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Hymn 143 “O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken”

Written by | February, 2016
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Sin. 

The Cross.

Darkness.

Sorrow.

Anguish.

Scourging.

Blood.

Crucifixion.

Death.

Asignificant number of modern American churches do not dwell on these themes—during Lent or at any other time. Instead, they try to avoid them. Such biblical elements are considered too negative for their members to hear, too much of a “downer.” Instead, those churches tend to proclaim the theological Prozac of self-esteem and a truncated message focused solely on the biblical truth that “God wants me to feel happy, not burdened with guilt and shame,” without ever mentioning our sin or the suffering the Son of God endured to redeem us to Himself and thereby remove that guilt and shame. 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” is not likely to be a sermon text in such churches. The largest Christian congregation in America, for example (Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas), has no crosses in or on its church building because the pastor considers crosses to be a “negative image,” not in keeping with his “positive” message.

In our hymns as well as our preaching, we seek to faithfully proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27).
Hymn 143 is a hymn for the season of Lent, and it is typically Lutheran in its biblical content. It is the opposite of the relatively superficial “praise songs” often found in contemporary American “Evangelicalism.” Of that modern trendiness, Craig A. Parton says about an outdoor service he attended (on a Good Friday!), “I was first struck by the music—upbeat, soft rock done by a James Taylor wanna-be backup band. Wireless microphones were attached to the lapels of performers acting as if they were doing a ‘gig’ for Jesus. Everyone was laughing, smiling, joking—it was all very cute and fun. The testimonials and the message sounded the theme of ‘upward and onward.’ ”1

For the most part, although the “praise songs” of  contemporary American  “Evangelicalism” do indeed present some biblical content, they seldom deal with the cross, the reality and consequences of sin, our guilt and need for repentance, and so forth.  In sharp contrast to that reluctance, Hymn 143 gives us the true biblical perspective on the sufferings of Christ for our salvation, presented in music that reinforces the words (please go to http://lutherantacoma.com/hymns/ to listen to this music).  It presents scriptural truth, not pop psychology.

Based on Luke 23:20-24, in which Pilate’s pronouncement of Jesus’ innocence is contrasted to the mob’s insistent demand that He be crucified, this hymn likewise presents strong contrasts:

The severity of Jesus’ punishment contrasted to His innocence: “What law hast Thou broken/ That such sharp sentence should on Thee be spoken?”  (v. 1)

The unpunished guilty ones contrasted to the punished innocent One:  “It is my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish;/ Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,/ This I do merit.” (v. 3)

God’s sinless Son contrasted to the sinful children of men:  “The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;/ The sinful child of man may live in gladness.” (v. 5)

Jesus’ selfless love for us, which led Him to the cross, contrasted to our pursuit of worldly things:  “O wondrous love, whose depth no heart hath sounded,/ That brought Thee here, by foes and thieves surrounded!/ All worldly pleasures, heedless, I was trying/ While Thou wert dying.” (v. 7)

The first seven verses of this hymn present our sin and guilt contrasted to the unfathomable love of God that led Him to sacrifice His own Son to redeem us from the consequences of that sin, and thereby reconcile us to Himself.  The last eight verses then address our response to that astonishing love:  “How shall I find some worthy gifts to proffer?/ What dare I offer?” (v. 8)  “Oh, how should I do aught that could delight Thee!/ Can I requite Thee?” (v. 9).  We cannot “pay God back,” but we can bear “fruits worthy of repentance”:  “I will renounce whate’er doth vex or grieve Thee/ And quench with thoughts of Thee and prayers most lowly/ All fires unholy.” (v. 10)

Again, typical of the biblical soundness of the Lutheran chorale, Hymn 143 emphasizes that even our attempts to serve God in response to His grace to us in Christ cannot be done in our own strength; it is the Holy Spirit Who must empower us:  “To all good deeds, oh, let Thy Spirit win me/ And reign within me.” (v. 11)

Do you have children?  When they were toddlers and brought you a crayon-scrawled picture titled Mommy and Daddy, did you criticize their lack of artistic ability, or did the picture melt your heart with the sincerity of their love?  Then you can appreciate the import of v. 14: “But worthless is my sacrifice, I own it;/ Yet, Lord, for love’s sake Thou wilt not disown it;/ Thou wilt accept my gift in Thy great meekness/ Nor shame my weakness.”

The depth of God’s love for us in Christ is beyond
our full understanding, but in this solemn Lenten season, may He grant us a renewed and increased appreciation of that love.

Craig Owings is a retired teacher and serves as assistant editor of the Lutheran Spokesman. He lives in Cape Coral, Florida.