My Jesus, I Love Thee

Attributed to William R. Featherstone, 1862
Addressed to Jesus
My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine;John 21:15; 1 Pet. 1:8; John 20:28; Eph. 6:9
for thee all the follies of sin I resign.Ps. 107:17; John 14:15
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art thou;2 Tim. 1:10; Tit. 2:13–14
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
I love thee because thou hast first loved me,1 John 4:19
and purchased my pardon on Calvary’s tree.1 Pet. 2:24
I love thee for wearing the thorns on thy brow;John 19:2, 5
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death;Phil. 1:20
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath;Job 27:3
and say, when the death-dew lies cold on my brow:
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.
In mansions of glory and endless delight,Ps. 84; Luke 16:9
I’ll ever adore thee in heaven so bright;1 Pet. 1:4 Rev. 19:8
I’ll sing with the glittering crown on my brow:2 Tim. 4:8; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 5:4
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

The great themes of this hymn are love and time—and more specifically, the chronological course of our love for Jesus. We love our Savior now by keeping his commandments (stanza 1) in response to his love for us, which was prior to ours (stanza 2). Looking to the future, we promise to love him to the end of our lives (stanza 3) and forever (stanza 4). Indeed, we aspire to “love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible” (Eph. 6:24).

The parallel brow-imagery in the third lines of stanzas 2–4 symbolizes the relation between his love for us, our temporal love for him, and what will be our glorified love. The death we face is but a damp and fleeting reminder of what our sins earned. The only thing our death-dew and his thorns have in common, really, is a common location. Christ suffered the full wrath of God. And yet, in so doing, he also revealed and earned glory—glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. The long date-palm thorns ironically prefigure the rays of a majesty so bright that they cause the crowns his saints receive to glitter. He took on one crown so that he could give us quite another.

In the end, all this thinking about time returns to the present. I can regret the meagerness of my past love, but I cannot change the past. I can rejoice about the future, knowing that someday my love will be perfected. But the only love with which I can love right now is the love he has enabled me to have in this moment. So, ultimately, this hymn is a hymn of devotion, as professed in the refrain of each stanza and delicately highlighted by its chiastic relation to the opening line: “My Jesus, I love thee. . . . if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

The tune CARITAS (GORDON) “crowns” the third line’s imagery with high pitches, hairpin leaps, cadential non-chord tones (measure 12), and a bass line that moves parallel to the soprano (they’re always the same distance apart). But this does not come from nowhere. There is parallel motion in lines 1–2 as well, between the tenor and soprano. And, since the melody in line 3 is a variant of the melody sung twice in lines 1–2, transposed two steps higher, the melody in line 3 is also rather like the tenor part in lines 1–2, untransposed, at least for its first three notes. Thus, in a part-singing congregation, the voices seem to listen and respond to each other, and the beauties of line 3 well up from below—from the low voices to the high voices.