History of Hymns: "Hosanna" by Brooke Ligertwood
By Nelson Cowan
by Brooke Ligertwood
Worship & Song, No. 3188
This week’s hymn journey takes us to Sydney, Australia, home of Hillsong Church, an international Pentecostal megachurch affiliated with the Australian Christian Churches (formerly known as Assemblies of God in Australia). Hillsong Church was planted in 1983 as the Hills Christian Life Centre by Brian and Bobbie Houston with a congregation of 45 people. According to the 2014 Annual Report of Hillsong Church, just over 34,000 people can be found worshipping at a Hillsong campus each week. Much of this success is due to Hillsong’s prolific media arm, of which Hillsong Music is the most well-known.
Chances are, if you attend a United Methodist church that offers a contemporary worship service, you will encounter Hillsong music. Ten years ago, Michael Hawn wrote the following about Hillsong:
In the coming years it appears that the use of Contemporary Christian Music will increase in what are historically mainline denominations. Hillsong music vies among other contemporary musical voices that are being incorporated into liturgies that once only used classical hymns.1
Hawn was spot-on. With famous songs such as “Shout to the Lord” (1993), “The Potter’s Hand” (1997), “Mighty to Save” (2006), and “Oceans” (2013), Hillsong music has certainly permeated North American congregational song across the expanse of denominational traditions. Hillsong hymns can be found both in The Faith We Sing and Worship & Song.
This week’s hymn, “Hosanna,” was written by Brooke Ligertwood, a New Zealand-born singer and songwriter whose popular stage name (and maiden name) is Brooke Fraser. In addition to songwriting and leading worship for Hillsong Church, Brooke is a successful solo pop artist who has released four albums since 2003.2
Hosanna was written in 2006, and according to Fraser, in a very disjointed fashion. The stanzas and the bridge came easy and “flowed out of my spirit,” remarks Fraser, but the chorus took a while to construct.3 In the second stanza, which transitions into the chorus with the lyrics “the people sing…,” Fraser comically questioned, “Lord, what do the people sing?” Fraser’s mind turned to the gospels to the accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” is what the people sang, and these words became the simple, but powerful chorus to this hymn.
The hymn consists of four stanzas, one chorus, and one bridge. Each stanza begins with the phrase “I see,” followed by a vision of sorts, which taps into the language and imagery of the biblical prophetic tradition. Stanza one draws upon quasi-apocalyptic imagery from Psalm 24, Isaiah 30, and Daniel 7 as it envisions the King of Glory coming on the clouds with fire. Stanza two then cites the mercy and love of Jesus, who washes away the sin of humanity. The juxtaposition is important. Though the imagery of God the Father and God the Son mixes metaphors (namely, ascribing King of Glory imagery to Jesus), the purpose of stanza one’s positioning to stanza two is to identify the eternal Son as the same one who made the triumphal entry into Jerusalem with the people shouting “Hosanna in the highest.”
Stanza three envisages a selfless generation rising up. As Fraser notes, this generation is comprised of the very ones shouting out “Hosanna.” This cry of praise is an ancient and eternal one that is declared from generation to generation. The fourth stanza anticipates a revival, one in which we are praying for and seeking “on our knees.” The supplicatory posture of kneeling while praying is an important inclusion as it points to the contextual reality in this current generation: revival is desperately needed. This notion of revival particularly meshes well with our Wesleyan heritage.
The bridge functions as a lyrical break from the stanzas, instead focusing on a personal petition. Musically, this is the most dynamic portion of the hymn. Since the chorus effectively places us in the triumphal entry narrative as those among the crowd, the bridge adds color and supplemental petitionary language to hosanna’s original translation, “save [us].” It is unclear to whom the prayer is addressed, but three of the most powerful lines are as follows:
Show me how to love like You have loved me.
Break my heart for what breaks Yours;
Everything I am, for Your Kingdom’s cause…
At its core, the bridge is a prayer to become more Christ-like, working for the in-breaking of God’s reign. It is a series of petitions replete with themes of personal and social holiness.
In the United Methodist Discipleship Ministries’ vetting of Hosanna, the commentators positively focused in on the language of revival, but critiqued the song for its wanting biblical foundation. Though I do not disagree with the commentators (because I am one of them), Fraser’s mixing of biblical imagery and language is not egregious, nor is it unfounded in Christian tradition. If anything, it adds an interesting theological rendering of the Triumphal Entry. The chorus alone would be suitable for Palm Sunday, while the song as a whole would work well in other times of the year as a Gathering, Thanksgiving, or even Communion hymn.
Vocally, the range is mostly comfortable; however, the alto harmony line is a bit drab. Instrumentally, this hymn works best when a worship/praise band is utilized because it is quite dynamic, though it can be pared down if needed. There are many musical interludes and long spaces between phrases throughout the song, which could be awkward for congregational singing if there is no driving, supportive rhythm—either through a bass guitar or percussion. Given the simplicity of the chorus, there is much room for creativity in incorporating this text and tune for use in the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.
1 C. Michael Hawn, “Congregational Singing from Down Under: Experiencing Hillsong’s ‘Shout to the Lord’,” The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song 57, no. 2. (Spring 2006): 23.
2 It must be noted that Brooke Fraser no longer leads worship for Hillsong, but still writes songs for the label.
About this month’s guest writer:
Nelson Cowan is a PhD student in Liturgical Studies at Boston University School of Theology with a focus in Pentecostal, Charismatic, and Evangelical expressions of worship and mission. He is in the process of becoming a provisional elder in the Florida Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.