Have you ever contemplated deeply the words of what you sing in church? Have you ever considered that in those songs, as you sing them together with the Body of Christ, you might actually be praying – calling upon God to do something? Have you ever considered using those words in your home with your family to call upon God? I would suggest that some of the easiest, best, and even catchy, prayers in the Church are found in hymns.
In this article, I present several powerful (and perhaps familiar) examples of hymns that call upon God. Hymns (and verses of hymns) that call upon God reflect the same tradition and use of the Psalms in Old Testament worship. The words of the hymns, while not on the same level as the Scriptures, to be considered good, should confess what the Scriptures teach. These hymns and verses can teach us how to pray and for what to pray.
Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus – Charles Wesley (1744)
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
hope of all the earth thou art;
dear desire of every nation,
joy of every longing heart.
Born thy people to deliver,
born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever,
now thy gracious kingdom bring.
By thine own eternal spirit
rule in all our hearts alone;
by thine all sufficient merit,
raise us to thy glorious throne.
Wesley’s hymn calls upon God the Son, Jesus Christ, to return soon. His hymn is consistent with the words found in Revelation 22:20, “Come Lord Jesus!” and the prayer of the early church, “Maranatha” – “Come Quickly, Lord.” His hymn also reflects the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy Kingdom Come.” Unfortunately, many Christians think that Jesus’ return, the end of the world, is something bad, so they fear praying for this. Yet, listen to what Wesley describes when Jesus returns:
- We will be released “from our fears and sins”
- We will “find our rest in [Christ]”
- We will be raised to “[Christ’s] glorious throne.”
Those promises are much more glorious than anything that we can gain, achieve, or experience in this present life. Even more, those blessings are eternal blessings —they will not fade or perish.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – (8th – 12th Century Latin Antiphonal Prayers)
O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
O come, O Wisdom from on high,
who ordered all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show
and teach us in her ways to go.
O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times did give the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.
O come, O Branch of Jesse’s stem,
unto your own and rescue them!
From depths of hell your people save,
and give them victory o’er the grave.
O come, O Key of David, come
and open wide our heavenly home.
Make safe for us the heavenward road
and bar the way to death’s abode.
O come, O Bright and Morning Star,
and bring us comfort from afar!
Dispel the shadows of the night
and turn our darkness into light.
O come, O King of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind.
Bid all our sad divisions cease
and be yourself our King of Peace.
A familiar hymn sung prior to Christmas (in traditional churches known as the season of Advent), this hymn also prays for the Lord Jesus Christ to come soon. Each verse addresses Jesus by a unique title and calls upon Him for a unique blessing. Each of these verses can be used to call upon Jesus not simply in Advent – but even in our daily life. For example, verse 2, calling upon Jesus as the Wisdom from on high, asks for His guidance in our paths of life. As men, husbands, and fathers, that wisdom is especially needed to lead our families in those paths.
Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word – Martin Luther (1542)
Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word;
curb those who by deceit or sword
would wrest the kingdom from your Son
and bring to naught all He has done.
Lord Jesus Christ, your pow’r make known,
for you are Lord of lords alone;
defend your Holy Church that we
may sing your praise eternally.
O Comforter of priceless worth,
send peace and unity on earth;
support us in our final strife
and lead us out of death to life.
Perhaps this hymn is one of Martin Luther’s lesser known, but simultaneously it is one of his most powerful and compelling prayers. The life of a Christian is always a struggle against the forces of sin, death, and the devil. That struggle becomes more difficult when we forget or neglect God’s Word to us and for us -that in Christ, God has triumphed over all those evil forces. Thus, Luther’s hymn calls upon all Persons of the Godhead (Father, Son, Holy Spirit – each verse, respectively) to continue working in us to keep us steadfast in those promises.
Away in a Manger – verse 3 (Unknown)
Be near me, Lord Jesus,
I ask Thee to stay,
Close by me forever
And love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children,
In Thy tender care,
And take us to heaven,
To live with Thee there.
Maybe the most familiar hymn in this article, verse 3 of “Away in a Manger” is a beautiful prayer for the Lord Jesus’ continued care and blessing. Whether or not the events in verses one and two are accurate descriptions of what happened the night of Jesus’ birth are debatable. However, what is not up for debate is calling upon Jesus for Him to remain with us and take us to be with Him forever.
Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow – Paul Gerhardt (17th Century)
Lord Jesus, since you love me,
Now spread your wings above me
and shield me from alarm.
Though Satan would devour me,
Let angel guards sing over me,
This child of God shall meet no harm.
Lord Jesus, since you love me,
O spread your wings above me
and shield me from alarm.
Though Satan would assail me,
your mercy will not fail me;
I rest in your protecting arm.
Depending on which version of this hymn you encounter, one of the verses from Paul Gerhardt’s evening hymn is a direct calling upon Jesus to protect us through the night. This verse is a wonderful prayer at the end of the day and is easy to teach to children. More importantly, in these words – regardless of which version – the Gospel dominates the prayer. “Though Satan would attack me, Lord Jesus You have defeated him, and Your love and mercy shall guard me. I rest in Your protecting arm. Amen.”
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing – Robert Robinson (1758)
Come, thou Fount of every blessing;
tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above;
praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of God’s unchanging love!
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
hither by thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
he, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.
O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart; O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.
This hymn, as poetic and image filled as it is, is also a magnificent prayer all the way through. The theme of the prayer is that God, by drawing near to us, would draw us more into Him. The last stanza is especially marvelous in its honesty and humility. The whole hymn is a reminder that daily our hearts are out of tune with God’s melody; we wander as sheep; and we leave our God. Yet, He, always the Pursuer, will never leave us. By the interposed precious blood of Jesus, God will continue to pour out His blessings of mercy and grace to us.
There are many more hymns that could be used as prayers. I encourage you to contemplate the words of the hymns and songs you sing in church or at home. Use them to call upon God for whatever your needs are. When you do that, you partake in praise and petition just as the saints who have gone before us did. When you hold these hymns in your heart, you ingrain in your heart the words that the Church has confessed throughout history against the world. When you teach those hymns, you pass on that faith confession and calling upon God to the next generation.
May God strengthen you through these words. Amen.