A Mighty Fortress in translation

More a bookmark for me here than anything else: An excellent parsing exercise at Desiring God compares the original German text of “A Mighty Fortress” to the common English translation and finds the translation lacking at several points. John Piper provides a helpful “woodenly literal” translation of the hymn.

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On Not Singing All the Stanzas

As I grew up singing in church, it was common for me to hear various songleaders say things like, “Third stanza as the last,” or “We’ll sing verses one, three, and four.” In my own songleading, I used to do that sort of thing as well with relative frequency. Initially, it was as much imitation of the songleaders I knew, as anything else. As time went on, other reasons came to the fore. I might skip a stanza in order to conserve time. Or I might skip a stanza that I thought was doctrinally deficient or questionable. And sometimes I skipped a stanza on the fly because on a given occasion the song was simply too long (or high) for my voice to last through it , or it was clear the congregation was not doing well with the song.

Over time, though, I’ve become less likely to skip stanzas. In fact, at one point, it became a matter of internal pride that simply don’t do that sort of thing: the song had those stanzas in it for a reason, and we’re going to sing them all!

However, the pendulum, thankfully, has swung back a bit. I still do not generally skip stanzas. In fact, sometimes I add stanzas: there are very often some excellent stanzas of hymns that are original to the hymn but not included in a given hymnal. But I am willing to omit stanzas thoughtfully in conjunction with these points:

(1) Most (I daresay) older hymns have fewer stanzas in the hymnal than they originally had. Longer hymns generally have certain stanzas that are superior in their wording and sentiment, and naturally those are the ones that are included when a hymnal editor has to whittle a (say) twenty-stanza hymn down to the three or four stanzas that can be included on a typical page. So, if I omit a stanza, I’m simply doing (at one level) more of what the hymnal editor has already done.

(2) That said, stanzas must be omitted thoughtfully. I still remember being at a gathering where people were encouraged to choose a hymn they’d like everyone to sing, and we’d sing the first stanza. Eventually, someone chose “A Mighty Fortress”, and we sang only the first stanza. I wasn’t leading the songs on that occasion, but I couldn’t help myself; I had to speak up and ask that we sing another stanza. Ending our singing of that song by describing our ancient foe and not bringing Jesus into the picture was simply too much for me! Many times, a stanza can be omitted from a given hymn without doing violence to its flow of thought; equally, however, such an omission is inadvisable when it leaves a gaping hole in the song as a whole. One must be sensitive to the sort of hymn in view. If a hymn is exploring different dimensions of a given subject (e.g., “Jesus Shall Reign”), as opposed to setting forth a progression of thought (e.g., “A Mighty Fortress”) a stanza typically can be safely omitted.

When stanzas are omitted, however, I find it best to note this just before — not while — the song is sung. If a stanza is omitted for a theological reason, it may be a good idea to make a quick note as to that reason as the song is introduced.

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He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions

I was thinking about the text of Thomas Chisholm’s “He Was Wounded for Our Transgressions,” a hymn grounded in Isaiah 53. As so often is the case, a light bulb finally clicked on tonight even though I’ve sung this song many times over the years.

Chisholm in the third stanza says:

“Who can number His generation? Who shall declare all the triumphs of His cross?
Millions dead now live again, Myriads follow in His train!
Victorious Lord, Victorious Lord, Victorious Lord and coming King!”

Isaiah 53:8 says (in the KJV, which Chisholm [1866-1960] is clearly using):

He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.

Chisholm takes Isaiah’s question “who shall declare his generation?” and apparently understands it to be a sort of rhetorical question signifying that those who are “generated” from Christ—those who are born again (cf. John 3:3)—are so many as to be practically innumerable. So, he asks, “Who can number His generation?” His answer, such as it is, to this rhetorical question follows: “Millions dead now live again, myriads follow in his train.” I’ve sung that line many times, and never connected it with Chisholm’s rhetorical question a line earlier.

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Kwasniewski, Is There a Proper Role for “Contemporary” Music at Church?


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Doug Wilson, What Music Cannot Say

Doug Wilson has a little book entitled Church Music and the Other Kinds: A Musical Manifesto of Sorts. Classic Wilson in style, it makes a number of good points on church music. I thought the following was helpful in thinking about musical meaning.

In Psalm 22:3, we are told that God is holy, and that He
inhabits the praises of Israel. What does that mean?
We are the people of God, and when we sing, when we
praise God, we are constructing a dwelling place for Him.
So what kind of place should we build? How should
it be furnished and decorated? The Bible tells us that our
praise of God should overflow as a function of the Word
of God dwelling in us richly.
A common misconception in our day says that music
is content-neutral, as though it were a universal sauce
that can go with any meal. This idea arises from the fact
that music is not as capable as language in communicating
specific meanings. But just because it cannot communicate
in as focused a way does not mean that it is not
communicating at all. Music adorns words, and music
must adorn words in ways that are consistent. Music is
more general than the words, but they both still have to
line up. The words cannot be specific—Des Moines—and
the music the wrong kind of general—Wyoming, say.
Music cannot tell you the temperature at the airport,
or that Washington crossed the Delaware, or that
Jesus rose from the dead. But when words are expressed
in poetry, and set to music, it must be music that communicates
something general that is consistent with
the specific meaning. Music can be exultant, romantic,
goofy, melancholic, and so forth. So one of the central
principles of church music is this—since we are building
a habitation for the Lord in our praises, and He will condescend
to live in what we sing, the way we adorn the
house must be consistent with what we are saying the
house is. If our words are to be reverent, holy, jubilant,
loud, and grateful, then so must the music be.

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Edwards: Sing or sin

From a sermon by Jonathan Edwards on “Self-Examination”:

Examine yourselves, whether you do not live in some way of sin with respect to the institutions of God’s house. Here I shall mention several instances. . . .

(2) Do you not live in sin, in living in the neglect of singing God’s praises? If singing praises to God be an ordinance of God’s public worship, as doubtless it is, then it ought to be attended and performed by the whole worshipping assembly. If it be a command that we should worship God in this way, then all ought to obey this command, not only by joining with others in singing, but in singing themselves. For if we suppose it answers the command of God for us only to join in our hearts with others, it will run us into this absurdity, that all may do so; and then there would be none to sing, none for others to join with.

If it be an appointment of God, that Christian congregations should sing praises to him, then doubtless it is the duty of all; if there be no exception in the rule, then all ought to comply with it, unless they be incapable of it, or unless it would be a hindrance to the other work of God’s house. . . . But if persons be now not capable, because they know not how to sing, that doth not excuse them, unless they have been incapable of learning. As it is the command of God, that all should sing, so all should make conscience of learning to sing, as it is a thing which cannot be decently performed at all without learning. Those, therefore, who neglect to learn to sing, live in sin, as they neglect what is necessary in order to their attending one of the ordinances of God’s worship.

Not only should persons make conscience of learning to sing themselves, but parents should conscientiously see to it, that their children are taught this among other things, as their education and instruction belong to them.

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Methodist Hymn Histories and Studies

And a lot of them! See here.

Here’s an example of one of their “hymn studies”:

“Jesus Paid It All”

Hymn Study

by Dean McIntyre

TITLE: “Jesus Paid It All”
AUTHOR: Elvina M. Hall
COMPOSER: John T. Grape
SOURCES: Worship & Song, no. 3100
SCRIPTURE: Ezekiel 11:19; Psalm 51:7; Isaiah 1:16-18; John 1:29; Romans 5:6-8; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:1-9; 1 Peter 2:24; Revelation 5:11-14
TOPICS: assurance; Calvary; cleanse; blood of Christ; cross; justifying grace; Passion & death; Lamb of God; pardon; power & might; prayer; redemption; salvation; sinfulness; throne; weakness

The circumstances surrounding the composition of a hymn’s text and tune and then the joining of the two are often serendipitous, or if you prefer, Spirit-led.

John T. Grape was born in Baltimore, Maryland, May 6, 1835, and died in Baltimore November 2, 1915. He was a successful coal merchant and member of the Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore. He also played the organ, directed the choir, and was active in the Sunday school. He later directed the choir at the Hartford Avenue Methodist Church. He composed this tune independently of the text and called it ALL TO CHRIST I OWE. He gave a copy to his pastor, who was unimpressed with it and set it aside.

Elvina Mable Hall (June 4, 1822, Alexandria, Virginia-July 18, 1889, Ocean Grove, New Jersey) married Richard Hall of Virginia. After his death, she married the Rev. Thomas Meyers, a Methodist pastor in the Baltimore Conference. She was also a 40-year member of the Monument Street Methodist Church in Baltimore and a member of the choir. She composed these words in 1865, sitting in the choir loft during the pastor’s sermon. Not having any paper, she wrote them inside the cover of her hymnal. She composed the four stanzas and titled them “Jesus Paid It All,” and gave a copy to the pastor.

The Rev. George W. Schreck, pastor of the Monument Street Methodist Church, upon reading Hall’s hymn, remembered the tune he had been given by John Grape. The meter of the text and tune were agreeable, except that Grape’s tune had a refrain. Hall then added the words of the refrain to fit and the hymn was complete. At Schreck’s urging, they sent the hymn to Professor Theodore Perkins, publisher of the Sabbath Carols periodical, where it received its first publication. It has been a favorite of many American Christians ever since.

The notes of both melody and harmony are, with one exception, completely diatonic, and with three exceptions, pentatonic. The tune consists of tonic and dominant harmonies except for the internal cadence on the subdominant at the third measure from the end, a point at which many congregations will place a fermata (“stain”). Musically, the tune is structured AA’BB’ and is contained entirely within an octave.

This hymn is appropriately placed in the PARDON division of the JUSTIFYING GRACE section of Worship & Song. Perhaps resulting from the fact that the four stanzas were composed first as a unit and the refrain text added later, there is a division between content of stanza and refrain. The four stanzas speak of our human weakness and failure, our need for salvation and the power and grace we receive through Jesus Christ. The refrain centers on the debt we owe to God as a result of our sin and the fact that that debt was paid through Jesus’ death on the cross.

  • Stanza One: Jesus says that we are weak and through watching and prayer, we will find all that we need.
  • Stanza Two: It is in Jesus that we find the power to change our lives and our hearts.
  • Stanza Three: We are meritless to claim God’s grace. It is Jesus’ shed blood that saves us.
  • Stanza Four: When we are finally judged by God, we shall proclaim our salvation through Jesus’ death.
  • Refrain: The debt of our sin was paid by Jesus.



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