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From the May/June, 2012
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In the Key of Christ by Anthony Esolen

ILLUMINATIONS
Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns

In the Key of Christ

I have been wondering why I don’t care for the lyrics to modern hymns. Now, I’m not speaking of the smugly heretical, as in the truly embarrassing “Sing a New Church into Being,” or makin’-out-with-Jesus stuff, as in “Come Back to Me (Hosea).” I mean the lyrics to which one cannot object, because all they are is an unrhymed English rendering of one of the psalms. There’s something missing.

One might respond, “Yes, the art is missing,” and that’s true as far as it goes, because the artistic balance and parallelism of the Hebrew, and its play on sounds, do not often survive in the English, so that we really do need meter and rhyme, for hymns, in translations of the ancient poetry. But it’s more than that. The early Church read the psalms as referring to Jesus—as the Lord himself did. It’s no surprise, then, that the finest Christian hymns are Christological in that sense. If the poet is reading Exodus, he has the Last Supper in mind. If he is reading Daniel, he has the second coming in mind. It isn’t just that the Hebrew is made over into English, but that the whole of Scripture is transposed into the key of Christ. This is so common in the old hymns that it’s revealing to pause sometimes to cherish the subtle art and the profound theology.

Consider Henry Baker’s lovely hymn, based on Psalm 23, “The King of Love My Shepherd Is”:

The King of love my shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his,
And he is mine forever.

The very first words are a Christological interpretation of the psalm. They may be suggested by the Vulgate rendering, Dominus regit me; so the poet binds together the image of the shepherd and the ruler, the king. But this is the King of love. That is entirely in harmony with the intimacy of the psalm, but the bold language comes rather from John: “For God is love.” The qualifying clause, “if I am his,” explains and amplifies what it means to be among the flock of that King of love. We hear the words of Jesus: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23).

That transcendent hope is like summer sunlight that opens the psalm’s petals to their full beauty:

Where streams of living water flow,
My ransomed soul he leadeth,
And where the verdant pastures grow,
With food celestial feedeth.

These are more than the “still waters” of the psalm. They are the “living water” that Jesus promised to the woman at the well, “springing up to everlasting life” (John 4:10,14). We think of the waters of baptism, or the sacramental water flowing from the opened side of the crucified Christ. Therefore the soul is restored or, more, ransomed, bought back from the Babylonian captivity of sin, and fed with food celestial, “the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die” (John 6:50).

The next verse of the psalm is straightforward enough: “He leadeth me in the path of righteousness” (23:3). But Baker is not yet done with the image of the sheep. He recalls the solemn prophecy of Isaiah: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). On our own we never keep to the righteous paths. That is why Jesus comes in love to us, sinners as we are. So he explained to the self-satisfied Pharisees, asking which of them, having lost one of a hundred sheep, would not leave the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. “And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (Luke 15:5). So in his persistent and tender mercy Jesus overcomes our stubborn waywardness:

Perverse and foolish oft I strayed,
But yet in love he sought me,
And on his shoulder gently laid,
And home, rejoicing, brought me.

The word “home,” suggested by the parable, is a kind of gloss on the house of the Lord that concludes the psalm; it is the King’s home, and it is the sinner’s home, too.

That journey home is then the context for the next verse with its startling juxtaposition:

In death’s dark vale I fear no ill
With thee, dear Lord, beside me;
Thy rod and staff my comfort still,
Thy cross before to guide me.

In a single bold line the poet compels us to see the wood of the shepherd’s staff as the wood of the cross. It is that cruciform rod-and-staff that terrifies the wolf, and that guides the strayed soul, who must take up his cross and follow Jesus. It is not, then, that the poet believes he will escape the vale of death by the skin of his teeth. There is no longer any fear in death, because Jesus has gone before us, and the cross shows the way.

Therefore, the next verse applies both to our lives now and to the eternal feast to come, with the sacraments as signs and as effectual streams of grace:

Thou spread’st a table in my sight;
Thy unction grace bestoweth;
And O, what transport of delight
From thy pure chalice floweth!

Again Baker may be thinking of the Vulgate version, which, for “my cup runneth over,” has “my chalice which inebriateth me.” How fine is the change of the pronoun! The “wine that gladdens the heart” is the Eucharist, the blood of Christ; his is the chalice that overbrims with love, and that lifts the poet beyond himself, in an ecstasy that anticipates the joy of heaven.

It is one of the most moving mysteries of the Old Testament, the longing to dwell in the “house of the Lord,” before the revelation of eternal life was quite clear. But now the light of Christ irradiates that mysterious longing. He is not simply our shepherd. He is the Good Shepherd, who “giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), the ultimate gift, which by its nature cannot fail:

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never:
Good Shepherd, may I sing thy praise
Within thy house forever.


Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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