Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

Zion, or the City of God
John Newton, 1779
Addressed to one another and then to Christ
Glorious things of thee are spoken,Ps. 87:3
   Zion, city of our God;Ps. 48:1–2; Heb. 12:22
he whose word cannot be brokenJohn 10:35
   formed thee for his own abode:Ps. 76:2; 132:13–14; Rev. 21:3
on the Rock of Ages founded,Is. 26:4; 28:16
   what can shake thy sure repose?Is. 33:20; Zech. 8:1–8; Rom. 8:31; Heb. 12:28
With salvation’s walls surrounded,Is. 26:1; 60:18
   thou may’st smile at all thy foes.Ps. 27:3
See, the streams of living waters,Ezek. 47:6; Ps. 46:4; Zech. 14:8; John 7:38
   springing from eternal love,Ps. 87:7; Is. 33:21; Rev. 7:17; 22:1
well supply thy sons and daughters,Phil. 4:19
   and all fear of want remove:Ps. 23:1–2
who can faint, while such a riverIs. 44:3; 66:11–12
   ever flows their thirst t’assuage?—Matt. 5:6; John 4:14; 6:35; Rev. 21:6
grace which, like the Lord, the giver,
   never fails from age to age.Is. 58:11; Rom. 5:21; 2 Tim. 1:9
Round each habitation hov’ring,1 Cor. 6:19
   see the cloud and fire appearEx. 13:21; Num. 9:15–16
for a glory and a cov’ring,Ps. 105:39; Is. 4:5
   showing that the Lord is near:Num. 14:14
thus deriving from their banner
   light by night and shade by day,Is. 4:6
safe they feed upon the mannaEx. 16:15; Rev. 2:17
   which he gives them when they pray.Matt. 6:11
Savior, if of Zion’s city
   I, through grace, a member am,Eph. 2:19; Phil. 3:20
let the world deride or pity,2 Kings 18:35–36; 1 Cor. 1:20–28
   I will glory in thy name:1 Chr. 16:10; 1 Pet. 4:14
fading is the worldling’s pleasure,Luke 12:20; James 1:11; 1 John 2:16–17
   all his boasted pomp and show;Ps. 49:12; Is. 13:11
solid joys and lasting treasurePs. 16:11; Is. 35:10; 61:7; Matt. 6:20
   none but Zion’s children know.Rev. 14:3

Few group gatherings are more unpleasant to the rational mind than the ones where the attendants are encouraged to whip up high-pitched but unfounded praise for the very organization of which they are members. One thinks of the mindless chants of pep rallies and fraternal organizations. “It’s great (clap) to be (clap) a Lambda Chi.” What makes these events unpleasant, apart from the noise, is both the smugness and the unsubstantiated approbation to be found within them. We are never to learn with any real certainty why “we’re the best” and we are always wondering if this isn’t a bit like bragging on a corporate scale. If any group has cause for legitimate boast, Zion’s citizens do, but even this boast can descend into smugness if we drift from biblical models for such boasting. Lucky for us, then, that John Newton’s great hymn of praise for the church is a thoroughly biblical one. The reader will see to what degree it is so merely by checking the scriptural references above. Every poetic image finds precedent in Scripture, and all within contexts related to the joy and security of God’s people.

Newton avoids smugness from the start by identifying the people of God with Zion, the city which was an Old Testament type for the church. He may by this device take a voice from without, while describing the glories of the city in which he resides. The distancing strategy of referring to Zion in third-person description is maintained throughout the first three stanzas. Two times we implore one another to “see!” (stanza 2, line 1, and stanza 3, line 2)—to see what’s being described, as if from without. Only when our desire for it is fully aroused does stanza 4 introduce the grammatical first person, conditioned with a humble if: “Savior, if of Zion’s city I, through grace, a member am . . .”

Also avoiding smugness and following Scripture, Newton turns our attention not to the city itself, but to the One in it who makes it glorious. In the first stanza we learn that it is God’s city, who himself is also the cornerstone, and whose salvation, purchased for its inhabitants, ensures their unshakable security. The second stanza presents God as the wellspring of the living water that satisfies all the citizens. The water is then identified with grace, so as to leave no ambiguity about the biblical image. We then turn to the Old Testament image of the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, which is not something in the city but something that hovers above it. Again, the glory always comes from a source other than the city itself, whether around it in a wall, beneath it from a wellspring, or above it in a cloud. Finally, in the last stanza even citizenship itself is dependent on God’s grace. Without God, the city would not only be without glory, it would be without inhabitants. But having established all of Zion’s glory as dependent on God, Newton then earns the right to his corporate pride, voiced in this last stanza—“solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know.”

The poem’s steady trochaic rhythm, which itself never fails from one spacious, eight-line stanza to the next, lends stability to the architectural theme. Small poetic touches strengthen throughout. For instance, the glorious things “spoken” of in the first line are linked to a God whose “word” cannot be broken. In line 6 Zion has not merely rest but “repose,” which connotes resting upon something, as in (to quote another famous hymn) “the soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose.” The city is founded on solid Rock. The British idiomatic use of the word “well” in the second stanza allows for a pleasing pun. Modern American readers might also miss the double intention meant by his word “remove” which in Newton’s English would have been used both in its generic sense and in the sense of “moving to a new part of the country.” The “fear of want,” in this sense, relocates out of town. The poem’s concluding adjectives summarize imagery employed earlier: solid joys remind us of stanza 1’s rock foundation; lasting treasures remind us of stanza 2’s “eternal” love, the river that “ever” flows, and the grace that “never fails from age to age.”

The tune AUSTRIAN HYMN comes from one of the most beloved slow movements of the eighteenth century (Joseph Haydn’s Op. 76, No. 3) and became the setting for national anthems of two countries. Its melodic perfection is thereby evidenced, but this is no proof of its usefulness here. For that we must observe how exactly its sense matches Newton’s text. This could be observed on a number of levels. The opening dotted rhythm on the downbeat starts an unfailing trochaic rhythm to match the text’s. The most interrogative music—the A natural in measure 12, leading to an emphatic cadence on the dominant—sets rhetorical questions in two of the four stanzas. But the most obvious connection between text and tune can be seen at the tune’s medial climaxes in measures 3 and 7 and its ultimate climax in measure 13. The first high C falls on words like “Zion,” “springing,” and “see.” The second high C falls on words like “formed,” “showing,” and “I.” The ultimate climax, the E flat, sets words like “grace,” “safe,” and “solid.” This makes a seventy-five percent success rate at matching melodic climax with textual emphasis, which is probably better than most strophic songs that had their tunes conceived alongside the text. In this tune–text pairing, felicitous providence did what most composers cannot—find a tune that makes sense as a setting for four different stanzas of poetry.