The appointed hymn of the day for the 5th Sunday in Lent is the beloved Lenten hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown”. The text is by Samuel Crossman (1624-1683), an Anglican priest with leanings towards Puritanism. This is a wonderful, biblical and beautiful text on the passion of our Lord and I am very grateful to know this hymn. However, I think the hymn owes much of its popularity to the wonderful tune by John Ireland, the writer of the tune. Ireland was an English cathedral composer in the first half of the twentieth century, a golden period of English church music. He also happens to be the composer of one of my favorite choral pieces, Greater Love Hath No Man.
Here’s stanza 1:
My song is love unknown,
My Savior’s love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be.
Oh, who am I
That for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?
Of course, God’s love is known through Christ, but we stand in amazement at the love of God that surpasses our understanding. The idea of Jesus loving us despite our loveless condition and the wicked way in which He was treated runs throughout the hymn. This idea is found in Romans chapter 5:
6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
God shows us His love by doing the unthinkable – He gives His own Son, His own life, for people who simply do not deserve it. We were not a cause worth dying for, but God chose to love us anyway. Not only did Jesus choose to suffer for us, He also humbled Himself before God and lived His life in humility. We see this clearly in Philippians chapter 2:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We respond with the words of the hymn, “Oh, who am I, that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?”
There is enough in that stanza for us to ponder the rest of our lives, but we are blessed with 6 more stanzas and so we move forward.
He came from His blest throne
Salvation to bestow;
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know.
But, oh, my friend,
My friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend!
This stanza brings us into the harsh and heart-breaking reality that Jesus was and is rejected by people. He is the King, who came down from His throne to His people and they rejected him, mocked him, and crucified him. This was prophesied in the book of Isaiah, chapter 53:
1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Jesus was not welcomed and received. He was despised, rejected, and hated. What else would you expect from a world that was truly corrupted by sin? Yet He still gives Himself for us! He shows himself to be our true friend, our friend indeed, by laying down His life for us. Jesus talked about this kind of love and friendship in John 15:
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17These things I command you, so that you will love one another.
Sometimes they strew His way
And His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day
Hosannas to their King.
Is all their breath,
And for His death
They thirst and cry.
This stanza takes us through the way the crowds treated Jesus during Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, He was greeted with palm branches and shouts of praise. Here’s part of the account from Matthew 21:
6The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. 7They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. 8Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” 10And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” 11And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”
The crowds gave Jesus quite the greeting, “Hosanna to the Son of David”. They were greeting Him as the rightful King of Israel, as the one who would rescue them. The crowd, however, was fickle and turned against Jesus by the end of the week. By Matthew 27, their tune had changed:
20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” 23And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
Pilate’s words, “Why, what evil has he done?” lead us into the next stanza.
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
He gave the blind their sight.
Yet they at these
And ‘gainst Him rise.
Indeed, what did our Lord do to deserve this? He healed the sick, made the blind see, and even raised the dead. And yet, these things caused great offense and contributed to the anger and controversy that led to His execution. This hymn is well placed within the Lenten season, as last week we heard of the account in Luke chapter 9 where Jesus heals a blind man. The blind man is questioned repeatedly and cast out and the anger and hostility towards Jesus continues to grow. Here’s a small portion of the conversation between the blind man and the Pharisees:
30The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made a way;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of Life they slay.
Yet cheerful He
To suff’ring goes
That He His foes
From thence might free.
They chose to kill Jesus and let a convicted murderer go free. Peter sums this up quickly in Acts 3:
13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.
The hymn then states that Jesus went to His suffering cheerfully. This is, at the very least, an exaggeration. Something quite different is described in Matthew 26:
38Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
Sorrowful even to death is not exactly what we would call cheerful. However, we do know that Jesus delighted in the doing the will of the Father. He went to the cross willingly, giving Himself for our sakes, to save the very ones who hated Him and put Him to death.
In life no house, ho home
My Lord on earth might have;
In death no friendly tomb
But what a stranger gave.
What may I say?
Heaven was His home
But mine the tomb
Wherein He lay.
During Jesus’ ministry, He traveled. He was without home and had no place to rest. He speaks of this in Luke 9:
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Even at His death, He had no family tomb, but He was placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea – from Matthew 27:
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock.
And finally at the end of stanza 6 we come to a profound statement of the Great Exchange. Jesus is laid into what should be our tomb so that we may be brought in to His home. This is summed up wonderfully in 2 Corinthians 5:21
21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Jesus receives the punishment for our sin and we receive the reward of the righteous. We receive the life and joy and bliss and fulfillment and peace and love of heaven itself. This leads us joyfully sing the faith; to joyfully proclaim the love of Him who has suffered, died, and risen from the dead for us. As it says in the Psalms:
6I wash my hands in innocence
and go around your altar, O LORD,
7proclaiming thanksgiving aloud,
and telling all your wondrous deeds.
2I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
This leads us into stanza 7, a great hymn of praise in response to God’s amazing love.
Here mighty I stay and sing,
No story so divine!
Never was love, dear King,
Never was grief like Thine.
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend!