John Newton’s classic hymn, Amazing grace, was published in 1779 as part of his Olney Hymns. It wasn’t widely sung in Great Britain until Judy Collins put it into the charts in 1970, with this remarkable rendition:
The first ‘book’ of Olney Hymns is entitled ‘On select Texts of Scripture’, and the text selected for Amazing grace was 1 Chronicles 17:16-17, with the title ‘Faith’s review and expectation’:
Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and he said: ‘Who am I, Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far? And as if this were not enough in your sight, my God, you have spoken about the future of the house of your servant. You, Lord God, have looked on me as though I were the most exalted of men.’ (NIV)
Christopher Idle gives the background in the first volume of Exploring Praise! (the companion to the Praise! hymnbook):
On New Year’s morning 1773, John Newton preached at the parish church of Olney on 1 Chron 17:16-17. His main headings were drawn from his text: 1, ‘Who am I?’ (miserable, rebellious, undeserving); 2, ‘That thou hast brought me hitherto’ (before, at, and since conversion); 3, ‘Thou hast spoken’ (about the future … followed by a personal challenge to respond). The hymn to accompany the spoken word was this one (p. 512).
It’s the third of those themes that particularly interests me in this series.
Newton’s original hymn had six stanzas, of which the first three, four or five are often sung, usually followed by a (deservedly) anonymous final verse, which apparently was to be found as early as 1790, but was first appended to Newton’s text in 1910. However, the original final verse has made something of a comeback recently, both in the Praise! hymnbook, and also as part of Chris Tomlin’s version (‘My chains are gone’), which features verses 1, 2, 4 and 6.
The three headings of the sermon are clearly reflected in the hymn. First, ‘Who am I?’ (miserable, rebellious, undeserving):
1. Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Second, ‘That thou hast brought me hitherto’, both around the moment of conversion:
2. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
and also after conversion:
3. Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
This is the first reference to our future hope in the hymn, and it’s a bit problematic. Where is this ‘home’ of which he speaks? Nowhere in the Bible do we read of going ‘home’ as a way of describing our hope for the future. If he is thinking of heaven, then that is not our ‘home’: we’ll just be passing through, as we await the day when Jesus comes to earth to raise our bodies from the grave and to make his home with us: ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them’ (Revelation 21:3, emphasis added).
Perhaps that last line could be changed to ‘And grace will lead me on’? (Yes, I know it doesn’t rhyme, but the original doesn’t rhyme either!)
Finally, we come to ‘Thou hast spoken’ (about the future):
4. The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
5. Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
6. The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be for ever mine.
This is beautiful language, but isn’t quite adequate as a way of expressing our hope that Christ will be unveiled (not good news if I’m spending eternity within the veil!), and that the earth will be renewed and not dissolved (look carefully at what is dissolved in 2 Peter 3:10-11 in the ESV). So what can we do?
The Praise! hymnbook uses a Jubilate Hymns version of verses 1-5 as its basis, and renders verse 5 as follows:
And when this mortal life is past
and earthly days shall cease,
I shall possess with Christ at last
eternal joy and peace.
I could quite comfortably sing that, and have in my mind the hope of bodily resurrection at the return of Christ.
Verse 6 is more difficult to adapt though. I suppose there are three options: end at verse 5, write a completely new verse 6, or use the ‘usual’ final verse:
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
than when we’d first begun.
But there are three problems with this verse. First, the use of ‘there’, which is simply misleading: it is here that we will spend eternity, not there; second, the abrupt change from ‘I’ to ‘we’; and third, it says ‘less’ instead of ‘fewer’.
On the third problem, I think that’s more of a problem with me than with the hymn, and I just need to deal with it! The second can be dealt with by replacing ‘we’ with ‘I’ (as is the case in Christian Hymns, for example), or it might be preferable to leave it as it is, as a reminder that we’ll be spending eternity with each other. For the first problem, I’d like to suggest changing the first line to this:
When he’s been here ten thousand years
As well as getting the geography right, it also shifts the focus from us (or me), and how we will be shining, to the Lord and his glory. Although the Bible does say that ‘the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (Matthew 13:43, NIV), this change in wording makes the verse into one about the glory of Jesus Christ, and provides an allusion to Revelation 21:23:
The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp (NIV).