Hymns for Lent

There is a reason certain hymns stand the test of time. Well-crafted hymns combine theology, poetry, and music into an unforgettable declaration of the Christian faith. 18th-century hymns focused on the character of God and his sovereign reign over creation, while 19th-century hymns personalized the Christian’s daily walk with God. The purpose of this article is to bring awareness to certain Lenten hymns from history for you to include in your devotions throughout this season. If some of these are unfamiliar to you, I hope you will spend time getting to know them, like the many Advent hymns in Advent: Preparing for the Arrival of the Savior

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts (1707) 

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross 

On which the Prince of glory died, 

My richest gain I count but loss, 

And pour contempt on all my pride. 

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, 

Save in the death of Christ my God: 

All the vain things that charm me most, 

I sacrifice them to his blood. 

See, from his head, his hands, his feet, 

Sorrow and love flow mingled down: 

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, 

Or thorns compose so rich a crown? 

Were the whole realm of nature mine, 

That were a present far too small; 

Love so amazing, so divine, 

Demands my soul, my life, my all. 

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the father of English hymnody, was an Anglican curate who wrote many beautiful hymns in his lifetime. As seen in this hymn, Watts’ focus is on Christ and his sacrificial death on the cross, making it a prime hymn during Lent. Watts was a master craftsman with words, so the imagery portrayed in this hymn helps us see the cross on which Jesus died. With our focus on the cross, our pride is illuminated, revealing our lack of ability to save ourselves from our sinful ways. After focusing on the weight of the cross, Watts ends with an upward look at Christ, knowing it was out of his great love for us that he died. As literary theologian, Leland Ryken writes, “Christians are responsible for the furniture of their minds and imaginations.” One of the many wonderful things about Watts’ hymns is the beauty with which he crafts his words. As singers, we engage our imaginations, which helps us connect our head knowledge with our heart response. 

O Sacred Head Now Wounded by Paul Gerhardt (1656) 

O sacred Head, now wounded, 

With grief and shame weighed down; 

Now scornfully surrounded 

With thorns, thine only crown; 

O sacred head, what glory, 

What bliss till now was thine! 

Yet, though despised and gory, 

I joy to call thee mine, 

What thou, my Lord, hast suffered 

Was all for sinners’ gain: 

Mine, mine was the transgression, 

But thine the deadly pain. 

Lo, here I fall, my Savior! 

‘Tis I deserve thy place; 

Look on me with thy favor, 

Vouchsafe to me thy grace. 

What language shall I borrow 

To thank thee, dearest Friend, 

For this thy dying sorrow, 

Thy pity without end? 

O make me thine for ever; 

And should I fainting be, 

Lord, let me never, never 

Outlive my love to thee. 

Be near when I am dying, 

O show thy cross to me; 

And for my succor flying, 

Come, Lord, to set me free: 

These eyes, new faith receiving, 

From Jesus shall not move; 

For he who dies believing, 

Dies safely, through thy love. 

Paul Gerhardt lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation and wrote many Lutheran evangelical hymns. Like others during his time, he lived through the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War and experienced great tragedy in his life. Gerhardt wrote this hymn in his native language, German, and James W. Alexander translated it into English in 1829. Like Watts’ hymn, Gerhardt focuses on the cross, using language that is both descriptive and accurate. Regarding the imagination, Ryken again states, “There is emancipation in the imagination: It frees us in an instant from our time and place and transports us to another world.”2 When reading hymns from bygone centuries, it is often the beauty of the language that enraptures us. In those eras, beauty was still an objective source of reality, stemming from a thoroughly Christian worldview. Thus, Gerhardt’s hymn correctly describes Christ’s death on the cross while using the beauty of poetry and the structure of rhyme. With this framework, Gerhardt expresses the sacrifice of Christ on a vile cross and concludes with a plea for Christ’s nearness at his own death. Having endured many hardships in his own life, Gerhardt agonizingly requests Christ’s steadfast presence, knowing from experience that Christ will sustain him even through life’s last breath. 

O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done by Charles Wesley (1742) 

O Love divine, what hast thou done! 

Th’ incarnate God hath died for me! 

The Father’s coeternal Son 

Bore all my sins upon the tree! 

The Son of God for me hath died: 

My Lord, my Love, is crucified. 

Is crucified for me and you, 

To bring us rebels near to God; 

Believe, believe, the record true, 

Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood; 

Pardon for all flows from his side: 

My Lord, my Love, is crucified. 

Behold him, all ye that pass by, 

The bleeding Prince of life and peace! 

Come, sinners, see your Savior die, 

And say, was ever grief like his? 

Come, feel with me his blood applied: 

My Lord, my Love, is crucified. 

When reflecting on great hymn writers in Christian history, Charles Wesley holds a place of reverent honor. Wesley’s hymns differed from Watts’ hymns in a variety of ways. Because of his influence from the Moravians, Wesley included more language of blood and sacrifice. Wesley utilized more complex language and imagery, and his texts were more subjective than Watts’ hymns. As seen in this hymn, Wesley takes the story of the cross and includes a more personal application with the lines “My Lord, my Love, is crucified,” “The Son of God for me hath died,” and “Come, feel with me his blood applied.” Wesley’s language gives shape to our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with adequate expression. The weight of the biblical story finds appropriate articulation in Wesley’s hymn. Wesley’s words allow the Christian to express the depth of biblical truth through the beauty of the sung word. 

Hymns in Practice 

The three hymns mentioned in this article may or may not be familiar to you. Whether or not you know a tune associated with them, I encourage you to use these texts in your personal and family devotions during Lent. These hymns “were not dashed off in half an hour but were labored over with all the creativity of masterly poets.”3 These hymns have stood the test of time because of their attention to theological accuracy and beautiful craftsmanship. Allow the Lord to use these hymns in your life this season, as He has used them in the lives of countless Christians across the centuries. Read them. Pray them. And sing them to the glory of God. 

Kim has been married to her college sweetheart, Jason, for 24 years and they have one son who is a high school senior. Most recently, Kim completed her Ph.D in Church Music and Worship from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She has presented at Evangelical Theological Society and The Society of Christian Scholarship in Music, and her works have appeared in The Hymn, Artistic Theologian, and Baptist History and Heritage Journal.

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