Text: Samuel Crossman (1623-1683). Tune: John Ireland (1879-1962)
1. My song is love unknown, My Saviour’s love to me; Love to the loveless shown, That they might lovely be. O who am I, That for my sake My Lord should take Frail flesh and die?
2. He came from His blest throne Salvation to bestow; But men made strange, and none The longed-for Christ would know: But O! my Friend, My Friend indeed, Who at my need His life did spend.
3. Sometimes they strew His way, And His sweet praises sing; Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King: Then “Crucify!” is all their breath, And for His death they thirst and cry.
4. Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to run, He gave the blind their sight, Sweet injuries! Yet they at these Themselves displease, and ’gainst Him rise.
5. They rise and needs will have My dear Lord made away; A murderer they save, The Prince of life they slay, Yet cheerful He to suffering goes, That He His foes from thence might free.
6. In life no house, no home, My Lord on earth might have; In death no friendly tomb, But what a stranger gave. What may I say? Heav'n was his home; But mine the tomb Wherein he lay.
7. Here might 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.
This hymn is unusual in that it has a voice, we would say in English class, a point of view, that is unique. Many hymns with an I are usually from what we might call a universal I—it can easily become the song of most anyone singing it. This one is peculiar. The speaker in the poem is a naïve observer of Jesus’ passion. He doesn’t seem to understand the story, but reports on what he sees innocently. Children on hearing the story of Jesus for the first time frequently will ask why on being told that this one who loves them is being hurt by the people around him.
It is a way of getting at the scandal of the cross. The singer notes the shocking story of Jesus being repaid evil for good. The first stanza notes that he does this for me, but it is in the sixth stanza that the story applies especially to the singer. Jesus is laid in the tomb where I should be. For that the singer sings praise using language from George Herbert’s collection of poems, “The Temple.”
Its high quality as a poem makes it one that appears in anthologies of English poetry. As I have noted before that does not prevent it from being used as a hymn, but sometimes the language may be too complicated for a hymn that everyone can sing. This hymn has suffered at the hands of the hymnal editors who haven’t liked the phrase, “But men made strange.” Will the people in the pew understand that locution? So then they change it, but most anybody gets the idea. People estranged themselves from the Lord. Or acted strangely.
The sixth stanza is crucial. Without it the hymn could be taken to say that others are guilty and the singer is not. That is a bad move. Blaming others for the death of Jesus is the beginning of all sorts of hateful things, like Anti-Semitism. No one can fully understand the crucifixion and the sacrifice of Jesus if they don’t understand that if they had been there they might well have joined in the persecution and death of our Lord. I as a seminary professor could well have been chief of the persecutors. Here comes an upstart, without an education, from a backwater, who does all the things we have been praying for and he drives us crazy. We have to get rid of him. He scandalizes us.
The hymn may work something like Nathan telling King David the story of the poor man with the lamb. David identifies with the poor man in the story, not the rich man, and Nathan has him where he wants him: Thou art the man! We sing this hymn which points out all the good things Jesus does and then are forced to ponder the way he is treated. And then we are hit with the notion that Christ is doing this all for us, for me. While we were enemies as Paul notes in Romans 5, We are not very attractive in this picture. The hard truth is that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!
Which brings us to praise. He did this for us while we were opposing him. And now we see it. Our Friend whom we can spend all our days in sweet praise. Amen.
Samuel Crossman was an Anglican clergyman. He was born in Suffolk and received his BA in theology from Pembroke College at Cambridge. Serving both Anglican and Puritan congregations, he worked to bring about a compromise on the theology of the ministry in the Anglican church, opposing the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which required all clergymen in the Anglican communion to be ordained by bishops in the historic episcopate. That failed and he was expelled from the clergy along with 2000 other Puritans. Three years later he relented and was ordained. This was a rough time for dissenters in England, but it gave us some of our greatest literature. John Bunyan was thrown into jail because he would not go along with the Act and while in prison wrote his classic Pilgrim’s Progress.
John Ireland, whose tune is the most common, was an English musician who composed and played the organ in Chelsea for many years. He wrote works for chamber groups and art songs. The story goes he wrote this quickly during a lunch. It is also sung to the Welsh tune Rhosymedre.
Kings College Choir https://youtu.be/HMart4wXsI0
Dom Kelly and Emily Ogilvie from Songs of Praise https://youtu.be/Iv7OZSoA22w
St. Andrew’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia
Keswick Convention https://youtu.be/e6zyI5Cbg1A