Dissecting a Thousand Tongues

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Dissecting A Thousand Tongues

In a recent blog post I discussed the difference between personal-story worship songs and cosmic-story worship songs. I made the qualification that personal-story songs focus mainly on how God interacts with the author’s story, whereas cosmic-story songs show how the author has been swept up in God’s saving activity, having a share in salvation history. This begs the question, which is more fitting for the content of Christian worship? The cosmic gives perspective and identity to the personal, but this does not mean the personal is invalid. I believe that Christian worship songs are at their best when they somehow strike a balance between the personal and the cosmic.

Charles Wesley is one of the best examples of a Christian songwriter who often captured both the personal-story and cosmic-story within a single song. He was able to depict the narrative of salvation in a deeply intimate way. Lyrical expression was more than a cathartic experience for Charles Wesley’s soul. Instead, Charles felt deeply the importance of communicating the theme of God’s universal invitation to salvation. Yet, his lyrics were often testimonial as well.

One of Charles’ most famous hymns, commonly known as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” was composed as a reflection on his own faith journey. The original hymn contained eighteen verses and was written by Charles on the first anniversary of his conversion (three days prior to his brother John’s own heart-warming experience). He appropriately entitled the hymn, “For the Anniversary of One’s Conversion.” (John Wesley later pared it down to eight stanzas for use in the Methodist hymnal, beginning with the line “O for a thousand tongues…,” which is why we know it by that title today.)

Though many of Charles Wesley’s lyrical works would be a fitting example of the unity of the personal with the cosmic, in this post I will examine the full eighteen verses of “O for a Thousand to Sing.” By looking at this well-known text, I believe we will see how worship can speak to deeply intimate realities while enrapturing an individual to the grand narrative of God.

Part One: Cosmic Doxology

Though our personal stories may have a place in worship, worship is directed to God and given for God’s glory alone. In other words, our testimonies are put in their proper perspective through doxology. The first words of Saint Augustine of Hippo’s spiritual autobiography give evidence to this: “Great are you, O Lord, and greatly to be praised!” Likewise, Charles situates his hymn with a doxology, beginning with praise and glory given to God:

1. Glory to God and praise and love

Be ever, ever given

By saints below, and saints above

The Church in earth and heaven.

Worship draws us into doxology. In our meeting with God, our primary response should always be similar to that of Isaiah 6, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty! The whole earth is filled with his glory!” Doxology is the overflow of praise for who God is and what God has done. Only in this light will any following testimony be put in proper perspective.

Part Two: Personal Testimony

In stanzas two through seven, Charles Wesley turns more personal. He begins to give his testimonial account, offering a description of his own experience of salvation:

2. On this glad day the glorious Sun

Of Righteousness arose

On my benightened soul he shone

And filled it with repose

3. Sudden expired the legal strife

‘Twas then I ceased to grieve

My second, real, living life

I then began to live

4. Then with my heart I first believed

Believed with faith divine

Power with the Holy Ghost received

To call the Saviour mine

5. I felt my Lord’s atoning blood

Close to my soul applied

Me, me he loved, the Son of God

For me, for me he died!

6. I found and owned his promise true,

Ascertained my part

My pardon passed in heaven I knew

When written on my heart

7. O for a thousand tongues to sing

My great Redeemer’s praise!

The glories of my God and King

The triumphs of his grace

In this section of the song, the author (Charles Wesley) is the primary subject. This is about his experiences, his emotions, and his transformation. The language is deeply personal: “Me, me he loved, the Son of God/ For me, for me he died!” Even the singer/reader can feel a personal connection to the words. Yet, even though the lyrics tend toward an individual focus, Charles keeps the cosmic narrative in view. In part, his Trinitarian language (thereby acknowledging the Trinity’s work in his conversion) accomplishes this in lines such as, “Power with the Holy Ghost received/ To call the Saviour mine.” Additionally, Charles comes back to the doxological purpose of worship in the seventh stanza, “O for a thousand tongues to sing/ My great Redeemer’s praise!/ The glory of my God and King/ The triumphs of his grace.”

Part Three: Cosmic Proclamation

As stanza seven bring the song back to a doxological proclamation similar to how the hymn first began, it also sets up a lyrical shift in the song. In stanza seven, Charles makes the personal request for “a thousand tongues” to declare his praise to God, acknowledging his glories and triumphs. In stanza eight, Charles uses the tongue (or pen) God has given him to make such cosmic proclamation (and perhaps, through our joining him in the hymn, he is granted the thousand tongues he desired):

 8. My gracious Master and my God

Assist me to proclaim

To spread through all the earth abroad

The honors of Thy name

9.  Jesus, the name that charms our fears

That bids our sorrows cease

‘Tis music in the sinner’s ears

‘Tis life and health and peace

10. He breaks the power of cancelled sin

He sets the prisoner free

His blood can make the foulest clean

His blood availed for me

11. He speaks, and listening to his voice

New life the dead receive

The mournful, broken hearts rejoice

The humble poor believe

Stanzas eight through eleven are a sermon of the gospel message of Jesus Christ, reflecting the universal call to salvation so important in the Wesleys’ preaching. Charles shows in these lines that with the experience of conversion comes proclamation of the gospel. Furthermore, though the call for salvation is universal, Wesley gets specific. In stanzas ten and eleven he shows that Christ comes to bring salvation to specific experiences of those to whom the proclamation is addressed: sinners are freed from the power of sin; prisoners are set free; the dead are given life; the sorrowful are given joy.

Part Four: Personal Responsibility

In the final seven stanzas of the hymn, Charles once again gets personal, but in a much different way than in his testimony earlier in the song. Charles now commands in boldness for others to make the Gospel story personal in their own lives, to find themselves caught up in the cosmic narrative of God’s salvation, to accept the triumphs of Christ, and to join his doxology:

12. Hear him ye deaf, his praise, ye dumb,

Your loosened tongues employ

Ye blind behold your Saviour come

And leap ye lame for joy

13. Look unto him, ye nations, own

Your God, ye fallen race!

Look, and be saved through faith alone

And justified by grace

14. See all your sins on Jesus laid

The Lamb of God was slain

His soul was once an offering made

For every soul of man

15. Harlots and publicans and thieves

In holy triumph join

Saved is the sinner that believes

From crimes as great as mine

16. Murderers and all ye hellish crew

Ye sons of lust and pride

Believe the Saviour died for you

For me the Saviour died

17. Awake from guilty nature’s sleep

And Christ shall give you light

Cast all your sins into the deep

And wash with Ethiop white

18. With me your chief you then shall know

Shall feel your sins forgiven

Anticipate your heaven below

And own that love is heaven

Conclusion

The structure of Charles Wesley’s hymn moves from glory to testimony to proclamation and finally to exhortation. Throughout, the song demonstrates that worship is not to be primarily concerned with our own pious introspection but instead leads us to a cosmic acknowledgement and proclamation of God’s glorious work and character. Furthermore, worship brings us to share the good news of the Gospel through our doxological praise. Though many of us may not feel as gifted as Charles Wesley, we do have a story to tell. Through this hymn, Charles Wesley brilliantly shows us how every testimony presents a remarkable opportunity to give praise to God, tell the story of salvation, proclaim the Gospel message, and encourage others to take claim of it in their life. May God assist our tongues to make such proclamation.

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About jonathanapowers

Jonathan serves with his wife, Faith, as the director of student ministries for World Gospel Mission at Asbury University, where he is also an adjunct professor of Worship Arts. He recently received his doctorate in worship studies from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, FL. Jonathan serves as the worship pastor for the Offerings Community of First United Methodist Church in Lexington, KY and is the co-author with Jason Jackson and Teddy Ray of Echo: A Catechism for Discipleship in the Ancient Tradition published by Seedbed.

4 responses to “Dissecting a Thousand Tongues”

  1. Enoch says :

    Hmm…this reminds me of a discussion we had. :)

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