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Unusual Phrases in Hymns

Part 1


1st Corinthians 14:15  says: What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding

We should understand what we are singing. Most hymn lyrics are pretty easy to understand, but some have phrases that are not part of our modern-day vernacular and thus may not be understood by us. Let’s look at some of these hymns and try to decode their meanings. 


Song #452:  Night with Ebon Pinion

Phrase (v1): Night with Ebon Pinion, brooded o’er the vale

Ebon is an abbreviated form of ebony, a dark, tropical hardwood. The word may be used to describe anything that is very dark or black.

Pinion technically refers to the outer end of a bird’s wing, but when used in literature it refers to

the entire wing. The lyricist is portraying the night as having black wings as Jesus prayed in the garden.

Brooded here means hovered over, or loomed over.

o’er is a poetic version of the word “over”

vale – vale is a poetic word meaning valley, and refers to the Kidron Valley (almost always referred to as the Brook Kidron in NKJV sometimes called brook Cedron in KJV from which Jesus and the disciples ascended to the Mount of Olives where the Garden of Gethsemane was.

       John 18 :1 When Jesus had spoken these words, He went out with His disciples over the Brook    Kidron, where there was a garden, which He and His disciples entered

The night with dark, black wings hovering over the valley gives a sense of the dark foreboding that

    characterized the emotions of our Lord as He agonized in prayer, the cross looming ever nearer.


Song #500:  O Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Phrase: I raise my Ebenezer

Lyric:  (v2) - Here I raise my Ebenezer hither by Thy help I’ve come

BDB definition of Ebenezer:  “stone of help”

       1st Samuel 7:10  Now as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to        battle against Israel. But the LORD thundered with a loud thunder upon the Philistines that day,        and        so confused them that they were overcome before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of        Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and drove them back as far as below Beth Car. Then Samuel        took a    stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen, and called its name Ebenezer, saying, "Thus far   the Lord has helped us." So the Philistines were subdued, and they did not come anymore into the        territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. 

Though the words, Here I raise my Ebenezer sound obscure to us, they express the sincere gratitude

     we should have to God, who is our help in time of trouble. When I "raise my Ebenezer" I am figuratively

     saying that I acknowledge God's blessing and care.


Song #234:  Higher Ground

Phrase: Heaven’s table land

Lyric:  (Chorus) -  Lord lift me up and let me stand, by faith, on heaven’s table land

A table-land is a broad, expansive, level area, such as a plateau.

"Heaven's table-land" is a poetic way of describing the bliss of Heaven where we will be on a plateau

     "above" all of the temptations, cares, and trials of this world.


Song #6:  A Mighty Fortress 

Phrase: a bulwark never failing

Lyric:  (v1)  A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing

Bulwark: (1) a solid wall-like structure raised for defense, a rampart, also a seawall.   (2) a strong support or protection (e.g. democratic principles that stand as a bulwark against tyranny).

The words speak of God’s unfailing strength and protection 

       Psalm 28:7  The Lord is my strength and my shield; My heart trusted in Him, and I am helped;        Therefore my heart greatly rejoices, And with my song I will praise Him.


Song #9:  A Wonderful Savior

Song #557:  Rock of Ages

Phrase: (Ch) He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock

Phrase: (v1) Rock of Ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in Thee

Cleft: A space or opening made by splitting; a crack; a crevice.

       Exodus  33:18  And he (Moses) said, "Please, show me Your glory." Then He said, "I will make all My        goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before you. I will be gracious to    whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." But He said,        "You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live." And the LORD said, "Here is a place by        Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the        cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by.

       Colossians 3:2  Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your        life is hidden with Christ in God

John Gill Commentary: one of the clefts, made by smiting it, through which the waters gushed out for the relief of the Israelites, and their flocks: and we are told that to this day, on the summit of Mount Sinai, by the Arabians called Gibel el Mousa, or the mountain of Moses, is perceived a large chasm in the rock, said to be the cave where Moses hid himself from God, when the glory of the Lord passed before him. Now this cleft may be an emblem of Christ, as crucified, smitten, wounded and slain; who was smitten by the law and justice of God, as this rock was smitten by the rod of Moses: and had gashes and wounds made in him like the clefts of a rock, being pierced with the nails and spear: and in these clefts of the rock saints dwell by faith.

As God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock, so He provides a refuge for our souls when our lives are

     hidden in Christ.


Composer note: Written by Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). She could not see with her natural eyes, but she could see with her heart.  Blind from six weeks old because of a surgical mishap, her life was different than most, but it was not worse than most. She supported herself as a teacher at a blind school, she had dear and close friends around the world, and she wrote and published thousands of beautiful hymns, many that are still sung today. Regarding her plight in life she wrote the following words: “It seemed intended by the blessed providence of God that I should be blind all my life, and I thank Him for the dispensation. If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me.”  (fewox.wordpress.com)


Song #19:  All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name.

Phrase: royal diadem

Lyric:  (v1) Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all

Diadem: a band or wrapping around the turban of a king or his queen signifying their royal authority. Rulers of the ancient Near East did not wear rigid gold crowns but cloth turbans wound around the head and decorated with gems. The New Testament uses the Greek word for diadem only in the book of Revelation – 12:3, 13:1, 19:12). The NT also makes a clear distinction between a diadem and a crown. A crown was a garland or a wreath awarded for faithfulness in service (such as a crown of righteousness (2nd Timothy 4:8) while a diadem always symbolized royal authority.  (Nelson’s Bible Dictionary).

It is completely appropriate that Jesus would be adorned with a diadem signifying his royal authority at

     the right hand of God.

       Matthew 28:18  And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in        heaven and on earth.”


Song #438:  My Hope is Built on Nothing Less

Phrase: the sweetest frame

Lyric:  (v1) I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name

As these words were written over 150 years ago it is difficult for us to know exactly what was being referred to. Some sources suggest it means our earthly frames, our bodies, that we are so fragile and mortal, and can put no trust in ourselves or others. Other sources suggest it’s about a frame of mind, that we cannot even trust our own thinking.

       Psalm 103:14 For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. 

Strong defines frame as a form; a conception, a purpose, imagination, mind, work.

So as we sing ‘I dare not trust the sweetest frame’ we must think of all those fragile, temporal and

     earthly things that we put our hope and trust in. We must continually remind ourselves to not trust in

     these earthly frames, but only in Christ our Savior.


Song #100 - Come Thou Almighty King

Phrase: Incarnate word

Phrase: Ancient of days

Phrase: Sovereign majesty

Incarnate: clothed with flesh;  embodied in flesh. Therefore Incarnate Word is clearly a reference to the word made flesh (Jesus )

       John 1:14  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of        the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. 

Ancient of Days: This title of God can only be found in the 7th chapter of the book of Daniel (7:9,13,22)

Barnes: The phrase “Ancient of Days” is one that denotes an elderly or old person; meaning, he who is most ancient as to days, and is equivalent to the English, The Eternal. It is a representation of one venerable in years, sitting down for the purposes of judgment. The appellation does not of itself denote eternity, but it is employed, probably, with reference to the fact that God is eternal.

Sovereign: Supreme in power; possessing supreme dominion; (e.g. the sovereign ruler of the universe).

2. Supreme; superior to all others; chief. 3. Supremely efficacious; superior to all others; predominant; effectual.   


Song #881:  There is a Balm in Gilead

Song #124:  Did You Think to Pray

Phrase: a balm in Gilead

Lyric:  (v1) There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul

Gilead, just east of the Jordan, was famous for its healing ointment (or balm), made from the storax tree (cf. Gen. 37:25; Jer. 46:11). When a person had a hurt, someone might say, “There is a balm nearby in Gilead that could help you.” This healing medication was used as a symbol of the need for a spiritual cure in:    Jeremiah 8:22: Is there no balm in Gilead, Is there no physician there? Why then is there no recovery        For the health of the daughter of my people?

Jeremiah was grieving and weeping because Israel had turned from God to idols, and they were suffering for it. They needed the healing balm of the Lord’s cleansing and forgiveness, but it would only be theirs if they repented and turned back to Him.

What is the balm of Gilead for the modern day Christian?

       Mark 2:17  When Jesus heard it, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician,        but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

Jesus is our “balm” – the remedy for sin that can bring us back to spiritual good health.  Only he has the power to take our sin (sickness) away, though the blood which He shed on Calvary.


Song #185:  God Shall Wipe Away All Tears

Song #203:  Hallelujah What a Savior v5

Phrase: the ransomed throng

Lyric:  (v3) When we sweetly sing with all that ransomed throng

Ransom:  [BDB]:  to redeem, rescue, deliver

                 [Webster]: (noun)  The money or price paid for the release of a prisoner or captive, or of captured

                                                property, and restores the one to liberty and the other to the original owner.

                                   (verb)   In Scripture, to redeem from the bondage of sin, and from the punishment to  which

                                                sinners are subjected by the divine law.

Isaiah 35:10  And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, And come to Zion with singing, With everlasting joy on their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Matthew 20:28  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many

Throng:  A crowd; a multitude of persons or of living beings pressing or pressed into a close body or assemblage.


As faithful Christians will  be a member of the ransomed throng in heaven.


Song #197:  Have Thine Own Way Lord

Phrase: (v4) hold o’er my being absolute sway

Sway: a controlling influence, sovereign power, dominion, the ability to exercise influence or authority,  dominance

One writer said this about the phrase: This phrase gives us a glimpse of the songwriter's desire to be completely controlled by the Spirit of God. Her words, "Hold o'er my being absolute sway." mean that every movement, every choice, every thought, every word, every deed, would ideally be controlled by God alone!  She no longer wanted to lean toward her fleshly, sinful tendencies, but instead toward being a testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ living within her. She herself wanted to continually fade away into the background so that Christ would come to the forefront.

We must ask ourselves: Do we really mean these words when we sing them?


Song #268: I Gave My Life For Thee

Phrase: quickened from the dead

Lyric: (v1)  That thou mightst ransomed be, and quickened from the dead

Quicken:  to make alive, revive, to cause to be enlivened, stimulate

       1st Peter 2:24  who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins,        might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed

This phrase drives home the idea that through Jesus’ death on the cross, we can be brought back to life (eternal life) after our physical death. He died so that we might live



Song #337:  Is Thy Heart Right With God

Phrase: (v1)  Have thine affections been nailed to the cross

Phrase: (v2)  Hast thou dominion o'er self and o'er sin

Phrase: (Ch)  Washed in the crimson flood

Affections:  Attachments, devotions, loves, passions - Anything that we hold dear in this life - anything that causes God not to be number one in our lives. These must be nailed to he cross, i.e. relegated to the background so that our primary focus can be on God.

Matthew 10:37  He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.

Dominionrule; control; domination.

We must establish control over self by denying our sinful desires and doing.

Matthew 16:24 says:  Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 

Crimson: Deep purplish red.

The crimson flood describes the blood of Jesus flowing down the cross of Calvary.

Revelation 1:5  and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,