How sweet the name of Jesus sounds

with
ST. PETER
ORTONVILLE

Text: Origins. This is one of the most widely printed and most enduring hymns of John Newton (1725–1807), first published in Olney Hymns (1779 | Fig. 1), in seven stanzas of four lines, without music, headed “The name of Jesus.” In a series of hymns based on particular scriptures, this one was listed under Solomon’s Song 1:3, which reads, “Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee” (KJV).

 

Fig. 1. Olney Hymns (London: W. Oliver, 1779).

 

Text: Analysis. The connection to Song of Solomon 1:3 might seem somewhat odd—especially in the way oils are not mentioned in the hymn, nor virgins—but hymnologist Frank Colquhoun has explained the significance of the connection:

One of the properties of ointment is that of sweet fragrance, and this accounts for the opening line, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.” But there is a proviso: his name sounds sweetly only in a believer’s ear. … In the lines that follow, he recalls that ointment, in addition to its fragrant odour, also possesses healing properties. Similarly with the name of Jesus and the believer: “it soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear.”[1]

The second stanza follows the same train of thought before shifting to other metaphors: Christ is manna for the hungry (“the living bread,” John 6:51) and rest for the weary (Matthew 11:28). In the third stanza, he is a rock (1 Cor. 3:10-11), shield and hiding place (Ps. 119:114), and a treasury of grace (John 1:16).

The fourth stanza breaks with the pattern of metaphors, and it is often omitted, since it is seen as being a diversion from the rest of the text. The editors of the Irish Church Hymnal (2000) for example, felt “it is rather out of keeping with the outpouring of personal love and devotion to Jesus which is so evident in all the other stanzas.”[2] But this is a shallow reading, because Newton’s point here is important for his devotion: Jesus is the means by which a sinner’s pleas are heard, as our intercessor (Hebrews 7:25), our defense against Satan’s prosecution (Romans 8:34), and our means by which we can be called children of God (John 1:12). These ideas flow naturally from the previous description of Christ as shield and agent of grace. For John Newton, who wrote how the amazing grace of Christ “saved a wretch like me,” these ideas are important.

The fifth stanza resumes a more detailed list of metaphors. The one of particular note is “Husband,” which has caused no small amount of consternation among editors. John Julian, for example, complained:

It is urged, and not without weight, that “the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife,” is not the individual soul, but the collective Church; and that the expression “Husband” is unsuited to congregational use, as in no sense can it be said that Jesus is the Husband of Men.[3]

Julian seems to object for two reasons, one being a theological distinction between the individual believer and the corporate church, the other being a masculine aversion to referring to Christ as a bridegroom. The individual/corporate distinction is repeated by Colquhoun (“Christ is not the ‘husband’ of the individual soul,” p. 205), and by the editors of the Church Hymnal (2000), who went so far as to say, “The average worshipper … can hardly be expected to grasp this kind of imagery and, since the word ‘Husband’ does not appear in the Song of Solomon, editors of different hymnals have offered alternative words” (p. 159). For some, this distinction may prove to be unnecessary or unsatisfactory, for how is Christ to be bridegroom corporately if he is not also bridegroom individually? In Ephesians 5:25-26, when men are admonished, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her,” etc., are we to believe Christ only loves, saves, and sanctifies the church corporately, not individually? Such a distinction is absurd.

Stanzas six and seven again shift away from the litany of metaphors in such a way as to express how all these words of praise are still meek in relation to the perfect praise to be offered when we meet Christ face-to-face. The last part of stanza six reflects 1 John 3:2, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (ESV).

J.R. Watson summarized the whole of the hymn nicely:

The directness and vigour of this hymn make it one of the best for general use. Newton stresses the power of the name of Jesus to soothe and to heal, and give courage, to heal wounds and to calm, to feed and to give rest. The name of Jesus, in other words, has something to apply to every situation; and the human response should be praise throughout the whole life (“With every fleeting breath”).[4]

This hymn has sometimes been compared to “Jesu dulcis memoria,” as in Samuel Duffield, English Hymns: Their Authors and History (1886).[5]


Tune 1. This tune was written by Alexander R. Reinagle (1799–1877) and first published in Psalm Tunes for Voice and Piano Forte (ca. 1830 | Fig. 2, image pending) with Psalm 118.

It was given the name ST. PETER in Reinagle’s Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Chants, and Other Music (ca. 1840 | Fig. 3), named after the church where Reinagle was organist, St. Peter-in-the-East, Oxford, England. This version was published without a text, although the index recommended it for “Ps. 5, Hy. 61,” in reference to a Selection of Psalms and Hymns (Oxford: W. Graham, 1836).

 

Fig. 3. A.R. Reinagle, Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, Chants, and Other Music (London: T. Holloway, ca. 1840).

 

Reinagle created a congregational harmonization for the first edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861 | Fig. 4), in which his tune was first paired with Newton’s text. Regarding this tune, Elizabeth Cosnett, in writing for the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, said, “The steady pace of the melody without dotted or passing notes is particularly suited to the series of strong, simple images, ‘manna’, ‘rest’, ‘rock’, ‘shield’, ‘treasury’, ‘shepherd’, building up to ‘Accept the praise I bring.’”

 

Fig. 4. Hymns Ancient & Modern (London: Novello, 1861).

 

Tune 2. Aside from ST. PETER, the next most common tune setting is ORTONVILLE by Thomas Hastings (1784–1872), first published in The Manhattan Collection (1837), intended for the hymn “Majestic sweetness sits enthroned” by Samuel Stennett (1727–1795).


by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
25 February 2019


Footnotes:

  1. Frank Colquhoun, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Hymns That Live (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1980), p. 202.

  2. Edward Darling & Donald Davison, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), pp. 158-159.

  3. John Julian, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London: John Murray, 1892), p. 539.

  4. J.R. Watson, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), p. 220.

  5. Samuel Duffield, English Hymns: Their Authors and History (NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1886), p. 234: Archive.org

Related Resources:

Erik Routley, “The name,” Hymns and the Faith (London: John Murray, 1955), pp. 185-190.

William J. Reynolds, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), pp. 143-144.

Marilyn Kay Stulken & Catherine Salika, “How good the name of Jesus sounds,” Hymnal Companion to Worship, Third Edition (Chicago: GIA, 1998), pp. 374-375.

Paul Westermeyer, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010), pp. 460-461.

Elizabeth Cosnett, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
http://www.hymnology.co.uk/h/how-sweet-the-name-of-jesus-sounds

“How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,” Hymnary.org:
https://hymnary.org/text/how_sweet_the_name_of_jesus_sounds_in_a