“Behold the Savior of Mankind”
TITLE: "Behold the Savior of Mankind"
AUTHOR: Samuel Wesley (1662-1735)
COMPOSER: Henry Purcell (1659-1695); arr. Dean McIntyre, 2004
SOURCES: United Methodist Hymnal, no. 293 (text only);
Discipleship Ministries website (text with music)
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 27:32-54; Mark 15:21-39; Luke 23:26-47; John 19:16-30
TOPICS: crucifixion; Passion; Holy Week; Good Friday; lament
On February 9, 1709, a fire broke out in the rectory of the church at Epworth in Lincolnshire, England. The Epworth church was pastored by Samuel Wesley, whose two sons, John and Charles, were born in the parsonage. The entire Wesley family had escaped the fire except for one: the five-and-one-half year old John, who stood at the window with flames all around him and the roof caving in. At the last moment, he was rescued by two unknown men. At the moment of his rescue, the entire roof collapsed inward into the house, sparing John and his rescuers. John later referred to himself as a "brand plucked out of the burning."
Young John was one of the two last survivors of the fire. Hymnal editor Carlton Young recounts the story that the second survivor was the original manuscript of this hymn, blown out of the burning house through a window, and found partially burned in the garden.
John included the hymn in several of his hymnals, including its first printing in Collection of Psalms and Hymns (Charleston, 1737), Hymns and Sacred Poems (1739), and the 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists. It has appeared in Methodist hymnals since 1786, and in our 1989 United Methodist Hymnal as text only at no. 293.
Henry Purcell was a contemporary of Samuel Wesley and was regarded as the finest composer of his day. The son of a court musician, he was a chorister at the Chapel Royal, and he studied with Dr. John Blow. Purcell was under royal appointment, working in Westminster for three different kings over twenty-five years. He was simultaneously Organist of the Chapel Royal and Organist of Westminster Abbey. He composed operas, incidental stage music, chamber music, harpsichord suites, trio sonatas, anthems, fantasies, and sonatas. His 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas is an enduring masterpiece. He died at the young age of thirty-six and is regarded as one of England’s greatest composers. He is buried adjacent to the organ in Westminster Abbey.
The tune of this hymn is one of Purcell’s most memorable themes. It is taken from the famous Dido’s Lament, "When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble, no trouble in thy breast," the poignant aria sung by Dido as she is about to be consumed by the fire of a large pyre constructed so that her departing lover, Aeneas, will see the flames from his ship.
Wesley’s text is a rather dramatic and vivid description of the crucifixion. In fact, in its first printing in John’s 1737 Collection of Psalms and Hymns, he titled it "On the crucifixion" and placed it in the "For Wednesday or Friday" section. In his 1780 Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, he included it under "Describing the Goodness of God."
Each stanza begins by describing one visual aspect of the crucifixion of Jesus, followed by an additional observation, concluding with a brief elaboration.
Stanza one calls us to look at Christ on the cross, "Behold the Savior of mankind nailed to the shameful tree," with the observation that it was a vast love that led him to bleed, and the elaboration that he bled and died for us. He may be recalling John’s words at the baptism, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." (John 1:29)
Stanza two portrays events that took place at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:50ff): Jesus groans with his last breath, the earth shakes, rocks split, and the curtain of the temple is torn in two.
Stanza three describes the moment of Jesus’ death: "It is finished;" "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit;" "Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30).
Stanza four allows a brief anticipation of the resurrection when the chains of death are broken and Christ shines in full glory, but concludes with the image of the crucified Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God, asking whether there was ever such pain or such love.
The original stanzas two and six have been omitted from our hymnal:
Thou far unequal our low praise
To thy vast sufferings prove,
O Lamb of God, thus all our days,
Thus will we grieve and love.
Thy loss our ruin did repair;
Death by thy death is slain;
Thou wilt at length exalts us where
Thou dost in glory reign.
The graphic nature of the description of the crucifixion may account for the fact that this text is presented without music in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. Perhaps the committee thought it too graphic or too intense for congregational singing in United Methodist worship. Editor Carlton Young in his Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal quotes Craig B. Gallaway’s suggestion that the text could be read antiphonally in a Tenebrae Service during Holy Week. Young goes on, however, to suggest a possible tune for singing: MARTYRDOM, no. 294 in the hymnal. Interestingly, when this setting was presented to the editorial committee for Worship & Song, it was rejected as being too intense and too choral.
Purcell’s music for Dido’s Lament is cast in the form of a chaconne; that is, a repeating ground bass pattern with changing harmonies above. In Purcell’s lament, the ground is repeated eleven times in the key of G minor. For the hymn, the pitches and rhythm of the melody have been preserved. The bass ground also preserves the original pitches, but with different rhythms; and is stated only twice, with the key transposed to D minor. The rich and chromatic harmonies and the chromaticism of the bass line of both pieces of music are well suited to expressing the intensity and emotion of their texts. The harmonization is more suited to instrumentally accompanying unison voices rather than part singing.
"Dido’s Lament" (Wikipedia)
"Henry Purcell: A Concise Biography"
"Henry Purcell" (Wikipedia)
Telford, John. "The Life of John Wesley," Wesley Center Online
- Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.