The Example of Charles Wesley | Capturing Biblical Honesty in Songwriting
By Dr. Lester Ruth
One of the attractive things about the Bible is how honest its characters are with God. The corresponding wonder is how gracious God is in dealing with their frankness. In Bible stories, people complain, lament, question, repent, cry out in pain, pester, and otherwise deluge God with candor. And time and again, God reveals the majesty and humbleness of love in his response. If you have hit any speed bumps in life at all or deterred into any ditches, you know how wonderful it is to find folks in the Bible who have hashed out with God all our same emotions in difficult times. And you know the relief in seeing how well God cares for them in those moments.
How can songwriters capture some of this same dynamic of honest expression yet do so in a way that is not simply self-indulgent? One possible answer is to root in biblical stories our songs to God. Eighteenth century songwriter Charles Wesley—an Anglican priest, co-founder of Methodism with John, his brother, and one of the most prolific worship songwriters of all time—often used two poetic techniques in his songs that allowed worshipers to express a wide range of emotions before God and to do so in ways connected to biblical stories. Seeing his techniques is helpful for sparking lyrical imagination today.
One poetic device that he used was to sing a story from the inside out. These songs placed the worshiper in the shoes of the biblical character. Singing a biblical story from the inside allows the worship song to be intense but, because it comes from the book common to the whole Church, the Bible, it avoids being too private.
Consider the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30ff.). Following a long history of interpretation, Wesley placed the worshiper into the shoes (sandals?) of the traveler who is robbed, beaten up, and left by the side of the road in desperate need of help. In Wesley’s piece, this experience becomes a way of speaking about being waylaid by the ravages of sin, leaving the worshiper acknowledging her or his utter helplessness. Even short excerpts show the passion of a sin-sick worshiper’s cry:
The thieves have rob’d, and stript, and bound… / My putrid wounds stand open wide, My head is faint, and sick of pride, / And all corrupt my heart. After Wesley explored how legalistic religious righteousness (the priest and the Levite in the story) don’t provide any comfort, the desperate worshiper notes the approach of another who can and will help (the Samaritan who represents [drum roll, please] Jesus Christ): But Life I see in death appear! / The good Samaritan is near…/ Bind up my wounds by opening thine, / Apply the balm of blood Divine.
The Great Source
Some of Wesley’s best loved pieces used this poetic device of singing a biblical story from the inside out to give worshipers the words for prayer which were deeply personal and intense and yet also common to Christians. By placing worshipers in the shoes of biblical characters, he could provide the Bible as the source of language for songs which prayed the agony and the ecstasy of what it means to be saved and encounter God. A great example is the song below—a relentless prayer that depicts the worshiper wrestling with God in order to gain an understanding of Him. He frames this struggle as that of Jacob wrestling for a blessing from God in Genesis 32. Eventually persistence in prayer pays off as Jesus is revealed as the one through Whom the blessing of God comes:
Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with thee;
With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
In vain thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold;
Art thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of thy love unfold:
Wrestling, I will not let thee go
Till I thy name, thy nature know.
‘Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me;
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure Universal Love thou art:
To my, to all, thy mercies move—
Thy nature, and thy name, is Love.
Where can modern songwriters go to find the words for prayers that lament or complain or cry out to God in pain? Consider a biblical story where that’s the posture of the worshiper before God. What would David have prayed as he fled from Saul in the desert? Jeremiah as he endured the siege of Jerusalem? The woman caught in adultery under threat of being stoned but saved by the intervention of Jesus? Place the singer in their shoes.
Another poetic device Charles Wesley used to provide vivid language for worship songs was to fudge with verb tenses in recounting key events in the life of Christ. Although, strictly speaking, these events should be portrayed with past tense verbs, Wesley often grabs the potential of poetry and uses present tense verbs so that the worshiper is right there before Jesus, whether at his manger, his cross, or his tomb. This playfulness with verbs often came with an invitation in the song for the worshiper to see or sense what was happening with Jesus. The result was a startling immediacy:
See the slaughter’d Sacrifice,
See the altar stain’d with blood!
Crucified before our eyes
Faith discerns the dying God,
Dying that our souls might live,
Gasping at His death, Forgive!
Such encounters could lead to intensity in the words stirred in the worshiper who had been transported into the biblical story by the song’s fudging with verb tenses. And so, instead of writing some generic statement about feeling broken before God, Wesley allowed the startling gravity of sin to sink into the singer by placing him or her at the foot of the cross. There one finds the proper cry as the worshiper encounters the “dying God” directly and sees the crucifixion in “real time” as it were:
Beneath my load He faints and dies.
I filled his soul with pangs unknown;
I caused those mortal groans and cries;
I killed the Father’s only Son!
What would we say to God if we stood at the foot of the cross or the manger? What about if we watched Herod’s killing of the babies in Bethlehem, gaped into the empty tomb, or observed Jesus healing the blind man?
In the Bible, God does not seem repulsed or angered by honest prayer, whether complaint, ecstasy, lament, or sorrow. Charles Wesley’s poetic creativity in songwriting shows us ways to dive into this book as a source for singers who still need to pray as honestly today.
1. The full text can be found in S. T. Kimbrough, ed., Charles Wesley: Poet and Theologian (Nashville: Kingswood, 1992), 114-8.
2. This hymn can be found in many hymnals under the title of “Come O Thou Traveler Unknown.” It can also be found by looking for “Wrestling Jacob” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742) at http://www.divinity.duke.edu/wesleyan/texts/cw_published_verse.html, which is an excellent site to find Wesley’s published songs.
3. Look for Hymn 18 in Hymns on the Lord’s Supper (1745) at http://www.divinity.duke.edu/wesleyan/texts/cw_published_verse.html,
4. This text can be found as verse 11 in “A Passion-Hymn” in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1742) at http://www.divinity.duke.edu/wesleyan/texts/cw_published_verse.html.
What's Your Reaction?
Lester Ruth is a historian of Christian worship with particular interests in the early church and the last 250 years, especially the history of contemporary praise and worship. He is passionate about enriching the worship life of current congregations, regardless of style. He believes that careful reflection on the worship of other Christians—whether past or present, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox—can serve to enrich the church today. Dr. Ruth is a member of the Charles Wesley Society and served as president until the spring of 2016. He recently co-authored Lovin’ On Jesus: A Concise History of Contemporary Worship with Dr. Swee Hong Lim. He and Dr. Lim are working on a larger history of this same liturgical phenomenon to be published in 2021. This upcoming book is tentatively entitled Presence and Purpose: The Parallel History of Praise & Worship and Contemporary Worship.