Tag Archives: Paul Gerhardt

W(h)ither the Great Lutheran Hymns? – Trinity 13: “Jesus Thy Boundless Love To Me”

We begin today’s hymnological examination with some wise words from Pastor David Peterson:

If we are to debate practices — and we must — then we will denigrate. This might be slightly painful, but it should be no surprise. Consider the matter of LSB hymnody. We must all surely know that its hymns are unequal. They all passed doctrinal review. Thus we trust that they are all free of blatant false teaching. But some are abysmally weak, have to be explained away from their original context, and do little actually to teach the faith. Others are confession, praise, and catechesis of the highest order. We may not agree on which hymns fall into which category, but we all know that some hymns are stronger than others. We all choose hymns in context. We don’t use the strongest hymn in the hymnal each Sunday. We vary hymns week to week. So also, not every hymn, regardless of its merits, is necessarily immediately accessible, while some hymns, weak as they are, are simply congregational favorites for sentimental reasons and for the sake of love we sing them. We don’t dogmatize the hymns of the day. But we certainly should teach both our pastors and laity to practice theological discernment in hymn choice and also encourage them to strive for stronger and stronger hymnody as they are able. A congregation or pastor without discernment who choses hymns merely for entertainment or emotional value deserves rebuke.

Good stuff. With respect, though I might qualify something he said: while the hymns in LSB are free of blatant false teaching, they are not free of subtle false teaching. That’s almost more of a problem. People get used to hearing and singing sub-orthodox formulations of our doctrine Sunday by Sunday, week by week. Eventually they will bristle when the weaknesses are pointed out to them. “Hey! I like that hymn. Quit being mean!” “Yeah, well it’s—” “SHUT UP. I LIKE THE LSB. THE LSB IS THE BEST. LOOK, I WROTE IN MY COPY. IT LOOKS LIKE A BAPTIST’S BIBLE.” Which proves…what, exactly? I happen to like cigarettes, which I know are bad for me.

The chief hymn for Trinity 13 is Paul Gerhardt’s “Jesus Thy Boundless Love To Me.” The first and most obvious problem with the LSB version of this hymn is the melody. Here is the melody for TLH’s version:

You probably already know the LSB melody. There’s no contest. LSB’s tune, composed by Norman Cocker (1889-1953), sounds like it’s straight out of Porgy & Bess. It’s not an unpleasant melody—I like Gershwin just fine. But this melody is not churchly. It’s big-band sing-songy schmaltz.

This hymn by no means the only one whose glorious traditional tune LSB has dispensed with in favor of some airy schlock. This isn’t even the worst offender. The worst offender may in fact be LSB 941, “We Praise You And Acknowledge You,” which is set to a theme from Gustav Holst’s suite The Planets, movement four: “Jupiter: The Bringer of Jollity.” Don’t get me wrong, I like Holst fairly well, and I once enjoyed a live performance of “The Planets.” Holst does a masterful job in the fourth movement of acoustically conjuring Jovial imagery in the minds of his hearers. That said, I don’t worship Jove/Jupiter/Zeus, so I personally find it a little off-putting that this theme is used as the musical setting for a (mediocre) paraphrase of the Te Deum, which is a glorious hymn to the One True God. (Unsurprisingly, the Te Deum only made it into LSB’s Matins after a botched plastic surgery—that might merit its own piece.) Yes, the theme from “Jupiter” is beautiful and soaring…in the context of the movement and of the whole Planets suite. When it gets looped for use as a hymn tune, though, it sounds canned, kitschy, and sentimental. To adapt the great Scaer the Elder: it makes your mother, who is a Methodist, want to sing with her eyes closed. It simply is not churchly. As for the lyrics…Stephen Starke is a good man, but St. Ambrose of Milan he ain’t. As for me and my house, we will sing the actual Te Deum—from TLH.

At least there is some context in which Holst’s music is beautiful and fitting, though. Look up LSB 406, Martin Luther’s “To Jordan Came The Christ Our Lord,” a very welcome addition to the Kernlieder, and set to Johann Walter’s beautiful 1524 melody. Not so fast, though! With fear and trembling, turn the page to 407. What’s this? Same hymn? No, not exactly. The “alternate melody” for this great hymn is truly awful. It sounds like somebody mashed up the soundtrack of Muppet Treasure Island with something by Rodgers & Hammerstein. If you have never sung this hymn to this tune—if you have never even heard this tune—pray that you never do. Unfortunately, your chances of hearing it are higher than you might have thought: turn to LSB 823 & 824, two facing pages containing two settings of Luther’s “May God Bestow On Us His Grace.” There it is again on 824, ringing the changes. Not content to let either of these marvelous hymns come into our use in their singularly majestic musical idioms, LSB’s editors had to provide a way to make them sound jejune. Somebody once told me that they liked 824 better “because it’s sort of fun and bouncy.” Indeed. It is certainly bouncy. With that said, I’d like to cede the rest of my time to my opponent.

I’ve gotten off track from “Jesus Thy Boundless Love To Me.” So far I’ve only talked about the music, but that’s not the only problem with LSB’s version. Here are the two versions in parallel:

TLH 349

LSB 683

1. Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart with Thee
And reign without a rival there.
To Thee alone, dear Lord, I live;
Myself to Thee, dear Lord, I give.
1. Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee,
And reign without a rival there!
Thine wholly, Thine alone I am;
Be Thou alone my constant flame.
2. Oh, grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My Joy, my Treasure, and my Crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My ev’ry act, word, thought, be love.
2. O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
All coldness from my heart remove;
My ev’ry act, word, thought be love.
3. O Love, how cheering is Thy ray!
All pain before Thy presence flies;
Care, anguish, sorrow, melt away
Where’er Thy healing beams arise.
O Jesus, nothing may I see,
Nothing desire or seek, but Thee!
4. This love unwearied I pursue
And dauntlessly to Thee aspire.
Oh, may Thy love my hope renew,
Burn in my soul like heav’nly fire!
And day and night be all my care
To guard this sacred treasure there.
3. This love unwearied I pursue
And dauntlessly to Thee aspire.
Oh, may Thy love my hope renew,
Burn in my soul like heav’nly fire!
And day and night be all my care
To guard this sacred treasure there.
5. Oh, draw me, Savior, e’er to Thee;
So shall I run and never tire.
With gracious words still comfort me;
Be Thou my Hope, my sole Desire.
Free me from every guilt and fear;
No sin can harm if Thou art near.
6. Still let Thy love point out my way;
What wondrous things Thy love hath wrought!
Still lead me lest I go astray;
Direct my work, inspire my thought;
And if I fall, soon may I hear
Thy voice and know that love is near!
7. In suffering be Thy love my peace,
In weakness be Thy love my power;
And when the storms of life shall cease,
O Jesus, in that final hour,
Be Thou my Rod and Staff and Guide
And draw me safely to Thy side!
4. In suff’ring be Thy love my peace,
In weakness be Thy love my pow’r;
And when the storms of life shall cease,
O Jesus, in that final hour,
Be Thou my rod and staff and guide
And draw me safely to Thy side!

TLH has seven verses, LSB has four. LSB’s first verse has been neutered, because twenty-first century Lutheran antinomians are unable to comprehend the Scriptural truth that while unregenerate man is incapable of “giving himself” to Jesus in any sense, the the regenerate Christian’s entire life is a living sacrifice in which he constantly gives himself to Jesus for the sake of his neighbor and his neighbor for the sake of Jesus. This is not some automatic phenomenon effected by vocation tractor-beams. Yes, it has to do with vocation, but it involves your active striving. (See my comments on LSB’s edits to verse 3 of “In God My Faithful God”; the same are applicable here.) Unable to handle nuanced (or just plain basic) spiritual truths, the neo-Lutheran editors of the LSB have ensured that no one will experience the discomfort of encountering such truths in the hymns of our church. Instead we get “Be thou alone my constant flame,” which is bad poetry and weirdly vague. For one, fire is the heraldry of the Holy Spirit, not of Jesus. For two, “Jesus, be my flame”? I’ll pass. You should, too.

Mark well the verses that LSB omits. Read them. Sing them—but don’t sing them to the LSB tune: not only is it inferior, it doesn’t work metrically with these verses. Ask yourself, “Why would someone leave these verses out?” Well, they really needed to save space so that we could include the Jamaican sing-along, “All You Works of God Bless the Lord,” (LSB 930). Yeah, mon! Get out de steel drum and pass de chalice! Let’s ruin de Easter Vigil…

Worst construction? It’s not even a construction. It’s just what happened when LSB was put together. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the LSB is the camel built by the committee that was charged with building a horse. A committee is a democracy in miniature, and democracy is a cancer.

Here’s TLH’s version of “Jesus Thy Boundless Love To Me.” Sing it, and be blessed!

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