O for a thousand tongues to sing
Source: Singing the Faith: 364i
Words: Charles Wesley
Music: “Lydia” by Thomas Phillips
Metre: 86.86. Common Metre extended
Ideas for use
This hymn is often regarded as “a big sing”, best chosen for a good-sized congregation. However, as with so many of Charles Wesley’s hymns there is the unmistakable sense of personal, felt experience running through the verses. There are different ways in which this might be brought out in the singing. For example:
- Not only alternating verses 2 to 6 between two sides of a congregation but having those groups face each other as they sing – offering the meaning and joy of the words to each other
- Build a service or time of reflection around the hymn, inviting those present to ask of themselves: What do these words mean to and for me?
A hymn that reflects the notion that the Methodist people were “born in song” (see Born in Song article). Its original version has 18 verses, with the opening verse beginning “Glory to God, and praise, and love, / Be ever, ever given.”
It was Peter Böhler, a German-born Moravian and mentor to Charles Wesley, who once said to him, “Had I a thousand tongues, I would praise Him with them all.” Charles adapted those words when he came to write this hymn to mark the anniversary of his evangelical conversion in 1738, described in Where shall my wondering soul begin? (StF 454). As in that earlier text, Wesley celebrates the forgiving love of God that has the power to transform our lives so that they anticipate heaven (v7). (Also see the omitted verse from Marjorie Dobson’s Christmas carol, Birth brings a promise of new life awaking (StF 226), which speaks of our commitment that “brings God down to earth”.)
The authors of Companion to Hymns and Psalms (1988) note that line 1 of verse 4 (“He breaks the power of cancelled sin”) is an apparent tautology (how can sin that has been cancelled still have any power?), which “has been seen by some as signifying the two-fold character of atonement, the removal of guilt, and regeneration”.
One writer comments that the hymn’s “note of joyful and triumphant praise… is so characteristic of the Wesley hymns”. Maybe as he wrote this hymn, Wesley also had in mind a verse of scripture that he read on the day of his conversion: “He hath put a new song in my mouth, even a thanksgiving unto our God.” (Psalm 40: 3)