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Amazing Grace, 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, published by Kregel Publications, 1990, is one of many books written about hymns and hymn writers by author-musician Kenneth W. Osbeck. Olive Tree Bible Software now offers this excellent work in eBook format, ready to download to your Palm or Pocket PC. In this article, we will share our thoughts about this valuable resource after looking briefly at how songs and singing permeate both the Bible and church history.
The Bible chronicles the history of a singing people: the children of Israel in the Old Testament, the church in the New. Remember Miriam, Moses’ musically gifted sister, echoing the song of triumphant victory and praise on the far shore of the Red Sea, where Jehovah drowned Pharaoh’s charioteers (Exo.15:21). Remember David, the sweet singer of Israel, who preserved the story of his intimacy with God in psalms of sorrow and praise, of strong prayer and mighty deliverance. Recall how he appointed Levitical singers and musicians to worship day and night in the temple, offering praise and thanksgiving to God (1 Chron.15:16-29). Consider how Jehoshaphat, facing an overwhelming foe, sent out the singers in front of the army at the command of the Lord, whereby the enemy was routed and fell to destroying itself (2 Chron.20:21-22). Notice too how Ezra and Nehemiah revived the musical priesthood when the temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian captivity (Neh.7:1). Surely the Lord’s Old Testament faithful ones learned how to draw water from the wells of salvation by praising Him in song (Is.12:3,5).
In the New Testament, think of our Lord Jesus singing a hymn with his disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, having instituted the new covenant in His blood (Matt.26:30). Consider Paul and Silas in jail in Philippi, their hands and feet in stocks, singing hymns of praise to God; and recall how the earth quaked, the prisoners were set free, and the jailor believed in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:25-33). Ponder and practice the apostle’s exhortation to redeem the time by being filled in spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Eph.5:16-19). And don’t forget the last book of the Bible, Revelation, where one hundred forty-four thousand firstfruits to God and the Lamb sing a new song known only to them (Rev.14:3); and where those who have come out of great tribulation sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty” (Rev.15:3). From the beginning to the end of the Bible, God’s people simply cannot hold back their songs of praise, worship, and thanksgiving to Him.
The history of the Christian church, like a stunning tapestry, is beautifully embroidered with songs and the experiences of those who wrote them. Though Satan has done everything he can to silence the song of faith, that song keeps coming back to strengthen believers and terrify the enemy. It is the Lord Himself who sings, for He said prophetically when He endured the cross, “In the midst of the [worshiping] congregation I will sing hymns of praise to You [the Father]” (compare Ps.22:22 with Heb.2:12—Amplified Bible). Thus, through all the valleys of sorrow and purifying fire, as well as on the mountaintops of revelation and praise, He keeps singing in His saints, individually and corporately, the songs of Zion.
In the middle ages, He sang sweetly through men like Bernard of Clairvaux, whose intimate love life with the Lord reverberates in hymns like “Jesus, the very Thought of Thee.” In the Reformation, where through Martin Luther’s influence congregational singing emerged, He sang mightily in hymns like Luther’s own “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” He lifted His glorious song of faith through the great eighteenth-century English hymn writers, like Isaac Watts, John Newton, and Charles Wesley. In the nineteen hundreds, dear saints like Francis R. Havergal in England and Fanny Crosby in America, both wondrously gifted, both physically afflicted, gave their hearts and pens to Jesus that He might sing through His redeemed thousands more hymns of blessed assurance and glorious praise.
Meanwhile, Ira Sankey, Philip P. Bliss, D. W. Whittle and others were making their own musical contributions to the great gospel campaigns of their time. The impact of hymns on the church did not stop there, however, but continues today in the musical expressions of Bill and Gloria Gaither, John W. Peterson, George Beverly Shea, and many others, whose names we may never have heard. These are just a few representatives of the happy individuals who, in Jesus’ great train of vanquished foes, have given voice to His eternal song of praise to the Father.
It is in view of this glorious history of song that we recommend to you Kenneth Osbeck’s fine eBook Amazing Grace, for it will enhance your appreciation of the role and importance of hymns in the Bible and church history while at the same time providing daily nourishment for your spirit. This work is more than a devotional. Though not arranged in historical sequence, the book presents an encapsulated history of the Christian church in song and experience. Delightful anecdotes, fascinating facts, and inspiring personal testimonies fill the pages, along with the songs themselves, always pointing our hearts to the Lord, who is the constant focus. For those of us who enjoy mingling devotional reading with songs and the word, this eBook combines all three.
Every portion of the Amazing Grace eBook features a carefully selected hymn, a related Scripture quotation, a devotional commentary, biographical facts about the hymn writer, related Bible verse references, several stanzas along with the chorus of each hymn, and a brief word of exhortation or encouragement. Helpful indices make it easy to locate hymns, Scripture references, and songwriters. The hymns are skillfully arranged according to themes selected for each month. The themes for February, for example, are God’s Love to Us, Our Love to God, and Love for Our Fellow-man. Under the first of these themes, we find such enduring hymns as Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of My Soul,” S. Trevor Francis’s “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” and Charles H. Gabriel’s “My Savior’s Love.” Proceeding through the year, one also finds hymns that relate to special times and seasons, such as Henry Alford’s “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” on November 22, during the Thanksgiving season. All of these features make Mr. Osbeck’s book both a sweet and meaningful devotional and a useful reference for finding music for all occasions.
As we have pointed out, hymns and hymn singing are an integral part of our experience of Christ and His church.
The language of hymns, often the language of the Bible itself in paraphrase, expresses the testimony of what
God’s people comprehend of the revelation of Christ, His Person and work, and His indwelling presence
through the Holy Spirit. Hymns have always been an important means of building up the Body of Christ.
As believers, our personal spiritual progress, as well as the progress of the whole church, depends on our
enjoyment of Christ Himself, touching Him in prayer, in praise, in the word, and in song. By this we are
enlightened and supplied with the indwelling life of Christ, and He is expressed through us.
While singing the hymns is paramount, knowing something of the experience behind a hymn helps us not only to appreciate what the hymn is saying but to appreciate our connectedness as members of the Body of Christ. This is what I like most about Kenneth Osbeck’s book: getting to know how other believers have experienced my Lord.
Let’s look at a few short examples drawn from the pages of Amazing Grace.
Born out of a time of great mental suffering in the life of blind Scottish minister George Matheson,
this hymn expresses the deep gratitude of one who realizes that behind the shadowy veil of the harshest
circumstances stands a sovereign and loving God, who refuses to let go of those He loves.
Author Kenneth Osbeck quotes Matheson’s own story about his experience in writing the hymn.
It was at a time when the rest of his family was celebrating his sister’s wedding in another
place and the writer himself was alone. According to some sources, Matheson may have just learned that
his own fiancé had rejected him.
“Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.”
Here are the first and last verses of George Matheson’s great hymn:
O love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul on Thee; I give Thee back the life I owe, that in Thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from Thee; I lay in dust life’s glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.
Osbeck concludes, “Rest securely in God’s eternal love, regardless of the human difficulty or suffering you may be experiencing. Allow this musical message to help you.” Indeed, the message of this hymn has helped many. It was the favorite of another of God’s children from Scotland, Oswald Chambers, who, in like manner, also could not escape the Master’s loving embrace.
Introducing this beloved hymn, the author quotes John 6:37, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (NIV). Coming to Jesus is the essence of the Christian life, from beginning to end; and when one stops to consider the matter, what other way to come to Him will there ever be but just as we are? Charlotte Elliot’s great hymn puts it this way:
Just as I am, without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears, within, without, O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
Writing about the author’s life, Osbeck shares this story:
“As a young person in Brighton, England, Miss Elliott was known as ‘carefree Charlotte.’ She was a popular portrait artist and a writer of humorous verse. At the age of 30, however, a serious ailment made her an invalid for life. She became listless and depressed until a well-known Swiss evangelist, Dr. Caesar Malan, visited her. Sensing her spiritual distress, he exclaimed, ‘Charlotte, you must come just as you are—a sinner—to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ Immediately placing her complete trust in Christ’s redemptive sacrifice for her, Charlotte experienced inner peace and joy in spite of physical affliction until her death at the age of 82.
“Charlotte Elliot wrote approximately 150 hymns throughout her lifetime; today she is considered to be one of the finest of all English hymnwriters. ‘God sees, God guards, God guides me,’ she said. ‘His grace surrounds me and His voice continually bids me to be happy and holy in His service—just where I am!’”
The keynote of Mr. Osbeck’s book, the first two words of John Newton’s famous hymn express their author’s wonder and awe that such a wretched sinner could enjoy God’s eternal redemption. The dramatic story—of a rebellious young lad leaving home, going to sea, becoming a slave trader, living a decadent life, becoming enslaved himself during a period of delirium, passing through a terrifying storm, yielding at last to the love of God, and becoming a minister of the gospel—has captured the hearts of millions. Newton’s experience adds weight to his already weighty words:
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.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.
Commenting on Newton’s extraordinary life, Kenneth Osbeck says, “Until the time of his death at age 82, John Newton never ceased to marvel at the grace of God that transformed him so completely. Shortly before his death he is quoted as proclaiming with a loud voice during a message, ‘My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior!’ What amazing grace!”
How encouraging it is to see from hymns and stories like these how God accompanies his people through their trials and sufferings into the full enjoyment of His all-sufficiency! Psalm 95:1, quoted in the subtitle above, like hundreds of other verses in the Bible, expresses the call to God’s people to “make a joyful noise unto the rock of our salvation.” I like the story of a humble brother in the Lord who had a large family with many mouths to feed. When asked how he could hold up under the weight of such a heavy responsibility, he said, “My only responsibility is to sing hymns.” Here was a man who knew the secret of receiving from God the supply for his daily life, trusting the Lord to work out the details as he continuously enjoyed the Spirit's all-sufficiency by singing and making melody in his heart to the Lord.
I hope you have enjoyed learning about and will also enjoy reading Kenneth Osbeck’s inspiring devotional Amazing Grace. Let us all join men and angels in keeping alive the song of faith—for the supply of grace in time of need, for the building up of the church on the earth, and for the eternal glory of Christ.
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