'God Weeps': A Hymn for Times of War and Suffering
By Diana Sanchez-Bushong and Carlton R. Young
Sometimes hymn texts written for specific purposes find new meaning in multiple contexts, especially when they deal with human suffering in times of war. That’s the case with the hymn “God Weeps,” written by Shirley Erena Murray in 1994 and later set to music by Rev. Dr. Carlton R. Young.
Carlton R. Young, who recently celebrated his ninety-sixth birthday, sent me the following message, “Whilst writing my autobiography, to be published this spring by GIA, I rediscovered my 2010 setting of Shirley Murray’s 'God Weeps' (1994), and found it remarkably expressive of today's tragedies, not the least the destructions and killings in Ukraine.”
This hymn with the setting by Carlton Young is found on page 2048 in the United Methodist songbook The Faith We Sing, published in 2000 by Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee. Dean McIntyre, former Director of Music Resources at the General Board of Discipleship, wrote in 2007,
One of the most remarkable hymn texts and joining of hymn text and tune of the late twentieth century is to be found in ‘God Weeps.’ How can God experience the same emotions we humans experience? How can God participate in the very human acts of weeping, bleeding, and crying? This hymn masterfully articulates one of the great paradoxes of our faith: How can the God who created us, who loves us, who saves us, who nurtures and cares for us, allow us to experience evil and suffering... how can this same God seemingly remain detached from our suffering and pain? The answer is — as the text of "God Weeps" so eloquently and poignantly tells us — that God does not remain detached from us. The answer is that God does, indeed, participate in our suffering and pain.
The intensity of the text . . . is made even more so by the tune and accompaniment of the music. The descending, chromaticism of the opening and closing two notes (‘God weeps’) is the traditional musical depiction of sorrow and suffering, of crying out. The leaping and descending of the melodic line as it carries the disturbing, unsettling portions of this text likewise portray in music a sense of sorrow and anguish. The unsettled, unresolved harmony leaves us in a state of incompleteness, of yearning for resolution. . . . except for a rising melodic line…as if to remind us that God works in this world through human efforts. Note that the tune's name assigned by the composer — HIROSHIMA — brings to mind the scenes of ultimate human devastation and suffering that resulted from atomic warfare at the end of World War II.
Rev. Dr. Don Saliers also shared his interpretation of this hymn in his book, Theme and Variations: Music and Imagination, published by GIA in 2020, which is a collection of reflections for music lovers and music makers. Here he states,
Among hymns of the past twenty-five years, I regard Shirley Elena Murray’s text, ‘God Weeps’ set to Carlton Young’s brilliant tune HIROSHIMA one of the most powerful laments I have sung. This disarming fusion of poetry and music opens upon the divine lament over our world.
Young evokes the inner sorrow of the text with a melody line that is singable and memorable and rides over a remarkable harmonic series. The unusual meter (64.8 10) is made to unfold a narrative of human complicities that compound suffering: ‘love withheld, strength misused: children’s innocence abused, creatures dying without cause…’ Young’s relatively simple lines build with the emotional tension in the first half of each stanza, following by a rising stepwise line that prepares the singers for a final yearning suspension. This line itself sounds the story of why God continues to weep—God waits for us to change the way we love, the way we win and care. It is rare to have the same melody and harmonic accompaniment take on such emotional range so fittingly. What is clearly lament is by the end also a call to repentance: ‘till we understand the Christ, God weeps.’ The tune is aptly named. Can we ever learn that God weeps over humanity (as Christ wept over Jerusalem) until we discern a redemptive way of living? The music itself carries this weeping resolve. That concluding E-flat to D elongated cadence is itself a harmonic lament, musically suspended as we are in the presence of the God who weeps for love of us.
This hymn is challenging for both the singers and the congregation yet is well worth the time and effort to learn it and experience it. With proper preparation, for both the singer and the listener, it will be an extraordinary expression of faith and lament as we pray for those who are suffering throughout our world.
Hope Publishing Company, the copyright holder, has given permission for the music and text to be included here. If you wish to use this hymn in your service of worship, please contact them for permission at hopepublishing.com/permissions or call 1-800-323-1049.
- 'God Weeps' (MP3)
- 'God Weeps' Choral Anthem (PDF)
- 'God Weeps' G minor (PDF)
- 'God Weeps' A minor (PDF)
- 'God Weeps' A minor for cello (PDF)
- 'God Weeps' D minor for oboe (PDF)
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children's innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
at anger's fist,
at trust betrayed,
at women battered and afraid,
and till we change the way we win,
at hungry mouths,
at running sores,
at creatures dying without cause,
and till we change the way we care,
for stones to melt,
for peace to seed,
for hearts to hold each other's need,
and till we understand the Christ,
Words © 1996 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188
CCLI Song # 1932014
Carlton Raymond Young | Shirley Erena Murray
© Words: 1996 Murray, Shirley Erena (Admin. by Hope Publishing Company)
Music: 1996 Hope Publishing Company