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‘O sing unto the Lord’ (3)

May 2002 | by Alan Clifford

the hymns of Philip Doddridge (3)

by Alan Clifford

When James Montgomery said, ‘Blessed is the man that can take the words of this hymn and make them his own from similar experience’, he was speaking of the ever-popular O happy day, that fixed my choice.

The hymn takes its inspiration from the Old Testament, not the New as one might expect. Doddridge has in mind the reformation, which took place in the reign of King Asa, when all idolatrous practices were done away with (2 Chronicles 15).

After the people entered into a solemn covenant to seek God and purge away idolatry, we read: ‘And all Judah rejoiced at the oaths for they had sworn with all their heart, and sought him with their whole desire; and he was found of them: and the Lord gave them rest round about’ (v. 15).

In his hymn, Doddridge gave an evangelical interpretation of this Old Testament event. We thus see his typical puritan attitude to conversion. The Puritans spoke much of ‘closing with Christ’, or entering into covenant with him. The popular modern idea of ‘making a decision’ was foreign to them.

It is impossible to determine whether or not Doddridge was describing his own ‘closing’ with his Saviour in this hymn, but it is more than likely that he remembered his own conversion in writing it.

Happy day

This much is certain — Doddridge’s magnificent hymn describes what conversion ought to be like. He did not compose the chorus included in some hymnbooks, so we will quote it in its virgin form:

[2 Chronicles 15:15]
O happy day, that fix’d my choice
On Thee, my Saviour, and my God!
Well may this growing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.

O happy bond, that seals my vows
To him, who merits all my love!
Let cheerful anthems fill this house,
While to that sacred shrine I move.

‘Tis done; the great transaction’s done:
I am my Lord’s, and he is mine:
He drew me, and I followed on,
Charm’d to confess the voice divine.

Now rest my long divided heart,
Fix’d on this blissful centre rest;
With ashes who would grudge to part,
When called on angels bread to feast?

High heaven that heard the solemn vow,
That vow renew’d shall daily hear;
Till in life’s latest hour I bow,
And bless in death a bond so dear.

Henry James Garland says that if this had been the only hymn Doddridge wrote, it would have preserved his influence for all generations. With this verdict, one can most surely concur.

Salty Calvinism

However, the same writer interprets the hymn in terms of when a man ‘decided to receive Christ into his heart’. But any implication that the believer takes the initiative in his conversion would be firmly rejected by Doddridge.

In another hymn, he reveals his head as well as his heart:

[John 15:16]
I own, my God, thy sovereign grace,
And bring the praise to thee;
If thou my chosen portion art,
Thou first hast chosen me.

Indeed, in O happy day itself the theology is simple but clear: ‘He drew me, and I followed on’. Doddridge preached, and his people sang, according to his own maxim — preach ‘the freedom of God’s grace manifested in this covenant’. Such is Doddridge’s ‘virile and salty Calvinism’.

By way of additional interest, it may be added that, at the suggestion of Prince Albert, O happy day was used at the confirmation of one of Queen Victoria’s children. It also became the confirmation hymn of the American Episcopal Church.

Grace

Grace! ‘tis a charming sound

is also associated in some hymnbooks with an added chorus. Although Doddridge the ‘Baxterian Calvinist’ would doubtless approve of the author’s universalist sentiments, he did not write it.

Furthermore, some hymnbooks include this delightful hymn without realising that three of the verses were added by Augustus Montague Toplady, author of the famous hymn Rock of Ages.

It is quite likely that Doddridge would have welcomed this development of his own exposition. Here is the hymn, with Toplady’s verses marked thus (*):

[Ephesians 2:5]
Grace! ‘tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to my ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.

Grace first contriv’d a way
To save rebellious man,
And all the steps that grace display;
Which drew the wondrous plan.

*‘Twas grace that wrote my name
In life’s eternal book:
‘Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.

Grace taught my wandering feet
To tread the heavenly road;
And new supplies each hour I meet
While pressing on to God.

*Grace taught my soul to pray,
And made my eyes o’erflow;
‘Tis grace has kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.

Grace all the work shall crown
Through everlasting days;
It lays in heaven the topmost stone,
And well deserves the praise.

*O let that grace inspire
My soul with strength divine!
May all my powers to Thee aspire,
And all my days be thine.

Desire for God

A characteristic feature of Doddridge’s hymns is their ability to lift the worshipper from earth to heaven. As Doddridge saw the gospel, Christ came to earth to take us back to heaven.

The sinners he came to save, he transforms into saints. One is left with the desire for holiness, heaven and God

For Doddridge, therefore, the atoning work of Christ on the cross, his resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s application to the believer of the benefits of the covenant of grace are all designed with glory in view.

Another favourite hymn embraces all these themes. It shows how Doddridge can, concisely and efficiently, weave a variety of biblical themes into a dynamic pattern of devotional theology:

[Hebrews 13:20-21]
Father of peace, and God of love,
We own thy power to save;
That power, by which our Shepherd rose
Victorious o’er the grave.

We triumph in that Shepherd’s name,
Still watchful for our good;
Who brought the eternal covenant down,
And sealed it with His blood.

So may thy Spirit seal my soul,
And mould it to Thy will;
That my fond heart no more may stray,
But keep thy covenant still.

Still may we gain superior strength,
And press with vigour on;
Till full perfection crown our hopes,
And fix us near thy throne.

Not deceived

Whilst Doddridge panted and longed for holiness, he was never deceived by John Wesley’s delusion of ‘Christian perfection’. With the apostle Paul, Doddridge taught that earth could no more offer perfection than heaven can tolerate imperfection.

Until we come to heaven, we must ‘wrestle, fight and pray’. Employing another of Paul’s metaphors, Doddridge gives his poetic exposition of the Christian’s ‘race’:

[Philippians 3:12-14]
Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigour on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey:
Forget the steps already trod
And onward urge thy way.

‘Tis God’s all-animating voice
That calls thee from on high;
‘Tis his own hand presents the prize
To thine aspiring eye.

That prize, with peerless glories bright,
Which shall new lustre boast,
When victor’s wreaths and monarch’s gems
Shall blend in common dust.

Blest Saviour, introduced by thee
Have I my race begun;
And crowned with victory at thy feet
I’ll lay my honours down.

Methodism

Another popular hymn was also inspired by Paul’s epistle to the Philippians. Here we see Doddridge taken up with the love of Christ, which renders obedience delightful, life a continual joy, and death a comfortable transition to glory.

‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!’ cries Paul. ‘Amen! Amen!’ exclaims Doddridge.

If Awake my soul exemplifies Doddridge’s energetic Puritanism, the following hymn expresses his vibrant Methodism:

[Philippians 1:22]
My gracious Lord, I own thy right
To every service I can pay;
And call it my supreme delight
To hear thy dictates and obey.

What is my being, but for thee,
Its sure support, its noblest end?
Thy ever-smiling face to see,
And serve the cause of such a friend?

I would not breathe for worldly joy,
Or to increase my worldly good;
Nor future days, or powers employ
To spread a sounding name abroad.

‘Tis to my Saviour I would live;
To Him, who for my ransom died,
Nor could untainted Eden give
Such bliss, as blossoms at his side.

His work my hoary age shall bless,
When youthful vigour is no more:
And my last hour of life confess
His love hath animating power.