It’s a simply beautiful image: the shepherds in a great field, staring up in wonder at a sky full of the heavenly hosts, singing out their praise and joy, the echoes of their song of reverberating off the mountains to add to the cacophony. It isn’t hard to imagine the shepherds’ response. This group of young boys must have looked at each other wide-eyed, then whooped and cheered and run as fast as they could into the village, a stampede of sheep following them. Giddy with excitement and out of breath, did they burst into the stable and crowd around the manger?
This text is unique from Crosby’s other hymns because, rather than focus on our experience of God, the words are wholly about God and His perfect glory. In a sense, the hymn perfectly displaces us, removing us from the pedestal on which we so often place ourselves. This displacement is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian faith. It feels very natural for us to seek attention, approval, and our own glory. We like to be in control and present our own image to the world, an image we seek to improve through any means possible.
In this song, we acknowledge our human inability to live righteously, but we also express awareness of the grace and strength that God gives us in our daily walk. Even such an esteemed saint as the apostle Paul acknowledged his need for this grace: “But he [God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9a, 10b ESV)
This song is about the importance of God's presence in times of sorrow and trial. As we beg for God's presence, we are echoing the call of God's people through many centuries: “Give ear to my prayer, O God, and hide not yourself from my plea for mercy!” (Psalm 55:1 ESV) We can ask with assurance, for Jesus said, “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:19-20 ESV)
This song is about freedom from bondage. In the story of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt, God sent Moses to Pharaoh repeatedly to carry the divine message, “Let My people go,” but each time Pharaoh refused. Sometimes the bondage of the Israelites became worse, yet God told Moses to persist, and eventually, the Israelites were freed after God had shown His power through the ten plagues. True freedom never comes unless the power of God is behind it; yet when God moves, He is irresistible.
This hymn paints a picture of communion with God in which fear and gloom have disappeared, and delight and joy saturate one's existence. This attractive life, however, is not free. The Christian must totally surrender control of his life to God and commit to trusting obedience of God's wishes. As the final stanza says, “what He says we will do, where He sends we will go.” Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30 ESV).
The last psalm in the Bible, Psalm 150, ends with this invitation: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD.” German composer Joachim Neander gave us words to do just that when he wrote his most well-known hymn, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Hymnologist John Julian declares this to be “a magnificent hymn of praise to God, perhaps the finest production of its author, and of the first rank in its class” (Dictionary of Hymnology).
Several of the Psalms begin and end with fervent declarations of praise, such as this: “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord, praise the name of the Lord! … Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 113:1, 9b ESV). Likewise, from the opening lines of early morning praise to the final couplet about eternal praise before the throne of God in heaven, this hymn has the constant refrain, “May Jesus Christ be praised.”
In his first letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul warns him that the Christian life is a constant war against evil. He commands Timothy to “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12, ESV). A few verses later, Paul describes the one for whose sake we fight: “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen” (1 Timothy 6:15-16, ESV).
Harry E. Fosdick was a well-known and controversial preacher in the early twentieth century. After Fosdick left his positon at one church, John D. Rockefeller asked him to become pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, but Fosdick thought the church was too wealthy, and agreed only on condition that a new church would be built in a less fashionable place. The site selected for Riverside Church was on the banks of the Hudson, not far from Harlem. Fosdick wrote this hymn at his summer home in Maine in 1930 for the opening service of Riverside Church that fall.