Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts

Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, c. 1150; translated freely by Ray Palmer, 1858
Addressed to Jesus
Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts,John 14:28; 1 Pet. 1:8
thou fount of life, thou light of men,John 1:4
from the best bliss that earth impartsEccl. 2:1–11
we turn unfilled to thee again.Is. 55:2; John 6:27
Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;Rev. 3:14
thou savest those that on thee call;Acts 2:21
to them that seek thee thou art good,Luke 19:1–10
to them that find thee all in all.Col. 3:11
We taste thee, O thou living bread,Matt. 26:26; John 6:51
and long to feast upon thee still;
we drink of thee, the fountainhead,John 4:10–14; 7:37
and thirst our souls from thee to fill.Ps. 63:1
Our restless spirits yearn for thee,
where’er our changeful lot is cast;Heb. 13:13–14
glad when thy gracious smile we see,2 Cor. 4:6
blest when our faith can hold thee fast.Deut. 11:22; Ps. 63:8; John 20:17; Rev. 2:13
O Jesus, ever with us stay,Luke 24:29
make all our moments calm and bright;Rev. 15:2
chase the dark night of sin away,John 8:12
shed o’er the world thy holy light.John 1:9

Desire is the wellspring of song. This is obviously true of love songs, but consider, too, any other kind. A sports fan sings fight songs because he desires the glory of victory. A patriot sings a national anthem because he desires the wellbeing of his nation. A mother sings a lullaby because she desires the wellbeing of her baby. Even laments spring from desire—frustrated desire, that is. When humans want something badly enough they exert themselves to communicate the desirableness of the thing they desire; to communicate with as much precision as possible, they turn to poetry and music. Which is why Christians sing so. They have a tremendous desire for God. And this is why hymns about Jesus dominate every hymnal. It is through him that we have access to God and can enter into the joy of our master (Eph. 2:18; Rom. 5:2).

The tightness with which Ray Palmer constructed “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts” makes it an especially clear expression of Christian desire. There’s nothing superfluous. Everything connects with everything else to say much. A simple outline of the poem is elegantly packed into the first two lines: its theme—the joy found in Jesus by those who love him—and its two metaphors—life (developed in stanza 3) and light (developed in stanza 5). Lines 3–4 describe a healthy state of mind. To quote John Piper, it would “forsake the two-bit, low-yield, short-term, never-satisfying, person-destroying, God-belittling pleasures of the world and sell everything ‘with joy’ (Matt. 13:44) in order to have the kingdom of heaven” (Desiring God, Introduction).

The coherence of our song requires a certain order. Stanzas 3–4, being a subjective description of desire, only make sense coming after our objective description of Christ’s desirableness in stanza 2. To the Christian he is “all in all” (line 4, with both As originally capitalized). He is everything that matters to every one of us in every circumstance.

Stanza 3 develops a thoroughly biblical metaphor in likening Jesus to the life-sustaining properties of food and drink—no, more than this, of feast and fountainhead—making this hymn an ideal congregational preparation for, or response to, the Lord’s Supper. Note how “living” in line 1 and “fountainhead” in line 3 link back to “fount of life” in stanza 1, line 2. Stanza 3 implies the great truth that an appetite for God is never blunted by its fulfillment. While the satisfaction of worldly tastes always entails satiety, the satisfaction of this taste only heightens appetite so that, in turn, we find more satisfaction in enjoying him more without ever any intervening want. This is eternal life.

“Restless” in stanza 4 contrasts with “calm” in stanza 5. “Changeful” in stanza 4 contrasts with “unchanged” in stanza 2. Appropriately, our expression of desire in stanzas 3–4 leads to petitions in stanza 5.

The tune QUEBEC (HESPERUS) is an apt instrument of calm yearning. Its pronounced iambic rhythms always look forward, from upbeat to downbeat, upbeat to downbeat, upbeat to downbeat. The first three notes of each phrase (repeated notes, all) function as an extended, full-measure-long pickup to what feels like the first downbeat of each phrase on (in stanza 1) “joy,” “life,” “bliss,” and “-filled.” The first of these pickups, being on the third scale-degree (mi), initiates a certain expository sort of phrase that ends just as it began. The second pickup (measure 5), being on the fifth scale-degree (sol), initiates a different, more colorful phrase. The third pickup, being on the second scale-degree (re), is the tensest and initiates a phrase characterized by the intervention of a pushy A-natural. And the fourth pickup, back on the third scale-degree, initiates a serene descent, in which every dissonance resolves most sweetly and we finally reach our goal: the first scale-degree (do), having sung it only once before, briefly, back in measure 2. It’s a fine tune, and we would plead with congregations not to use it promiscuously, for more than one text. Pick one and stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.