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Hymnology: O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

All your works shall give thanks to you, O LORD, and all your saints shall bless you! They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom and tell of your power, to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. ~Psalm 145:10-12

Hymn Story

Charles Wesley was the composer of more than 6,000 hymns, but those which bore special significance to him have been among the most endearing and enduring. One of these was the hymn “And Can It Be”, written days after his conversion. Another, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, was written in 1739 to mark the first anniversary of that conversion.

The text for this hymn originally contained 18 stanzas (read them all here). Today, it is usually reduced to between 4 and 7 verses, which may not sit too well with Wesley, considering the following words which his brother John wrote in the preface to a 1779 hymnal:

I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favours: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.

Apparently, they didn’t feel their work could be improved upon! Yet even in this hymn, Wesley was borrowing ideas from others. The stanza (originally the 8th) beginning “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” is based off of a German hymn by Johann Mentzer, who wrote, “If I had a thousand tongues, I would praise Christ with them all.”

Here's a fun new arrangement from the Getty Kids' Hymnal:

Lyrics

O for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King, the triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim,
To spread thro’ all the earth abroad the honors of Thy name.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb, your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold Your Savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy.

He breaks the power of cancelled sin, he sets the prisoner free;
His blood can make the foulest clean; His blood avails for me.

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.

In Christ your head, you then shall know, shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below, and know that love is heaven.

He speaks and, listening to His voice, new life the dead receive;
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice; the humble poor believe.

On this the day the glorious Sun of Righteousness arose
On my benighted soul He shone and filled me with repose.

Glory to God, and praise and love be ever, ever given,
By saints below and saints above, the Church in earth and heaven.

Hymn Study

Charles Wesley, like the Psalmist David, seemed never to tire of praising his great Redeemer. And when we think on how Christ has brought us from death to life, we also ought to be driven to sing with all we have the glories of our God and King, and the triumphs of His grace. Thankfully, what we lack in multiplicity of tongues, we’ll be able to make up in repetitions throughout eternity!

Despite our desire to proclaim the honors of God’s name, we rely on the assistance of the Holy Spirit, sent to help us in our weakness (Romans 8:26), to glorify God (John 16:14), and to empower and enable our worship (Philippians 3:3). The Spirit of Christ itself is “music in the sinner’s ears”; He is our life (Romans 8:11), our health (Acts 3:16), and our peace (Romans 5:1).

Thus far, the hymn has progressed from our desire to sing God’s praises, to the Spirit which empowers us to do so, to fruit of that worship. In the fourth stanza, we arrive at the primary motivation for our worship: our freedom from sin. In Colossians 2:13-14, Paul says that we were “dead in our trespasses“, but that God has made us alive “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us.” There is no one so foul that he cannot be made clean. The call of the gospel goes out to all men, yet it is also deeply personal: His blood availed for me!

As in the version above, most arrangements of this hymn place at the end the stanza which Wesley initially placed first. This verse is a doxology—a short “word of praise”—which acknowledges that God will be worshiped for all time, both on earth and in heaven. It is this worship which binds together believers from all time and all places into one church, built on the same foundation. May this be our hymn of praise today, and every day!