Oh, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing

For the Anniversary Day of One’s Conversion
Charles Wesley, 1739
Addressed to God, then to one another
Oh, for a thousand tongues to singPs. 72:19; 102:21–22; Acts 2:41; Rev. 7:9
   my great Redeemer’s praise,
the glories of my God and King,
   the triumphs of his grace.Rev. 12:11
My gracious Master and my God,Ps. 111:4; Jon. 4:2
   assist me to proclaim,Matt. 10:19; 1 Cor. 12:11; 2 Tim. 4:17
to spread through all the earth abroad
   the honors of thy name.Rev. 5:13
Jesus, the name that charms our fears,Matt. 14:27
   that bids our sorrows cease;
’tis music in the sinner’s ears,
   ’tis life and health and peace.Rom. 8:6
He breaks the pow’r of reigning sin,cancelled; Rom. 6:6, 12
   he sets the pris’ner free;Luke 4:18
his blood can make the foulest clean,Matt. 8:2–4; Luke 15:30
   his blood availed for me.1 Tim. 1:15–16
He speaks and, list’ning to his voice,John 5:25; 11:43
   new life the dead receive;Matt. 11:5; Rom. 6:4
the mournful, broken hearts rejoice;Is. 61:1; Matt. 5:4
   the humble poor believe.Matt. 15:27–28; 18:3
Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,Mark 7:32–37
   your loosen’d tongues employ;John 9:37
ye blind, behold your Savior come;
   and leap, ye lame, for joy.Is. 35:5–6; Acts 3:8

Basic to the argument of this website is a belief that the richest emotions are responses to reality, and that the most robustly emotional person is one who cares about what actually is. Conversely, feelings induced by drugs, sentimentality, and manipulative music don’t last, or, worse, they train souls to disengage from reality and to find life’s meaning internally in subjective sensations. If those sensations don’t correspond to the universe we find ourselves in, the results are pathological. The addict, the sentimentalist, and the headbanger find themselves increasingly bewildered by how empty life becomes when its liveliest elements are nothing. Literally nothing. Or nothing more meaningful than hypnotic repetitions, an adrenaline-releasing din, and unclear words. By contrast, Christianity is about solid truth: real sin dealt with by a real savior, so that we may know real joy. This is why Christian thinkers have agreed with classical philosophy in linking truth, goodness, and beauty. (And why truth comes first in the list.) Without truth there can be no genuine beauty, no encounter that delights and satisfies human hearts, but rather only “charm” that “deceives” (Prov. 31:30). “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31–32).

We ask anyone who thinks contemporary worship more emotional than traditional worship to read carefully the lyrics of the hymns analyzed on this website. Note especially the emotional—indeed, ecstatic—clarity of Charles Wesley’s poem above. The words are so precise and vivid, and yet so simple, that there can be no mistaking what state of mind is expressed. Nor can we mistake the reasons for the ecstasy. The clarity, this intelligible acknowledgment of spiritual reality, eases the worshipper’s task of sincerely communicating biblical ideas and affections. The task is harder with words like

What a beautiful Name it is
Nothing compares to this


There's nothing worth more
That will ever come close
Nothing can compare
You're our living hope
Your presence, Lord

where we can’t be sure what we’re saying. There’s a big difference between words that offer reason for emotion and words that require us to conjure it up out of thin air—or, as the case may be, out of the sensory saturation that comes from air thick with amplified music.

Wesley’s hymn begins emotionally, with a longing for the extraordinary: a thousand tongues. The singer knows all too well how inadequate his lonely tongue is to sing the glories of God, so he asks for assistance. By the end of the second stanza it’s clear that the wish for a thousand tongues is a prayer for church growth, that the honors of God’s name might be spread through all the earth abroad. This enraptured longing is expressed with all the beauty and memorability of iambic rhythms and interlocking rhymes. The slant rhyme in stanza 1 between “praise” and “grace” merely draws our attention to the lovely alliteration of Gs and Rs in great–praise–glories–God–triumphs–grace, which, having come full circle from “great” to “grace,” spills into the second stanza: “My gracious Master and my God, assist me to proclaim, to spread through all the earth abroad.” The slant rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of the first stanza is then fixed in the second, where “proclaim” matches “name.” The name is what is to be proclaimed.

Just as “grace” connects the end of stanza 1 to the beginning of stanza 2, “name” connects the end of stanza 2 to the beginning of stanza 3. Then the words “life and health and peace” preview the rest of the hymn, where the triumphs of his grace are described as real reasons for ecstasy. For starters, his blood doesn’t just cleanse; it cleanses the foulest (me). The dead don’t just receive life; they receive new life. The mournful are not merely comforted; they rejoice. The deaf do not merely hear; they hear him. The mute do not merely speak; they speak God’s praise. The blind do not merely see; they see their Savior come. The lame do not merely walk; they leap for joy! The wonders parallel one another in being, every one of them, doubly good. Doubly triumphant.

Meanwhile, the fetching alliteration continues, especially in stanza 4, where the Rs of lines 1 and 2 close to Ls in lines 3 and 4.

Of course the tune AZMON makes no attempt to replicate the musical ecstasies of rock concerts. The purpose of tunes in traditional Protestant singing is to enable large numbers of ordinary believers to communicate “the word of Christ” to God and to each other. AZMON’s catchy melody and straightforward rhythms make it easy for congregants to carry the tune without external support, and thus it facilitates the traditional purpose of Protestant singing more effectively than praise-and-worship songs can. This is not a fault of praise-and-worship, because it wasn’t made for this purpose. Praise teams seek musically-induced states of mind, for which clear words about real things only get in the way. The fact that praise teams and not worshippers themselves carry the song doesn’t matter, since communication is of secondary importance in contemporary worship.

Not that AZMON is unemotional, mind you. The downbeat quarter-notes are ebullient. The whole note and dominant harmony at the midpoint of the stanza are expectant. The melodic leaps at “and leap, ye lame” fit the meaning. But these effects are measured, because the tune must be simple and easy to sing if it is to fulfil its purpose: to help everybody communicate biblical realities in words.