Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'Now Behold the Lamb'

History of Hymns: 'Now Behold the Lamb'

By C. Michael Hawn

Kirk Franklin headshot
Kirk Franklin

“Now Behold the Lamb”
by Kirk Franklin
Worship and Song, 3081

Now behold the Lamb,
the precious Lamb of God,
who bore all my sin that I may live again:
the precious Lamb of God.*
*© 2007 Lilly Mack Music Publishing, admin. at EMICMGPublishing.com. All rights reserved.

Vince Cunningham, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, offers a curious description of Kirk Franklin as an artist, especially one who was knighted the “reigning king of urban gospel music” (Jackson, 2003, n.p.). Cunningham says:

Franklin . . . is the most successful contemporary gospel artist of his generation, but he isn’t a singer. He plays the piano, but only intermittently onstage, more to contribute to the pageantry than to show off his modest chops. Above all, he is a songwriter, but in performance and on his albums his role more closely resembles that of a stock character in hip-hop: the hype man. The best hype men—Flavor Flav, Spliff Star, the early Sean (P. Diddy) Combs—hop around onstage, slightly behind and to the side of the lead m.c., addressing the microphone in order to ad-lib or to reinforce punch lines as they rumble by. But a hype man is, by definition, a sidekick, and while most of the sound in Franklin’s music comes from elsewhere—usually, a band and an ensemble of singers—he is always and unquestionably the locus of its energy and intention. (Cunningham, 2017, n.p.)

Franklin is an iconoclast, often composing songs with a radical social message within a genre whose audience is mostly conservative and seeking a positive, uplifting message. For example, when the Gospel Music Association (GMA) edited out his comments concerning police violence during acceptance speeches in 2016 and 2019 to receive Dove Awards, he boycotted the GMA Dove Awards and the conservative Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network (Kuruvilla, 2019, n. p.). His professional and personal life has had numerous well-publicized ups and downs, and he readily admits he is flawed.

Kirk Dewayne Franklin (b. 1970) is a Fort Worth, Texas, native. His Wikipedia entry notes that he was abandoned as a baby and raised by his aunt, Gertrude, who “recycled aluminum cans to raise money for Kirk to take piano lessons from the age of four.” At eleven years of age, he became the music director for the adult choir at Mt. Rose Baptist Church. His teenage years were a time of rebellion against his religious upbringing, expulsion from school, and the pregnancy of a girlfriend. His Aunt Gertrude died when he was seventeen, leaving Franklin on his own. Musical mentors at Oscar Dean Wyatt High School helped Franklin regain a sense of direction and developed his musical abilities. After witnessing the death of a friend by shooting at age fifteen, he returned to the church and co-founded The Humble Hearts, a gospel group. The Humble Hearts recorded one of Franklin’s compositions that was noticed by Milton Biggham, the gospel music producer and musical director of the Georgia Mass Choir. Biggham recorded Franklin’s song “Every Day with Jesus” and hired him to lead the 1990 Gospel Music Workshop of America Convention at the age of twenty years old (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirk_Franklin). In 1993, he formed a group now known as Kirk Franklin & The Family, which produced three albums in the mid-1990s.

“Now behold the Lamb,” an earlier song that draws on Franklin’s evangelical roots, comes from this period. It is the most published song in hymnal collections, appearing first in the album Kirk Franklin and the Family Christmas (1995). The second most published song in hymnals is “Why We Sing” (“Someone asked the question”) (1993), found in The Faith We Sing, 2144).

Though Franklin is known for pushing the boundaries of Black gospel music, the theme of “Now Behold the Lamb” has very traditional roots. John 1:29 is the primary scriptural source: “The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (KJV).Echoes of the Agnus Dei from the Latin Mass may also come to mind:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

The scripture and the traditional words of the Latin Mass focus on the “sin(s) of the world”—a broader, more universal concept. Franklin’s text centers on individual sin. Lutheran hymnologist Paul Westermeyer notes that contemporary Christian gospel artist Twila Paris (b. 1958) also approaches this theme from the first-person singular perspective in her well-known song, “Lamb of God” (1985) (The Faith We Sing, 2113). The refrain follows:

O Lamb of God, sweet Lamb of God,
I love the holy Lamb of God!
O wash me in his precious blood—
my Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God.

© 1985 Straightway Music/Mountain Spring Music. All rights reserved.

Franklin employs the phrase “precious Lamb” six times in three stanzas. A closely related trope, “precious blood,” is common in hymnody. Perhaps the most famous is “There is a fountain filled with blood” (1772) by eighteenth-century British poet William Cowper (1731–1800), the third stanza beginning, “Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood / shall never lose its power.” A century later, American hymn writer Fanny Crosby (1820–1915) alludes to Christ’s blood as a “precious fountain” in the first stanza of “Jesus, keep me near the cross” (1869):

Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain;
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary’s mountain.

“Precious,” a personal term of endearment, characterizes the text. Franklin likely heard these hymns in his home congregation in Fort Worth and incorporated the phrase from them into his song.

Franklin’s additional two stanzas move beyond the acclamation in John 1:29—“Behold the Lamb of God”—to worship (“Holy is the Lamb”) in stanza 2 and gratitude (“Thank you for the Lamb”) in stanza 3. These affirmations are postures of worship before the Lamb of God rather than direct biblical citations. Though brief, the three stanzas demonstrate Franklin’s well-crafted sense of prosody and rhyme. The original recording from the 1995 album is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ozPNrcLeSRg&t=104s (RCA Records), featuring Fort Worth native Tamela Mann (b. 1966), who began her career with Kirk Franklin and the Family.

Franklin married Tammy Collins in 1996, and they have two children together and two from previous relationships. To date, Franklin has produced thirteen albums and received numerous recognitions, including sixteen Grammys and twenty-three Dove Awards, twenty-three Stellar Awards, an American Music Award, and a Soul Train Award. He was an inaugural inductee into the Black Music and Entertainment Walk of Fame in 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.


Vinson Cunningham, “How Kirk Franklin Is Pushing the Boundaries of Gospel,” The New Yorker (January 16, 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/16/how-kirk-franklin-is-pushing-the-boundaries-of-gospel (accessed January 25, 2023).

Gary Jackson, “Hopeville Tour,” Variety (January 26, 2003), https://variety.com/2003/music/reviews/hopeville-tour-1200543845/ (accessed January 25, 2023).

Kirk Franklin website, https://www.kirkfranklin.com/bio (accessed January 25, 2023).

Carol Kuruvilla, “Black Musicians Are Standing Behind Kirk Franklin’s Boycott of Evangelical TV Network, Voices (October 29, 2019), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kirk-franklin-dove-awards-tbn_n_5db848f1e4b036b6a1672803 (January 25, 2023).

Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion: Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2010).

C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

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