Jesus, My Husband?

Song-of-SolomonAnother story of a hymn ‘improved’ by hymnal editors.

John Newton, of ‘Amazing Grace’ fame, wrote another well-known, and a far better, hymn on the name of Jesus. It was published as part of Olney Hymns, a collaboration between Newton and William Cowper.

The original text of this hymn is given below. I have put in bold the parts that will be unfamiliar to almost anyone who will have learned this hymn from a hymnal other than Olney Hymns.

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

Why might the fourth verse have been almost universally omitted? It’s not fantastic poetry—in the Olney partnership, Cowper was the poet while Newton’s verse tends to be wooden at the best of times—but it’s good enough theology. You choose.

Far more glaring is the other change, the replacement of just one word in the fifth verse. The most commonly published and known versions have the first line either  thus:

“Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend, …”

or thus:

“Jesus! my Shepherd, Guardian, Friend, …”

(Some substitute the word “Saviour” as well.)

While there’s nothing wrong with claiming Jesus as our brother or our guardian—not to mention Saviour—that isn’t what Newton wrote.

In fact, the change makes little sense of Newton’s original. In Olney Hymns, this hymn is placed in a section called “On Select Texts of Scripture”, with the Bible reference in question given at the top of each hymn. The text of Scripture in question here was Song of Songs 1:3, which reads,

Because of the savour of thy good ointments
thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the virgins love thee.

This reference is clear in the opening stanza of the hymn. But the wider context is equally important: these are the words of the Bride in the Song of Songs, addressed to the Bridegroom. In typological terms, it’s the voice of the Church addressing Christ (Eph. 5:31–32).

To substitute ‘Brother’ or ‘Guardian’ for ‘Husband’ is to miss this point altogether. So why was it?

I can only guess. First, a quick comparison of hymnal versions on Hymnary.org (which only seems to include hymnals published in the USA) shows that whereas in the early 1800s, the text was left unchanged, by the middle of the 19th century the change was widespread (though the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861, still kept the original text). Is this a case of Victorian prudishness, preferring a more distant ‘Guardian’ or ‘Brother’ to the all-too-intimate ‘Husband’?

Of course, the other possibility is that hymnal editors found that the first-person approach was an illegitimate application of bridal mysticism to the individual believer, rather than to the church as a whole. While misguided, this could be understandable. Within Lutheran circles one might think of a reaction to the popularity of this theme in many forms of Pietism—but this shift didn’t take place in Lutheran circles. Since Methodism broke away permanently from the Church of England, Anglicans didn’t have a pietist problem, while presumably the pietists themselves (i.e. Methodists) wouldn’t object. I’m not convinced.

The third possibility is that such portrayals of the believer’s (and, by extension, the whole church’s) intimate relationship with Jesus were unfashionable because the theology underpinning them was unfashionable. Not only among Anglican and other Protestant hymn editors but seemingly across the churches of the Reformation.

For example, one of the notable features of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) is the consistency with which bridal mysticism has been obscured or even removed from the translations of Lutheran hymns—all of which pre-date the heyday of Pietism (as I have complained here and here). There seems to have been a general disdain for this biblical theme which has an extremely good pedigree in theology and piety throughout the Church’s history.

The fact is, the Church is the bride of Christ. The husband’s body is no longer his but belongs to his wife, and the wife’s body is not hers but belongs to the husband (1 Cor. 7:4). And so, not only the Church as a whole but individual members of the Church belong to Christ as His bride, just as His body is given not only to the whole Church, but to each individual member.

Jesus is my brother and friend, but he is also my husband—or else, I’m not his at all.