene of the mock trial in the second stanza, see how much pain Jesus accepted without a murmur. Jesus went even further in His selflessness in giving up His very life (st. 3). Meditate on how Christ calls each of us to take up our cross daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23).
After the great “Hall of Faith” passage in Hebrews 11, the writer to the Hebrews calls the saints who are still on earth to emulate those who have gone before: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us …” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV).
The first two lines of this hymn refer to the bread, representing Jesus' broken body, and to the wine, representing Jesus' shed blood. Later, the parallel structure of the lines referring to the broken heart and shed tears of repentant sinners emphasizes the sorrow of the believer over the sin that necessitated Christ's suffering. Through our confession of sin and participation in Communion, we remind ourselves that it is only “by Thy grace our souls are fed.”
Bulletin Blurb: Perhaps the reason this song has been so universally included in hymnals is that it reminds discouraged Christians of the grace they have been given. It is often easy to take a negative view of life, but when we remember the things we have been given, we cannot deny that we are blessed. The hymn proclaims that all power belongs to God, and that he desires to bless us. The lyrics for this hymn are related to several scripture passages: Psalm 40:5-6; Psalm 107:31; Ephesians 1:3; and 1 Thessalonians 5:18.
One theme of this hymn is the contrast between the message “peace on earth, good will toward men” proclaimed by the host of angels at Christ's birth (Luke 2:14) and the war and oppression that dominate the earth. As this hymn is sung, think about the coming time when God will make all things new and bring His peace.
This hymn is suitable for the Christmas season. Such a well-known hymn can be used in a variety of ways.
Also known as "The Birthday of a King"
This Christmas song contrasts the humble little village of Bethlehem with the glory and greatness of Jesus Christ, who was born there. The refrain focuses on the wonderful appearance of the host of angels, and how that was a fitting celebration for the birthday of a King.
In the Old Testament, Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River. This region was known for having skillful physicians and an ointment made from the gum of a tree particular to that area. Many believed that this balm had miraculous powers to heal the body. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells the people of Israel that though many believe in the mysterious healing power of this balm, they can’t trust in those powers for spiritual healing or as a relief of their oppression. He reminds them that He is ultimately in control, and only He can relieve their suffering.