If I were to use one word to describe this hymn, it would be “haunting.” Another word might be “plaintive,” which means “sad-sounding.” The tune is based on a six-tone scale, which gives it that plaintive sound.
But the tune that begins on a sad note won’t let us remain sad, but lifts us a bit in the second line and then becomes almost a lilting melody in the third line. This combination of sad and joyful––sour and sweet––is the perfect accompaniment for the words, which wonder how Jesus could love us enough to die on the cross for us.
This hymn comes from Appalachia and dates to the early 1800s––to a time and place where hymnals were scarce––where people learned hymns by singing them again and again. And so it repeats and repeats––”What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul!
The words begin with a question, “What wondrous love is this?” But then, in the third verse, they become an anthem––”To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing.” (NOTE: Check your hymnal––some hymnals have different words). The last verse has a triumphant quality––”And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.”
We don’t like to think about death, but death is a fact of life. This hymn reminds us that Christ frees us from death––makes it possible for death to be more the opening than the closing of a door. It looks forward to an eternity filled with song––joyful song. On earth, some of us have good singing voices and others don’t. But in heaven, every voice will ring loud and true in honor of the God who blesses us and gives us great joy.
–– Copyright 2006, Richard Niell Donovan