Home History of Hymns: "Jesus, the Saving Name"

History of Hymns: "Jesus, the Saving Name"

“Jesus, the Saving Name”
Timothy Dudley-Smith
Worship & Song, No. 3039

Jesus, the saving Name!
Ascended, glorified,
he reigns who once for sinners came,
and once for sinners died. *

The easiest way to hide a name on a map is to print it in large letters. As our eyes scan the smaller features of the map, our focus narrowed to take in the minutest details, we can quite easily miss the larger type.

Timothy Dudley-Smith.

G.K. Chesterton used a similar idea in one of his detective stories, “The Three Tools of Death.” In the story, Detective Gilder remarks of a dead body, “The skull seems broken as with some big weapon, but there’s no weapon at all lying about. . . .” Chesterton’s protagonist, a Roman Catholic priest named Father Brown, replies, “Perhaps the weapon was too big to be noticed. Silly way of putting it, I know. Sounds like a fairy tale. But poor Armstrong was killed with a giant’s club, a great green club, too big to be seen, and which we call the earth. He was broken against this green bank we are standing on.”

Paradoxically (and Chesterton was always one to delight in a good paradox), a thing can be too big and too obvious to be noticed. Such is the case with “Jesus, the Saving Name,” a hymn written by Anglican Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith (b. 1926), now retired. The casual singer could hardly fail to notice, even from the hymn’s title alone, that it is a rhapsody of praise to the name of the Savior. But what the singer might not notice is how Jesus’ name ties each of the five stanzas together.

Here is the first line of each stanza:

“Jesus, the saving Name! . . . Eternal Lord most high . . . Salvation’s source and strength! . . . Unwearied grace divine . . . So lift on high his praise. . . .”

Do you see the connection? Here’s a hint: Look at the first letter of each line, and then you’ve got it. The first letters, when taken together, spell J-E-S-U-S.

It would seem that the good old poetic device of acrostic has not gone out of fashion since the ancient Hebrew writer penned Psalm 119. Of course, in the case of that psalm, the acrostic is not based on the letters of a single word; it is an “abecedarian” acrostic, meaning that each successive letter of the acrostic is the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

And Bishop Dudley-Smith has written abecedarian acrostics of his own. “All Our Days We Will Bless the Lord” is just such a hymn:

All our days we will bless the Lord,
Bless and hallow his Name adored;
Call together to God most high,
Drawn to him who will hear our cry;
Ever look to him, Lord indeed,
Friend and Father to those in need. *

As it happens, that hymn is based on Psalm 34, another Hebrew psalm which has an abecedarian acrostic of its own.

In the case of “Jesus, the Saving Name,” however, the acrostic bears a second layer of significance. Consider how it looks on the page:

JESUS, the saving Name!
Eternal Lord most high . . .
Salvation’s source and strength . . .
Unwearied grace divine . . .
So lift on high his praise. . . .

You will notice that the name of Christ runs horizontally across the page in the first line and vertically down the page in the acrostic. These two perpendicular motions hint at the sign of the cross. There is no indication in Bishop Dudley-Smith’s own commentary on the hymn that he was aware of this cruciform shape when he wrote it, but that does not make it any less fitting. What is even better, the hymn refers to Jesus’ saving death several times, making the sign of the cross all the more pertinent.

And the bishop’s poetic sensibilities do not end there. Consider the first verse of the hymn:

Jesus, the saving Name!
Ascended, glorified,
he reigns who once for sinners came,
and once for sinners died.

If you were to whisper those lines of poetry softly to yourself, you would discover that the hissing “s” sound permeates the whole stanza. Not only does it appear as typical alliteration at the beginning of words like “sinners” and “saving,” but it is also an internal sound in the words “ascended” and “once.”

To write a hymn with this degree of poetic sensitivity is particularly challenging since, as Bishop Dudley-Smith himself has said (borrowing a phrase from the late hymnologist Erik Routley), hymn is “lyric under a vow of renunciation.” A hymn writer cannot take as many artistic liberties as the lyric poet; his work must mean something, and it must mean it to the entire church congregation. A lyric poem only needs to mean itself.

To create a fully functional hymn that has as much poetic integrity as “Jesus, the Saving Name” is a testament to Bishop Dudley-Smith’s mastery of the craft, just as his talent for “hiding the obvious” is a testament to his creative imagination.

* © 1993, 2007 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Mr. Hoyt, a Master of Sacred Music student at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.