“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”: Biblical Foundations of Newton’s Hymn on the Church

“Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”: Biblical Foundations of Newton’s Hymn on the Church

While John Newton (1725-1807) is most known for his deeply autobiographical hymn “Amazing grace,” he authored another great hymn that both celebrates what it means to be the church and teaches the Bible’s rich theology of the church. Interestingly, this hymn has been set to a melody that may be more famous than the text, composed by the great Classical master and Newton’s exact contemporary Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809).

According to Hustad’s Companion to the Worshiping Church (1), Haydn based this tune on a Croatian melody and adapted it to the patriotic hymn text “Gott erhalte Franz, den Kaiser” (“May God sustain Emperor Frederick [the Great]”) for a performance on the emperor’s birthday, February 12, 1797. Haydn then repurposed the hymn melody as the theme for the slow movement variations of his String Quartet in C major, Op. 76, no. 5.

Newton’s original title for this hymn, “Zion, or the city of GOD,” was followed in the original publication with the Scripture reference Isaiah 33:20-21. A look at the entire passage and the connection in v. 24 between the absence of illness and forgiveness of sins creates a picture of both spiritual and physical flourishing in the new Jerusalem:

“Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities [festivals]: Thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams. . . . . For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us. . . . And the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick: the people that dwelltherein shall be forgiven their iniquity.”

In his notes, Newton listed several other passages that he also wove into this hymn. These include Psalm 132:14: “This is my resting place forever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it,” and Isaiah 26:1: “In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah: ‘We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts.’” Isaiah 60:18 expands on the latter image of a mighty walled city: “Violence shall no more be heard in thyland, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shalt call thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise.”

Stanza 1. This hymn’s first line comes from Psalm 87:3. It is important to read more of the Psalm to get the context of what a privilege it is for believers to be born anew in the city of God, spiritually speaking:

“The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob. Glorious things of thee are spoken of thee, O city of God. . . . And of Zion it shall be said, ‘This and that man was born in her: and the Highest Himself shall establish her. . . . As well the singers as the players on instruments shall be there: all my springs are in thee.” (Psalm 87:2-3, 5-7)

Clearly Augustus Toplady did not coin the phrase “Rock of ages” in his hymn by that name; Newton uses it here. A synonymous phrase might be “eternal Rock.” God repeatedly refers to himself in the Old Testament as Israel’s Rock. Isaiah 26:4 in a similar vein refers to the Lord JEHOVAH as “everlasting strength,” and Isaiah 17:10 as “the Rock of thy strength.” This is a powerful image of an eternal refuge, shade and protection for apeople who had spent forty years in the shifting sands of the desert.

In stanza 2, the image of the river of God supplying water for His people in his strong city comes not only from Isaiah 33 (as noted above) but also from Psalm 46:4-5: “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacles of the most High. God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God shall help herwhen morning comes.” God is over-the-top generously disposed and kind toward us; as Newton writes, the river of God’s Spirit “well supplies his sons and daughters” and removes “all fear of want” from us. When we drink of His river, we will not be moved. This is the very river seen flowing from the throne of God at the end of time in Revelation 22:1. When we feel depleted, we need to have in view “the river of God, which is full of water”! (Psalm 65:9)

Stanza 3 depicts God’s dwelling with His people in the pillar of cloud and fire that led them through the wilderness. Newton here pictures Yahweh as their “banner,” hovering aroundeach habitation (tent) of the Israelite people to show them the way and protect them from harm. He gives them manna when they pray.

Stanzas 4 and 5 bring the hymn singer to the New Testament. Newton wrote here the marginal reference Matthew 16:16, referring to Simon Peter’s famous answer at Caesarea Philippi to Jesus’ great question, “But who do you say that I am?” In contrast to the manydiffering rumors swirling about who Jesus was, Simon Peter proclaimed, “You are theChrist, the Son of the living God.” This would become the foundational confession upon which the church was built.

Revelation 1:6 explains the New Testament fulfillment of the above Old Testament passages: “Unto Him that loved us and washed us from our sins with His own blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” Newton puts Rev. 1:6 into meter almost verbatim here. If this stanza were condensed into one prose thought it might be: “God’s great love raises us to reign over our sinful natures by His Spirit and to offer our praises as a priestly thank- offering. Amen!”

Blest inhabitants of Zion,
Washed in the Redeemer’s blood!
Jesus—whom their hopes rely on—
Makes them kings and priests to God.

From the life-giving river of Psalm 46 to the victorious host in Revelation 1 and 22, Newton’s great hymn reminds us afresh of our present blessed state and future as the heavenly Zion. This hymn needs to be sung more often . . . in church!

Sources Cited

(1) Richard J. Stanislaw and Donald P. Hustad, Companion to the Worshiping Church: A Hymnal Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing), p. 46.


Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics.


Where Have All the Wise Men Gone?

This article was originally posted here. Used with the author’s permission.


Epiphany, like other potentially unknown holidays in the Christian tradition, is understood best by seeing what it meant to early Christians and learning why they began celebrating in the first place. Remember that the early church believed the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus was so life-changing that they thought they should re-orient their lives to reflect their new identity – even the way they experienced time. Because of this strong belief and their commitment to the Gospel of Christ, they developed the cycles of the Christian Year.

Unlike the common calendar that follows astronomical time, the Christian Year does not begin on January 1st, it begins on the first Sunday of Advent. This is usually the Sunday after our American Thanksgiving. Since we just experienced Advent and Christmas, let’s skip ahead to Epiphany. Epiphany begins after the twelve days of Christmastide (Yes, there are actually twelve days of Christmas) and extends to the Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas. If you want to know more about this interesting memorial, see my article, Keep the Groundhog in His Shadow. Epiphany was the very first annual celebration of the early Christian church apart from Pascha (Easter). Merriam-Webster defines Epiphany as a sudden manifestation/perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. Epiphany began as the memorial of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist and the official beginning of His public ministry. Christ’s immersion in the waters of the Jordan River was followed by the Holy Spirit landing on His shoulder in the form of a dove. Then a voice from heaven was heard proclaiming, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). These events gave the sudden understanding or epiphany that Jesus Christ was God’s Son.

Old and New

Church Father, Clement of Alexandria reported (170 – 200 AD) that the celebration of Jesus’ baptism was held by believers on January 6th (Talley, 121). “The earliest narrative for the solemnity of Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus himself in the Jordan River, remembered and celebrated the medium of Christian social transformation – that is the waters of baptism. By that event, the waters of the Jordan River were sanctified by the touch of God’s Son, and by them, in turn, all the waters of the world were sanctified for baptisms in ages and places far from the Palestinian waters of Jesus’ baptism. Those waters are the medium of sanctification because they bring people into a new society, that of the Kingdom of God” (Connell, 191).

Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

– Matthew 16:24 ESV

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This original understanding of Epiphany is still maintained by Orthodox Christians. One of their most interesting traditions associated with Epiphany is the blessing of the waters and diving for the cross. The largest of these celebrations takes place each year at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Sixty or so young men from the ages of 16 and 18 participate in the church’s 110 year – old tradition. The morning begins with a worship service and then the boys’ process bare-footed two blocks from the cathedral to the water followed by thousands of other worshipers and on-lookers. Following the release of doves and a special blessing, the Archbishop tosses a small white cross into the chilly waters of the Spring Bayou and the divers leap in, striving to reach the cross. The one who reaches the cross first is then carried on the shoulders of the other young men back to the cathedral where he receives a special blessing from the Archbishop. The dive is more than a fun and competitive event. It is meant to recall Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and an important part of the young men’s formation as disciples of Christ and faithful Christians. (Demorris Lee, blog article from January 2, 2012)

We Three Kings

A few centuries later, Western Christians began to also associate Epiphany with the arrival of the Magi or Wise Men and their search for the infant Christ.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
But the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you,
And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.

-Isaiah 60:1-3 ESV

Popular expression of the story of the Magi involve three wise men, traditionally known as Caspar (who brought the gift of gold), Melchior (bringing frankincense), and Balthazar (bringing myrrh). Most scholars believe there may have been more than three, but the tradition grew out of the three gifts mentioned in scripture. It is worth noting that scripture gives testimony that they arrived sometime after Jesus’ birth. Matthew 2:11 reports that instead of finding the child in a manger, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” The story of the Wise Men teaches believers that Christ has been manifested as the Savior, not just for the Jews or a select group of people, but for the entire world.

Why does it matter?

Through both stories of Epiphany, we are brought to understand God’s greatness and the manifestation of divinity among us (Chittister, 80-81). Epiphany is more than a story about Jesus’ baptism. It is more than a story about three Wise Men. We do not need to pretend that the baby Jesus is born again every year. The coming of the Magi and the Baptism of Jesus help us to identify exactly who was born in Bethlehem and “help us to move beyond this ‘cute baby’ concept that keeps so many from realizing the deep meaning of the incarnation or prevent us from appreciating the great exchange between God and man” (Stookey, 112). Christmas and Epiphany can actually be seen as two aspects of the same holiday. This one holiday pushes believers to see Christ manifested in the flesh and as the true Son of God. Epiphany is about how Christ’s manifestation is extended in us (Webber, p. 77). Think about these questions as you ponder Epiphany in your own life:

• How is my life different because Christ has revealed Himself to me?

• How is my family different? My work? My relationships?

• Does my life give an epiphany of Christ to those around me?


Sources Cited

Chittister, Joan. The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Connell, Martin. Eternity Today: On the Liturgical Year, Volume 1. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2006.

Lee, Demorris A. “Diving for the cross.” Faith & Leadership: A learning resource for Christian leaders and
their institutions form Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. January 2, 2012.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991.

Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality through the Christian Year. Grand Rapids,
MI: Baker Books, 2004.


Marc Brown serves as the Minister of Worship and the Arts at First Baptist Church Mount Washington, Kentucky, where he lives and serves with his wife Cyndi and their daughter, Miriam. Marc earned a B.A. in music from Western Kentucky University, a Masters of Church Music from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Worship Studies degree from the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. Dr. Brown is currently in pursuit of a Ph.D. in Christian Worship at Southern Seminary were he also teaches adjunct in the Worship Department.

What Matters Most, Diplomas or Dependence?

What matters most? Diplomas or dependence on God? I remember my seminary graduation so vividly. Although rain had been in the forecast throughout the week, the sun cast warm rays over the assembled crowd as Southern prepared to celebrate its newest graduating class. 

During the ceremony, Dr. Mohler spoke a message that struck my heart. The words that continue to reverberate in my heart are what he said at the beginning of the ceremony: “I want to tell you graduates, as I look at you, you look very strong. You look good. You look healthy. You look ready. But you are not strong, and you are not ready. You are not up to the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ — not one of the ministers of the gospel of Christ is sufficient. Every single one of us at every single moment is dependent on another’s strength. We are never weaker than when we think we are stronger, and we are perhaps never stronger than when we sense that we are weaker.” 

In that moment, better words could not have been spoken to my anxious heart. The challenges of vocational ministry can seem overwhelming. 

I knew that as I would embark on the next part of God’s plan for my life, ministry would not be easy. In fact, it would probably get harder. However, I took comfort in knowing that ultimately God doesn’t need any of us to accomplish His plans. God is sovereign, and His plans are unstoppable.

The reality is that He graciously allows us to take part in His redemptive work. Only God can change hearts. Only God can resurrect the dead to life. Whose power is sufficient to care for and save souls? Jesus Christ! These precious truths washed over me as Dr. Mohler charged us to rely on the sustaining strength of Jesus.  

In short, the emotions and thoughts that I wrestled with during graduation encapsulate truths that I’ve learned throughout my time at Southern. One of these is that I can’t lead from my own strength. None of us can lead without Christ. We cannot lead people in ministry if we aren’t centered in the Word of God (Col. 3:17). We cannot lead when the Bible isn’t captivating our hearts and changing us from within (Eph. 4:12-13). We cannot lead when our pride is in the way or when we are seeking the approval of others (Prov. 29:25). We cannot lead when we view ourselves higher than others (Phil. 2:3-4). And finally, we cannot lead others without loving them like Christ loves His church (1 John 4:19). 

We can, however, lead with the strength and grace that God provides. We can lead when our hearts are desperate for Jesus and longing for the Holy Spirit to move. We can lead from a position of personal holiness, which our congregations need from us more than anything. We can only minister out of the overflow of our own hearts. 

Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” I’ve been a nurse in the Pediatric ICU for the last six years and I often think of children and families who get rushed to the ICU because they are critically sick. No one wants to be there, but they know they need help in time of dire physical sickness. Once a 13-year-old boy that I took care of was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. He knew he had to be at the hospital to get help from the doctor because he was really sick. He couldn’t control his circumstances; all he could do is respond to the state of his sickness. He knew he needed a physician. This image resonates with me as I realize likewise that I can’t lead others until I truly know how weak and frail I am, and how dependent I am on Christ.

All our leadership should flow from the reality that we are poor and frail and in need of a Savior every moment of our lives. Let us rest in the completed and finished work of Christ. 

 

So how do we lead and point others to Christ in God’s strength? 

 

The answer is that we must depend on God through prayer, trusting His promises as we seek to point others to Christ. Why do I rely on my strength which is vain, when I can rely on the strength that God provides so that He gets all the glory (Psalm 115:1)? 

 What matters most in ministry? Diplomas or Dependence on God? Thankfully, since my seminary graduation, I’m grateful that God has shown me that while degrees and diplomas are wonderful gifts, depending on Him, His Word, and the completed work of Christ on our behalf will be what sustains me through the ministry challenges ahead. 

1 Peter 4:11 says, “If anyone speaks, they should do as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.” 


Oksana Viyuk is originally from Ukraine, but grew up in Cleveland, OH. She graduated from Southern Seminary with a MA in Worship Leadership and a MA in Biblical Counseling in May 2018. Currently Oksana serves as a worship ministry resident at Brentwood Baptist Church in Nashville, TN. She also is a Registered Nurse in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at The Children's Hospital at TriStar Centennial in downtown Nashville.


Writing songs from Scripture

One way we at the Institute for Biblical Worship want to promote Christ-centered worship is by encouraging song writing for the church from the Scriptures. Below are reasons for writing and using songs from Scripture found at Abe and Liza Philips website. Check out their site and their music for more great content on writing songs from Scripture.

1. Songs and hymns from Scripture help us to better know and love God by meditating on His Word.

 2. What we sing shapes and expresses what we truly believe about God and what He has said.

3. To re-center our worship of God away from trite platitudes to the surprising, refreshing and deep honesty of God’s very words.

4. To come alongside biblical preaching and personal study to help correct the misunderstands we all sometimes have and to grow even more familiar with the words of the Bible.

Several resources have been especially helpful in considering writing and using songs from the Scripture and we believe they will be helpful for you and your ministry as well.


As mentioned above, Abe and Liza Phillips have written on this topic and have also written music used all over the country. You can find their music here.


Indelible Grace have been retuning old hymns for a long time and continue to serve churches with their love for rich, historic hymns. Their music and other resources can be found here.


Caroline Cobb writes about themes found in Scripture and traces those themes through the grand storyline of Scripture that all points to Jesus. Her newest album, A Home and Hunger: Songs of Kingdom Hope, “tells of exile and Eden, of restlessness and rest, and of God’s beautifully ‘upside-down’ kingdom.” Her music can be found here.


From Psalm based hymns, to songs on lament, to songs on large themes found in Scripture, Sandra McCracken has been writing music from the Scripture for the church for several years. Her music can be found here.

Wendell Kimbrough describes himself as a songwriter reimagining the Psalms for emotionally honest modern worship. He is a gifted artist who has been highly praised for his ability to write singable melodies to honest lyrics that will serve your church as you attempt to meditate on the Psalms. His music can be found here.

What other music from Scripture has been a blessing to you and your ministry? Comment below and let us know.

Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue

Something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue:
Choosing Music for Worship

This traditional wedding adage for the bride is good advice for serving the bride of Christ musically each Sunday. While everyone has their favorite music, the bride of Christ represents a diversity of age, perspective, and preference. Every service has the potential of serving everyone while inevitably frustrating someone. If done well, each service will likely accomplish both.

1) Something Old

The bride wears an heirloom from the past to represent continuity with her heritage. This is done to show that she has a past with which she wants to remain connected. Musical choices in worship should reflect the rich heritage of the church’s musical worship past. Singing songs from the past demonstrates dependence upon the doctrine and practice of previous generations of worshipers.

2) Something New

The bride wears something new to show hope for the future. This demonstrates the newness of the marriage and anticipation for what is to come. Musical choices in worship should reflect this evidence of what is happening now in the church. Singing a “new song” demonstrates the relevance of Christ and his gospel to today’s generation of worshipers and hope for the future of the gospel’s work.

3) Something Borrowed

The bride wears something borrowed typically from a happily married couple. This demonstrates the desire to honor the other couple by affirming the health of their marriage and seeking and hoping for a similar result in the new marriage. Music in worship should reflect this recognition of other groups who exemplify healthy, Christ-honoring music. Learning from others who worship well is a way the universal church can be edified by the example and practice of local churches.

4) Something Blue

The bride wears something blue because the color “blue” represents love, purity, and fidelity. The implications here for both the bride and the church should be obvious. Whatever we sing should exemplify love for Christ, purity according to His word, and fidelity of the bride to Christ alone. Whether old, new, or borrowed, the ultimate test is the “blue” test. We cannot sing old songs just because they are “old.” Nor can we sing new songs just because they are “new.” And borrowing something that does not pass the “blue” test reveals a desire to emulate the wrong models. Whatever else they are, all of our songs should be blue.

This Sunday sing something old, new, borrowed, and blue. Someone will inevitably not be satisfied because it was not all “old” or all “new,” but if it is blue everyone will be served well and the bride of Christ will be encouraged to live like the true and faithful bride of Christ.


Dr. Scott Connell serves as Pastor of Worship and Music at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is an adjunct professor of music and worship at Boyce College/SBTS in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a PhD in Christian worship. He and his wife, Mary, have seven children.


"Crown Him" from Norton Hall

Norton Hall Band’s title track, Crown Him, from their newest album is out now! Check out this dynamic arrangement of Crown Him featuring the vocal of Shela Jeong.

This is the latest video from the band’s new album, Crown Him: Hymns Project Vol. III. If this is an encouragement to you, feel free to download the free lead sheet to use in your ministry.

Crown Him: Hymns Project Vol. III is available everywhere music is streamed or sold.