- Singing the Faith: 426
- William Cowper
- “St Bees” by John Dykes
Ideas for use
Hark, my soul! is inspired by a story about Jesus (see below). Consider compiling a service around hymns that speak about the life of Jesus. William Cowper’s three hymns in Singing the Faith are a good starting place. See also our three-part series of articles on hymns about Jesus’ ministry.
This hymn lends itself to being sung or spoken in a variety of ways. Consider speaking the hymn, with the congregation speaking the opening and closing verses but vv.2-5 being delivered by a solo voice as a “dramatic monologue” (see below).
Alternatively, one or more verses (e.g. 2&3) might be sung unaccompanied, strengthening the intimacy of Cowper’s words.
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William Cowper is a poet who makes it easy for many of us to identify with him. He writes, with an intimacy and openness not found in many hymn writers, of his consistent love of God, even while acknowledging the fragility of that love in everyday life:
Lord, it is my chief complaint
that my love is weak and faint;
yet I love thee, and adore;
O for grace to love thee more!
Like several of William Cowper’s other hymn-poems, this text takes as its starting point an incident from the life of Jesus. On this occasion, it is the post-resurrection encounter between Jesus and his disciple Peter, in which Jesus asks the man who betrayed him three times whether he loves him. (John 21: 15-17) Cowper’s instinct, here and elsewhere, is not simply to re-tell the story in a literal way but to use it as a starting point to reflect upon his own Christian life and Christian experience in general. (Other examples include Heal us, Immanuel! Hear our prayer, which draws on healing miracles in the gospels; Sometimes a light surprises (Hymns & Psalms 571), which alludes to the Sermon on the Mount; and Cowper’s deeply personal take on the story of Jesus calming a storm in The billows swell, the winds are high.)
On this occasion, as the editors of the Companion to Hymns & Psalms note, an encounter described by the gospel writer as an intimate conversation is transformed into “a daring dramatic monologue addressed to every individual sinner”. At the same time, Cowper interweaves many Old and New Testament references, “using the attributes of God as found in the Psalms and the Prophets (especially Isaiah) and applying them to Jesus Christ as Saviour”. (e.g. v.3 paraphrases Isaiah 49: 15; v2, line 2 draws on Isaiah 30: 26 and Psalm 147: 3)
Peter denies knowing Jesus, who stands on trial before the High Priest (Duccio di Buoninsegna, Wikicommons)
We can sense that Cowper recognised himself in Peter - the disciple who was passoionate about his devotion to Jesus but whose love, on occasions, fell painfully short of what Jesus hoped for. These verses also explore themes to be found in other Cowper hymns, in particular God’s care for those facing dark times:
“I delivered thee when bound,
and, when bleeding, healed thy wound;
sought thee wandering, set thee right,
turned thy darkness into light.”
This echoes the words of God moves in a mysterious way (StF 104), another hymn in which Cowper expresses confidence in God’s grace and forthcoming self-revelation – as in v.5 here:
“Thou shalt see my glory soon,
when the work of grace is done”
For more about William Cowper, see Pain and passion – the hymns of William Cowper.