How sweet the name of Jesus sounds: John Newton
Bible Study by David Wright
‘Thy name is as ointment poured forth’ (Song of Songs 1.3)
John Newton’s biography is better known than that of almost any other hymn-writer, probably because his was such a colourful life. He was born in 1725; his mother died when he was only 7; his father was a shipmaster, and at first John worked for him. Later, he was a midshipman on a man-o’-war, and was flogged for attempting to desert. He then worked on slave ships-the most degrading and inhuman trade every undertaken by British vessels. He became master of a slave-ship even after his conversion to Christ, but later in his life he argued for the abolition of slavery. By 1764, he had become an Anglican curate at Olney, Bucks., and worked with Cowper on the Olney Hymns published in 1779. He died in 1807; the year that the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire.
This hymn was first published in Olney Hymns with the title ‘The Name of Jesus’, and with the same verse of Scripture as given here. It is interesting to find an Old Testament verse used for a New Testament theme.
The first two verses speak of the many facets of faith in Jesus: sorrow is soothed . . . wounds are healed . . . fear is driven away . . . troubles are calmed . . . hunger is satisfied . . . weariness finds rest. Each of these ideas can be traced to verses in the Bible; some to Jesus’ miracles of healing, others to the examples of changed lives in the Acts of the Apostles.
Verse 3 is helpful in combining the ideas of Jesus as both the rock on which to build and also as a hiding-place(Psalm 18:2; 27:5; 40:261:2; St Matthew 7:24-29) . Logically, these are opposites, but both are biblical images and valid descriptions of faith. As the psalmist recognised, ‘God is our refuge and strength’ (Psalm 46:1).
The first line of verse 4 was originally ‘Shepherd, Husband, Friend’. The idea of Husband may come from the Song of Songs, along with the text for the hymn. ‘Husband’ is also found in the New Testament, but always in the context of the Church (not the individual) as the Bride of Christ. Thus ‘Husband’ has been changed in many hymn books. The variety of alternatives chosen is an apt illustration of the many ways Christians can speak of Christ: Leader; Surety; Brother; Guardian; Saviour – all these have been printed in hymn books. This verse offers contrasts as marked as verse 3, and again these apparent paradoxes embody essential Christian concepts: ‘My Shepherd’ is ‘My King’ as well (some may be reminded of the beginning of this psalm in Latin: ‘Dominus regit me’, ‘The Lord rules me’); ‘my Prophet’ is also ‘my Friend; ‘my Way’ is also ‘my End’. Each word can be found in the Bible, and each word merits reflection.
After this magnificent collection of titles of Christ, it is encouraging to find that even a man such as Newton can write such a profound and personal verse, acknowledging that his thought is cold and his efforts weak. Relatively few hymns recognise our lack of responsiveness, and verse 5 must be treasured by many people. Nevertheless, the author is resolved to praise Jesus continually (verse 6). One Brethren hymn book has amended the conclusion to give the hymn a more positive close:
‘And triumph in thy blessed name,
Which quells the power of death.’
This study could well be taken forward with the aid of a Concordance, looking for the biblical passages in which the many titles for Jesus can be found or the ideas which support such titles.
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