Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended

Johann Heermann, 1630; translated by Robert Bridges, 1899
A reflection on Isaiah 53
Addressed to Christ
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,Luke 23:22
that man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?Is. 53:8
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,Matt. 27:29; 26:69–75
O most afflicted.Is. 53:3
Who was the guilty who brought this upon thee?Is. 53:4–5
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;Is. 53:6; Zech. 13:7; John 10:14–15
the slave hath sinned and the Son hath suffered:Luke 20:9–18; John 8:34–36
for man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.
For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation,Heb. 2:14–18
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation:
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,Heb. 5:7–9
for my salvation.
Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,Ps. 116:12
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee,1 Thess. 5:17
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

When a hymn text and hymn tune perfectly unite (and sometimes the union may be decades or centuries after either were first created) the resulting increase of communicative potential can be impressive. This union has happened hundreds of times (in spite of tunes and texts numbering in the tens of thousands) and some of the best unions are presented for example in these essays. It is a much rarer thing, however, for a tune and a text to maintain their perfect union when the text is translated from another language into English. Such a rarity occurs in the combination of the late nineteenth century translation of Johann Heermann’s Herzliebster Jesu with the tune of the same name. If the translation is by Robert Bridges, poet laureate of Great Britain from 1913 until 1930, this would explain the satisfactory union. Bridges was not only a successful doctor and poet, but he was also the editor of a wonderful hymnal. He must have borne Johann Crüger’s tune HERZLIEBSTER JESU at the forefront of his mind as he translated the text associated with that tune. On their own, the translation and the tune are merely good. As an integral unit, they are great.

The form of the tune is peculiar, with three melodic ideas of four measures each and a final phrase of two measures. The first melodic idea ends in an incomplete way, as if asking a question. The second melodic idea seems to answer the question, but, because it changes mode (from the minor of the first phrase to major), the answer is really not the expected one. The third melodic idea also ends in an incomplete way. Closure, then, is left to the last short phrase, making it poignant and decisive:


That it is approached by an ascending octave leap makes it seem like a cry out of the depths of woe. That it is a simple stepwise descent from “sol” to “do” makes it conclusive. The grammar of the tune is thus both strange and pointed. We begin with a musical question, followed by an unexpected and unsatisfying answer, followed by another question which leads finally to a conclusive answer. It is unsurprising to find this grammar relates perfectly to Johann Heermann’s German hymn—the tune was written for it. What is impressive is how it also relates perfectly to the well-known translation of this text.

The first two lines of text issue an open question. Remembering that the second line of the tune offers a melodic answer, but an unsatisfactory one because of the shift away from the home key, the open question of the text is left unanswered both in the text and in the music. After all, it is obviously ironic: Jesus has committed no offense. Rather, the offense is man’s, who pretends to judge, and the convoluted syntax of line 2 is as strange as man’s pretense. Thus, instead of answering his own obviously rhetorical question, the singer moves on to discuss the bitterness of Christ’s passion and ends with a dangling cry—“O most afflicted”—set to that startling musical gesture of the last two measures.

The second stanza returns to the open question, explaining that someone must have been guilty for the crime Christ did not commit. Powerfully, the criminal is announced as we sing that haunting melodic phrase which turns to major to answer a question first set in minor. And again, in the second stanza as the first, that short final melodic phrase is used effectively—“I crucified thee.”

Notice in the third stanza how the subject and verb of the stanza’s third clause (“God intercedeth”) are withheld to form the exclamation of the final short melodic phrase. The stanza begins with biblical metaphors to describe propitiation but then, the last sentence of the stanza becomes more direct, explaining without image or symbol exactly what happened at the Cross.

The fourth stanza seems to be a conflation of several of Heermann’s original ideas. Beginning with the incarnation, the poet explains, as the Westminster divines put it, “wherein consisted Christ’s humiliation.” The short last phrase declares the most important thing of all—our salvation.

Even in the last stanza, whose topic is responsive and not reflective, the tune’s structure is useful. The first melodic idea (what has been described as a musical question) presents the problem of our paying Christ back, which of course we cannot do. The second melodic idea (the unexpected answer) gives us an unexpected method of “payment,” if it can ever be called such. The third melodic idea (another musical question) forms a petition to Christ, positively asking him to think on his own merits. What does this leave then? The negative petition is saved for the last short phrase. The same melodic phrase that set our first realization—“I crucified thee”—also sets another realization of sorts—we do not deserve atonement.