How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds

The Name of Jesus (“thy name is as ointment poured forth,” Song 1:3)
John Newton, 1779
Addressed to one another, then to Jesus
How sweet the name of Jesus soundsMark 10:47; Phil. 3:8
   in a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,Ps. 147:3; Luke 10:34; 2 Cor. 1:5
   and drives away his fear.Luke 1:74; 1 John 4:18
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
   and calms the troubled breast;Luke 6:18; John 14:1
’tis manna to the hungry soul,John 6:58
   and to the weary rest.Matt. 11:28
Dear Name! the rock on which I build,Matt. 7:24; 1 Cor. 3:11; 10:4
   my shield and hiding place,Is. 32:2; 1 John 5:18
my never-failing treas’ry filledCol. 2:3
   with boundless stores of grace.John 1:16
Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,1 Pet. 2:25; Heb. 2:11; John 15:13–15
   my Prophet, Priest, and King,Acts 2:22; Heb. 4:14; John 1:49
my Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,John 20:28; 14:6; Heb. 10:20; Rom. 6:22–23
   accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,Matt. 26:41; 1 Cor. 15:43
   and cold my warmest thought;
but when I see thee as thou art,John 17:24; 1 John 3:2
   I’ll praise thee as I ought.Rom. 8:18; Rev. 7:15; 22:3
Till then I would thy love proclaimPs. 89:1
   with every fleeting breath;
and may the music of thy name
   refresh my soul in death.Acts 7:59; 2 Thess. 2:16

The importance the Bible places on names seems strange to modern readers. For us a name is merely a label, a way of designating. If asked why the Bible says, for example, that everyone shall be saved who calls “on the name of the LORD” rather than just “on the LORD,” most moderns couldn’t give an explanation to their own or anyone else’s satisfaction. But for believers in Bible times, there was nothing “mere” about a label. They saw in names a symbol of the revealed nature of all knowledge. To be told something’s name was to be given the ability to think about it. To be told someone’s name was to be given the ability to address him. Hence the importance of the name of Jesus. Nearly a hundred times the New Testament refers to it—not to his person by name, as when (to pick a random verse) John wrote that “Jesus went up to Jerusalem,” but to the name itself, as when John wrote that “many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” The apostles baptized in his name (Acts 2:38). They healed in his name (Acts 3:6). They preached salvation by his name (Acts 4:12). They suffered for the sake of his name (Acts 9:16). And the early Christians assembled in his name (1 Cor. 5:4). In all these acts the name refers to the Son of God as he has been revealed to our race: in his authority and power, and through the message of his gospel. It is in this sense that, truly, we “may have life” in his name (John 20:31).

The idea is central to God’s purposes for his church and therefore should be taken up by modern congregations in their song, but how? It is too foreign to be put there directly, unexplained. Our concept of the power of the name is so dim that we’re prone to think of it like magic, as in Charles Wesley’s unfortunate line about it “charming” our fears, in the third stanza of his otherwise excellent “Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” John Newton’s solution in “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” was to revel in the sound of the name. Now, many people do happen to find the word “Jesus” phonetically pleasing, at least in English, with its diminuendo through three sibilants—the first affricative and voiced, the second fricative and voiced, the third fricative and unvoiced—as the bright “ee” vowel opens to a schwa. And the first stanza makes much of this sweetness. It prepares us for the vowel sounds (“ee” opening to a schwa) with “sweet the” earlier in the line. Then it transforms the consonants in interesting ways: the first, “j” [dʒ], becomes “dr” in “drives,” while the second [z] and third [s] switch places in “sounds” and “soothes his sorrows.” But it soon becomes clear that the hymn is not about phonetics! It instead develops the other metaphor in Wesley’s stanza quoted above: “’tis music in the sinner’s ears.” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” describes the power of the name by likening faith in Jesus to listening to music (see the penultimate line). To adequately account for why this has meant so much to so many Christians requires a lengthy digression on the topic of music and meaning, for which we beg the reader’s patience.

The power of music has been one of the main problems of philosophical aesthetics ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Moderns seem especially prone to fuzzy thinking in this area, with a consensus that music functions by expressing emotion. They know music communicates, but they struggle to explain how it communicates, because it seems abstract compared to other semantic systems such as language or pictures. They know it causes them to feel emotional, but they don’t understand why, and so they conclude that what music communicates is emotion itself. This seems plausible until one examines the matter and discovers that it’s wrong—rather like saying that what sunsets communicate is emotion. As noted in section 5, “Questions,” one would have to be heartless not to emote in response to a sunset, but what it communicates is far greater than human emotion. Similarly, we don’t go to a concert to learn how sad or happy the musicians are. We go to hear something more universal and permanent. This is not to belittle the expression of emotion in human interaction. When someone sighs or says “ouch!” or “hooray!” healthy souls respond sympathetically; but it’s incomparably more moving to learn what lies behind the sigh. Similarly, at a concert we study things worthy of emotion, and that leaves us more emotionally alive than a mere expression of emotion ever could.

A biblically informed explanation of music infers from texts like Psalm 19 that it communicates the glory of the Lord. It arranges tones and rhythms to reveal their interrelatedness, their potential for harmony, and their potential as materials for design. Because music communicates the character and providential oversight of the one who made this world, it naturally elicits emotions from souls made to worship him. We emote in response to moral reality, which is what music is. It communicates goodness and truth. Music presents us, directly, with propositions about sound and time (a certain pattern of notes can reach a certain end via a certain design) and, indirectly, with propositions about the Lord of sound and time (the pattern has this capacity because of his wisdom, his power, and his goodness). Ugly music is ugly because it lies. It suppresses, advertently or inadvertently, the truth and goodness of creation and providence. Sad music pleases us by speaking truthfully (in tones and rhythms) about the effect of the fall and the law’s curse on creation (as when certain dissonances or a formal dilemma issue with compelling logic from a song’s “premises”). Happy music moves us the way it does by speaking truthfully about grace and hope in a new creation. Only music’s potential for communicating the good and the true explains why we find such succor in it. Our sin-tossed souls encounter there proof that meaning informs some of the most basic things in reality. In George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind, Diamond asks North Wind how she can bear to sink a passenger ship in her storm.

I will tell you how I am able to bear it, Diamond: I am always hearing, through every noise, through all the noise I am making myself even, the sound of a far-off song. I do not exactly know where it is, or what it means; and I don’t hear much of it, only the odour of its music, as it were, flitting across the great billows of the ocean outside this air in which I make such a storm; but what I do hear, is quite enough to make me able to bear the cry from the drowning ship. So it would you if you could hear it. (Chapter 7, “The Cathedral”)

North Wind speaks of something we already know, even if we are rarely conscious of it. She speaks of the song of divine creation and providence, which is there for all to contemplate (if only we hadn’t become futile in our thinking) and of which human songs are echoes, various in fidelity.

Now we can return to “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and see immediately why Newton’s metaphor has meant so much to so many. In striking ways, the contemplation of Christ’s lordship and gospel is like the act of listening to music. Both are contemplative acts; that is, they require us to be attentive. Faith in Jesus involves looking to him (Num. 21:9; Heb. 12:2). The pleasures of both name and music are derived from God’s character. The divine counsel for our salvation is so harmonious, with every part of it perfectly integrated with all the rest, that the name of our savior summarizes the greatest symphony of all: the covenant of grace, the threefold office of Christ, his active and passive obedience, his exaltation, and our union with him. Here, indeed, is a never-failing treasury filled with boundless stores of grace. Faith in Jesus, like music, consoles us in the midst of our broken lives. The reader is invited to read again the first two stanzas of “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” to see how the first seven things predicated of Jesus’s name, beginning in the third line, all involve fixing something that has gone wrong—like the principle of resolution in music.

The best thing about the name of Jesus, however, is that by it, in faith, we can address God—our God, with whom we have been reconciled—which is exactly what this hymn does at its midpoint, immediately after the word “grace.” Newton’s original exclamation mark at the beginning of stanza 4 is critical to the grammar. In calling upon our savior, we take his song upon our lips. Our joy is so complete that it’s all we can do simply to list, in the outburst that is stanza 4, some of the most cherished images of Christ. Here, the very pace of the poem demonstrates the power of the name. In stanzas 1–3, we said something about it, on average, every line, but here, when we actually use the name, titles come at us at a rate of three or more per line.

As joyful as this music is, we are also nevertheless aware of how inadequate it is for the praise of the one named (stanza 5). We persist, sustained by a promise that in the New Jerusalem, when we see his face, with his name on our foreheads, we shall worship him as we ought (Rev. 22:3–4). So the song, despite the currently weak effort of our hearts, will never end, and death—the last word of the hymn—is really life. Life in his name.

The tune considered traditional by most British and American communions throughout the twentieth century, ST. PETER, was paired in print with Newton’s poem in the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern (1861). Humanity’s instinctual grasp of the metaphysics of music being key to the meaning of the poem, it comes as no surprise that the tune is based on the fundamental tool for understanding music: the scale, in this case descending. It appears in its complete form on syllables 2–11, lingering briefly on “sol” and “mi.” The remainder of the melody explores smaller segments of the scale, with the bass following suit in lines 2–3 and the tenor in line 4. Many fine touches can be noted. The word “rest” in stanza 2 falls on the perfect, authentic cadence. The peak tone of the melody arrives quite early, on the second note, for the exclamations of stanzas 3 and 4. When we get to stanza 4 the melody, it turns out, lends itself neatly to being phrased in tiny, even two-note, gestures as required by the structure of the list. The most unusual harmony occurs at the end of line 3, for “treasury filled,” “Way, my End,” “as thou art,” and, happily, “of thy name” in the last stanza.