A HYMN OF GLORY LET US SING
Folk music is noteworthy for its repetitive, straightforward lyrics and its easily remembered tunes. What Wondrous Love Is This has these characteristics and is rightly called an American folk hymn. As is usually the case with songs passed down through oral tradition, the original author or authors are unknown. The first printed version of the text can be traced back to an 1811 hymnal bearing the lengthy title A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs. The melody now associated with the hymn was an early 18th century English ballad and first appeared alongside in the 1835 edition of the famous American hymnal Southern Harmony. The tune “Wondrous Love” is especially suited to playing on folk instruments such as fiddles, flutes, guitars, and harps.
The words of the four stanzas are easily divided by their themes. The first two stanzas speak of Christ’s wondrous love in laying down His life for us on the cross. The second two stanzas return thanks to the Father and the Son for this tremendous sacrifice.
Jesus once told His disciples that the greatest act of love is to give up one’s life for a friend (John 15:13). He Himself went even further, as Paul tells us in Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (NIV84) He died not only for His friends, but for all. Christ’s death truly reveals His wondrous love, a love which did bear the dreadful curse for my soul (stanza one). He became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13), cursed in our place on account of our sins.
If it had not been Jesus, it would have been us. When I was sinking down / Beneath God’s righteous frown . . . (stanza two) These words remind us that we were “lost and condemned creatures” as Luther puts it in his catechism. We were headed for condemnation in hell, subject to the just and proper punishment of God that we deserved for breaking His holy Law. Yet while we were sinking down, sinking down our Savior Jesus reached down and rescued us. Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, for my soul. Another hymn writer, Anne Steele, said it this way: “He left His radiant throne on high, Left realms of heav’nly bliss, And came to earth to bleed and die— Was ever love like this?” (The Lutheran Hymnal, 363:3)
With Christ’s wondrous love in mind, stanza three replies, To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing; / To God and to the Lamb, Who is the great I AM, / While millions join the theme, I will sing. Here we have a doxology, a song of praise. To the Father and to the Lamb Who was slain, our voices combine with those of the whole Christian Church. Can you hear it? Listen: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ ” (Revelation 5:13 NIV84)
The voices of praise to our Savior for His death and resurrection will never die away: And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. / I’ll sing His love for me, / And through eternity I’ll sing on (stanza four). More specifically, your voices will never cease, for you will live on in heaven to glorify Him forever and ever! Amen!
David Schaller is pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sister Lakes, Michigan. He also prepares the “Bread of Life” devotions for the Lutheran Spokesman.