“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!
(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.