The Healing Power of Old Hymns

There were many times, particularly when I was a teenager and young adult, that I took great solace in hymns. Some seem to think that’s a bit odd. I suppose it is unusual for a teenager to gravitate so strongly toward “old-fashioned” music. However, the lyrics of hymns tend to be much more rich, thoughtful, and profound than your typical pop ballad or upbeat worship song. They address pain, evil, and grief in ways I have never found in modern music.

Imagine for a minute how a child suffering from domestic violence and sexual abuse reads these words:

In thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here.

These are lyrics from the hymn, Jesus, Priceless Treasure, written by Johanne Franck in 1655, and translated by Catherine Winkworth in 1863. Here is more of it:

Satan, I defy thee;
Death, I now decry thee;
Fear, I bid thee cease.
World, thou shalt not harm me
Nor thy threats alarm me
While I sing of peace.

Now imagine how these words feel to a child who feels abandoned by their parents:

I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord,
Thou my great Father, I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one.

That’s from an ancient Irish poem, called Be Thou My Vision, which was translated by Mary E. Byrne in 1905 and versified by Eleanor H. Hull in 1912.

Though Satan should buffet,
though trials should come,
let this blessed assurance control,
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate
and has shed his own blood for my soul.

The word “buffet” means to pummel or punch as with a hand or a fist; to strike or push repeatedly. Though Satan himself beats us black and blue, Christ sees our helpless state and has sacrificed his own life to save us. Those words are from It Is Well With My Soul, which was written by Horatio G. Spafford in 1873.

“Fear not, I am with you, O be not dismayed
For I am your God and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
Upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.”

That beautiful promise is from the hymn, How Firm A Foundation, from Rippon’s Selection of Hymns, dated 1787.

But one of my favorite hymns as a teenager was one that reminded me that God understands my pain and heartbreak, because Christ suffered and was abused too. He was Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted:

Tell me, you who hear him groaning,
was there ever grief like his?
friends through fear his cause disowning,
foes insulting his distress;
many hands were raised to wound him,
none would interpose to save …
You who think of sin but lightly,
nor suppose the evil great
here may view its nature rightly,
here its guilt may estimate …
Lamb of God for sinners wounded,
sacrifice to cancel guilt
None shall ever be confounded
who on him their hope have built.

Those words were written in 1804 by Thomas Kelly.

And that is why I love old hymns. That is why I am passionate about “old-fashioned” music. I could not easily relate with happy songs about peace, joy, and promises I couldn’t see being fulfilled in my life. What I did understand very well was sin, suffering, oppression, heartbreak, abandonment, betrayal, and cruelty.

Our God understands those things too.

Jesus is no stranger to pain, broken relationships, or treachery. While there is a time and place for happy tunes, feel-good songs, and joyful worship music, we must never lose these great old gems or let them fall out of circulation. They survived this long for a reason. In hymns is the hope and healing balm of the Gospel for people broken and wandering in a lost and dying world.

Jesus, priceless treasure,
Source of purest pleasure,
Truest friend to me:
Ah, how long in anguish
Shall my spirit languish,
Yearning, Lord, for thee?
Thine I am, O spotless Lamb!
I will suffer naught to hide thee,
Naught I ask beside thee.

In thine arms I rest me;
Foes who would molest me
Cannot reach me here.
Though the earth be shaking,
Every heart be quaking,
Jesus calms my fear.
Lightnings flash and thunders crash;
Yet, though sin and Hell assail me,
Jesus will not fail me.

Satan, I defy thee;
Death, I now decry thee;
Fear, I bid thee cease.
World, thou shalt not harm me
Nor thy threats alarm me
While I sing of peace.
God’s great power guards every hour;
Earth and all its depths adore him,
Silent bow before him.

Hence with earthly treasure!
Thou art all my pleasure,
Jesus, all my choice.
Hence, thou empty glory!
Naught to me thy story,
Told with tempting voice.
Pain or loss or shame or cross
Shall not from my Savior move me,
Since he deigns to love me.

Hence, all fear and sadness!
For the Lord of gladness,
Jesus, enters in.
Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within.
Yea, whate’er I here must bear,
Thou art still my purest pleasure,
Jesus, priceless treasure.

Comments 3

  1. Thank you for this, Jen. I never really paid attention to hymns, but after reading this, you are right, there’s something special about them. Hopefully, in the future, I’ll be able to compose a hymn. Maybe.

    Hey, I would really like to connect with you, don’t hesitate to visit my blog page. Cheers! 😊

  2. Love this! And I agree completely. I also grew up with all of these hymns and our church still sings them all. This morning we sang “arise, my soul arise!” and “guide me, O thou great Jehovah”.
    Wonderful hymns. Thank you for writing this. I’m sharing.

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