A Love Song for the Ages

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling; all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation; enter every trembling heart.
(ELW #631)

By Rob Durocher

Of the many beautiful hymns of our faith, ‘Love Divine, All Loves Excelling’ has become one of our faith’s most beloved ‘love songs’ consistently sung for nearly 250 years.

Love Divine was first published in 1747, (ironically around the same time that St. John’s Lutheran Church, Salisbury, NC was thought to have been established!) The words were written by the prolific hymn writer Charles Wesley (1707 – 1788) born in Lincolnshire England. He was the eighteenth child of noted Anglican (Church of England) priest, Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna, Charles was called the “sweet bard of Methodism” and is said to have written more than 6500 hymns solidly based on passages of scripture and appealing to many faithful crossing denominational lines. This hymn appears for the first time in Wesley’s Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption.

Charles, like his famous brothers John and the younger Samuel Wesley, was ordained into the Anglican priesthood. His brother John was an evangelist and leader of a revival movement with the Church of England that became known as Methodism, a religious movement of ‘historically related denominations of Protestant Christianity which derive their doctrine of practice and belief from the life and teachings of John Wesley. The whole spiritual environment of England was changed because of the spiritual conviction and leadership of John and Charles Wesley along with George Whitefield. Their unwavering devotion to society’s spiritual need for Christ was expressed through hymns and sermons with great impact across denominational divides. (In 1737, the Wesley brothers were sent to Georgia to preach and evangelize where their encounter with the Moravians who were traveling with them by ship led them to a deeper intimacy with Christ.)

In Charles Wesley’s hymn, Love Divine, various elements of Christian doctrine are touched upon. This hymn speaks loudly of the love of God as expressed in the incarnation of Christ – that he is pure unbounded love bringing to mind 1 John 4:9 which says, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.”

In the second verse Wesley writes:

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit into ev’ry troubled breast.
Let us all in thee inherit, let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning, Alpha and Omega be.
End of faith, as its beginning, set our hearts in liberty. 

His use of the words Alpha and Omega (the first and the last) reflect that the spiritual life we experience beginning with our baptism and for others at the time of ‘conversion and sanctification’ are thought of as the “beginning of faith” and the “end or object of faith” and that by that grace through faith we inherit everlasting life because of that precious love divine.

In verse 3, Wesley reminds us that in Christ we have the liberty to live, to worship without ceasing, and to glory in Christ’s love. We are reminded in this verse what Jesus said in John 10:10 that ‘the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” We are also reminded of what Apostle Paul writes in I Thessalonians 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Come, Almighty, to deliver, let us all thy life receive.
Suddenly return, and never, nevermore thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing, serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray, and praise thee without ceasing, glory in thy perfect love. 

Finally, in the fourth verse we joyfully and expectantly await the mysterious culmination of our faith and joy. In this final verse, Wesley reminds us of this passage of scripture from 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” And from Revelation 4:10 “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne.”

Finish, then, thy new creation; true and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

In Wesley’s beautiful hymn, his ‘biblical train of thought in writing this hymn is strengthened by the appearance of many of passages of scripture tied together speaking truth and authority with each verse. The hymn is a love song, but it is also a prayer to Jesus, our “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”

‘We pray to invite our love divine to make his dwelling in us — to visit us with his salvation — to enter our hearts. It invites him to take away our love of sinning — to set our hearts at liberty. It concludes by asking Jesus to finish his new creation (we are his new creation) so that we might be pure and spotless — perfectly restored — ready for heaven’ (From Sermon Writer, by Richard Niell Donovan, 2006)

There are some hymn scholars who claim that Wesley wrote the words to this hymn based on a popular song with words by 17th century English poet and playwright John Dryden from his semi-opera, King Arthur written with English composer Henry Purcell. Dryden’s song, Fair Isle began with the words: “Fairest isle, all isles excelling, seat of pleasure and of loves.” While this may or may not be true – it is no surprise that many hymns were written in words and tune to have an immediate appeal to those who were hearing them!

Over the last two plus centuries the text of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling has been altered by different church denominations and has been sung to several different tunes. The hymn tune HYFRYDOL (Welsh for delightful, pleasant, melodious) was written by Rowland Prichard (1811-1887), a Welsh musician and is the tune that we have used for many years and the one that is most familiar to us.

Wesley’s timeless hymn gives us courage to lift our eyes to the heavens and to let God’s perfect love in Jesus Christ, a love that is divine, holy and that excels all else to be the theme which carries us through our life’s journey creating new hearts that change from glory into glory and crowns us with his loving kindness leading us to God’s wonder, love and praise!

 

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