Hymn Texts: Light Upon the River

Christopher M. Idle. London: St Matthias Press and Carol Stream, Ill.: Hope Publishing Co., 1998.

Light upon the River is a fascinating collection of hymn texts penned by Christopher Idle, a British Anglican clergyman who may be best known in North America for his hymnic paraphrase of Revelation 7:9-17, Here from All Nations, which is often sung to the fine French diocesan tune o quanta qualia. Idle is a prolific author not only of hymn texts but also of articles on the public tasks of Christians. Some of his first biblical paraphrases were published in Psalm Praise (1973), but today he has hymn texts in over one hundred hymnals from different corners of the world.

The bulk of the hymn texts in Light upon the River are paraphrases of, or commentaries upon, specific biblical texts: Hymns 1-200 are “hymns through the Bible, except Psalms” (mostly in canonical order); 201-264 are versifications of psalms. The final brief group, 265-279, are hymns for particular congregations. Each hymn text is offered with its metrical designation and one or several suggested tune titles (not the music of the tunes), so that it can be sung with the help of actual hymnals if necessary. Idle writes in both familiar meters and uncommon ones, which means that some of his texts require unique tunes. Each hymn has a paragraph of explanatory notes, which often provide some insight into Idle’s thinking and process of writing hymns, or some anecdote about the historical impetus for the hymn. Copyright instructions for the use of his hymn texts are given in an introductory note; the texts are covered under CCLI or LicenSing.

As Timothy Dudley-Smith (another well-known British hymn author) suggests in the preface to Light upon the River, Idle—like Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley—belongs to those “who find in Scripture both the starting place and the authenticating touchstone of Christian song.” In other words, Idle’s hymn texts are laced with biblical quotations, allusions, and metaphors. They are biblical sermons in verse. And while they are certainly intended to be sung, they also make inspiring devotional reading as prayers, theological reflections, and commentary on Christian life in the modern world. Because Idle leads us through key texts in the Old and New Testaments in his hymnic paraphrases, this volume could be used as a lectionary for personal or family devotions.The appended Scripture index will be helpful for this purpose, as may the index of themes, which includes many names of persons and places in the Bible.

As I want to commend Idle’s perceptive hymn texts to all readers of RW, let me conclude with just one example: his hymn on Philippians 2:4-5 (157).

Lord, teach us to rejoice in you
in chains or liberty;
but not to rest one hour too long
while others are not free.

Grant us your patience, gentle Christ,
if hunger stalks our path;
but when our sisters have no bread
lend us your righteous wrath.

Help us, strong Christ, to know your grace
wherever we may live;
but for our brothers’ homelessness
divine impatience give.

Give us a peaceful, quiet mind
for all we lack or need;
but zeal to help when neighbors cry,
to heal where nations bleed.

Lord Christ, you came not for yourself;
for us you faced the worst:
for your sake let us serve your world;
for their sake, put you first.

—© 1993 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission. For permission to reproduce this text, use your CCLI or LicenSing license or contact the publisher at 1-800-323-1049.

Bert Polman was a hymnologist, professor and chair of the music department at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He passed away in July 2013. 

Reformed Worship 53 © September 1999, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.