Love Divine, All Loves Excelling

Charles Wesley, 1747
Addressed to God the Son
Love divine, all loves excelling,Ps. 36; John 15:13; 1 John 4:8
   Joy of heav’n, to earth come down:Rev. 19:7; John 6:33
fix in us thy humble dwelling,John 14:23; Eph. 3:17
   all thy faithful mercies crown:
Jesus, thou art all compassion,Matt. 9:36
   pure, unbounded love thou art;Rom. 8:39
visit us with thy salvation,Ps. 106:4 (KJV); Rev. 3:20
   enter ev’ry trembling heart.
Breathe, oh, breathe thy loving SpiritJohn 20:22; Rom. 5:5
   into ev’ry troubled breast;
let us all in thee inherit,Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:29–4:7; 1 Pet. 1:3–4
   let us find the promised rest:Josh. 21:44; Heb. 3:7–4:13
take away the love of sinning;
   Alpha and Omega be;Rev. 21:6
End of faith, as its Beginning,Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 1:9 (KJV)
   set our hearts at liberty.Is. 61:1; Rom. 6
Come, Almighty to deliver,
   let us all thy life receive;John 10:10; Gal. 2:20
suddenly return, and never,Mal. 3:1
   nevermore thy temples leave.Ezek. 43:7; 2 Cor. 6:16
Thee we would be always blessing,Ps. 34:1
   serve thee as thy hosts above,Ps. 103:20–21
pray, and praise thee, without ceasing,Neh. 2:4; 1 Thess. 5:17
   glory in thy perfect love.
Finish, then, thy new creation;Gen. 2:1–2; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10; Phil. 1:6
   pure and spotless let us be:Eph. 5:27; James 1:27
let us see thy great salvationLuke 2:30
   perfectly restored in thee;Ps. 14:7
changed from glory into glory,2 Cor. 3:18
   till in heav’n we take our place,John 14:2–3; Rev. 7:9
till we cast our crowns before thee,Rev. 4:10
   lost in wonder, love, and praise.Addison’s “When All Your Mercies”

This hymn is a superb example of how Charles Wesley could knit biblical ideas and biblical figures of speech into a biblical train of thought in beautiful verse. The analogy of Scripture is at work here, as each new line invites us to consider what we have been singing in light of another, related passage from Scripture. We can address Christ as “Love divine,” because the apostle declared that God is love, as manifest in his sending his only Son (1 John 4:8–10). It is a love greater than anyone else’s (John 15:13), a love over which Heaven rejoices (Rev. 19:7), and yet it once came down from heaven to give life to the world (John 6:33). Now it fixes its abode in us—a humble dwelling, indeed—through the indwelling of the Spirit (Eph. 3:17). And, thus, we ask Christ to “crown” (that is, complete and glorify) all his other acts of mercy by becoming a permanent, sanctifying presence in our souls. All this gets said in just four lines—four lines of perfect meter, with end-rhymes that suggest a logical chiasmus wherein “excelling” and “come down” are crossed with “humble dwelling” and “crown.” And this is just the beginning.

The progression of thought in the second stanza is equally impressive. The Spirit whom Christ breathes into us (John 20:22) is the Spirit of love (Rom. 5:5), but he’s also the Spirit of adoption (Rom. 8:15), assuring troubled breasts that we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). And what do we inherit? The promised rest (Heb. 3:7–4:13); rest from the harrying of sin; and that Christian liberty which is the end of faith and the subject matter of stanza 3: liberty to live, to worship without ceasing, and to glory in Christ’s love—a worship and glory which, in turn, is the subject matter of stanza 4! Point by point, the petitions of this prayer move inexorably through the syllogism of sanctification. Christ loved us so we could have his Spirit. The Spirit strengthens us “in all saving graces to the practice of true holiness without which no man shall see the Lord” (WCF 13.1). So, Christ’s coming down to earth (at the beginning of poem) initiates a process that culminates in our taking our place in heaven (at the end of the poem).

The claim that these biblical figures work together not merely as a collage but as a biblical train of thought is strengthened by the appearance of many of them together in a single biblical passage: John 14, where Jesus bid farewell to the disciples in the upper room. He promised to prepare a place (vv. 2–3) for them; their hearts need not be troubled (vv. 1, 27). He promised to ask the Father to send the Holy Spirit to be in them (vv. 16–17, 26). He promised to give them life (v. 19). He promised to come to them (v. 18), to be in them (v. 20), and to make his home with (v. 23) whoever loves him and keeps his commandments (that is, refrains from sin). And he professed his love, both for them (v. 21) and for the Father (v. 31).

The tune BEECHER was composed for this text and suits it. It rises to a range well above its opening pitches for “loves excelling,” then descends well below them for “to earth come down.” The move in measures 9–10 to the relative minor lends line 5 a certain constricted pungency that opens up in line 6 with a glorious octave leap and return to major. Thus the tune subtly inflects the sense of the text at this juncture, where reminders of suffering and anticipation contrast with the plenitude of God and his heaven.

Stanza 1: Jesus, thou art all compassion,→    pure, unbounded love thou art;
Stanza 2: take away the love of sinning;→    Alpha and Omega be;
Stanza 3: Thee we would be always blessing,→    serve thee as thy hosts above,
Stanza 4: changed from glory into glory,→    till in heav’n we take our place,

The rhythms of the tune could not be easier to learn and remember, and the harmonization has been much improved in the 1990 edition of the Trinity Hymnal by the introduction of a more interesting bass line, which other hymnals would do well to adopt.