Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus!

Stanza 1 and the first halves of stanza 3 and stanza 4, attributed to John Bakewell 1757;
stanza 2, Martin Madan, 1760; all four altered by Augustus Toplady, 1776
Addressed to Christ, and then angels
Hail, thou once despisèd Jesus!Is. 53:3
   Hail, thou Galilean King!Matt. 21:11
Thou didst suffer to release us;Rom. 7:4–6
   thou didst free salvation bring.Titus 2:11
Hail, thou agonizing Savior,Luke 22:44
   bearer of our sin and shame!Heb. 9:28
By thy merits we find favor;Rom. 5:18
   life is given through thy name.1 John 5:13
Paschal Lamb, by God appointed,John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7
   all our sins on thee were laid;Is. 53:6
by almighty love anointed,Luke 4:18; 1 Pet. 1:20
   thou hast full atonement made.Ps. 65:3; Prov. 16:6
All thy people are forgiven
   through the virtue of thy blood;1 Pet. 1:19; 1 John 1:7
opened is the gate of heaven;Heb. 10:20
   peace is made ’twixt man and God.Is. 40:2; Rom. 5:11
Jesus, hail! enthroned in glory,Heb. 8:1
   there forever to abide;Rev. 1:6b
all the heav’nly hosts adore thee,Rev. 5:13
   seated at thy Father’s side.
There for sinners thou art pleading;Is. 53:12b; 1 John 2:1
   there thou dost our place prepare;John 14:2
ever for us intercedingRom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25
   till in glory we appear.
Worship, honor, pow’r and blessingRev. 5:12
   thou art worthy to receive;
loudest praises, without ceasing,Ps. 147:1
   meet it is for us to give.
Help, ye bright angelic spirits,Ps. 148:2
   bring your sweetest, noblest lays;
help to sing our Savior’s merits,
   help to chant Emmanuel’s praise!

A hymn born as a two-stanza anonymous poem, divided and amplified, presumably by someone else, into four stanzas, expanded further to five stanzas, all made to fit Calvinistic doctrines of limited atonement, and finally cut back to four stanzas in the format before you now is not likely to be very good. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Yet that this eighteenth-century hymn is good is demonstrable from its rich biblical language, its clear presentation of Christ, and its (miraculously) coherent narrative, taking us from the cross to glory.

So direct is it that it could be, but for its diction, a children’s hymn. In the opening pair of greetings we look to the distant past (hence the “once”) when Jesus was a despised Galilean proclaiming a kingdom. Two lines explaining Christ’s redemptive work are put simply and followed by another greeting—this time dedicated to Christ’s passive obedience. The next two explanatory lines are dedicated to his active obedience. So, Christ bears “our sin and shame,” but by his “merits we find favor.”

The salvo of greetings disappears as we move into the second stanza and second author’s hand. But we retain the subject of atonement, here with its most explicit biblical image. The image of Christ being anointed by almighty love takes some consideration, as we recall that it is God’s love toward us that anoints Christ for his gruesome task. The image is all the more moving when we consider that it was merely the result of an early editorial emendation. Martin Madan’s careless original had “appointed” rhyming with “appointed.” Consider too, how line 5—Toplady’s emendation of Madan’s “every sin may be forgiven”—makes the stanza coherent, connecting the “our” of the second line to the “thy people” of the fifth.

The language of greeting returns in the third stanza, signalling our transition to glory. What was, in the original poem, merely a continuation of a series of salutatory phrases (stanza 3, lines 1–4 were the first half of the original poem’s second stanza), becomes now a train of thought, thanks to the intervening second stanza: we can hail Jesus enthroned in glory (st. 3, ln. 1) because “opened is the gate of heaven” (st. 2, ln. 7). And Christ is still doing things on our behalf. In the first two stanzas, this was substitution and atonement, in the third it is intercession. The weak rhyme between “prepare” and “appear” can be forgiven when we consider that Toplady (the author of line 6) had the unthinkable “Spare them yet another year” (Christ’s supposed words to God, taken from Luke 13:8) as his starting point.

But the last stanza is perhaps the most beautiful result of the team writing. The original poem had this stanza’s first four lines as its last four lines. Madan, not content with ending on such a bald statement as that, discovers a beautiful conceit in a petition to the angels. We’ve already met them through the clear reference to Revelation 5:12, so now we ask them to help us in singing to God—the activity we do even as the hymn finishes.

This text wandered through several tunes before finding itself a home in IN BABILONE, a tune that predates the text by fifty years but did not appear as a hymn tune until 1906. The wedding is a useful one for a number of reasons. The musical form can be schematically diagramed AABA, since the music of the opening four measures returns in measures 5–8 and 13–16. Remembering that stanzas 3 and 4 are themselves the result of a medial division of the poem’s original last stanza, in at least these two stanzas the divide between the AA section and the BA section echoes the division of the text. But more commends the coupling of text and tune than this. First, the poem is severely end-stopped. The ideas of each line are, but for a few exceptions, self-contained. And so are the eight phrases of this melody. Second, the turn to chromaticism in measures 9–12 works well for the “agonizing” in stanza 1 and the pleading in both stanzas 3 and 4. Third, the solid quarter notes assigned to the word “hail” in each of its four appearances allow congregants to sing it as an exclamation. And, fourth, the steady footfall of the bass line lends itself to sensitive treatment of both the pensive opening of the hymn and its grand close. Again, by the work of providence, a great hymn is born out of the labor of many different hands.