A Hymn for the Thirsty: “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”

stones tongue
Rolling Stones logo, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age of desires that cannot be quenched.  We want more: more Facebook friends, more Twitter followers, higher salary, more vacation time.  We approach almost every arena of life – physical, spiritual, emotional – like a Golden Corral.  We want all-you-can-eat everything.

But there is only One who can truly quench our desire.  As Augustine reminds us, only God can satisfy our restless hearts.  Only God can quench our deepest thirst.  Enter my favorite Charles Wesley hymn:

“O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!”

Charles wrote this hymn to celebrate the anniversary of a conversion, following his own experience a year prior.  Hence the focus on justifying grace that is available to all:

“Look unto Him, ye nations, own
Your God, ye fallen race;
Look, and be saved through faith alone,
Be justified by grace.”

As the hymn goes on, Charles gets more specific about who is invited to this gospel feast:

“Harlots and publicans and thieves
In holy triumph join!
Saved is the sinner that believes
From crimes as great as mine.

Murderers and all ye hellish crew
In holy triumph join!
Believe the Savior died for you;
For me the Savior died.”

Few modern worship songs mention murderers and prostitutes and thieves, but Chuck does not shy away from the scandal that is the free grace of God offered to all.  Drawing on St. Paul, he concludes the hymn and gives a nod to sanctifying grace:

“With me, your chief, ye then shall know,
Shall feel your sins forgiven;
Anticipate your heaven below,
And own that love is heaven.”

“Heaven below” recalls the title of one of the most important studies of early Methodist worship, but it also describes a Wesleyan view of salvation. Heaven is not something in the “sweet by and by,” it is a life of holiness and happiness with the Triune God now.  Charles’ brother, John, writes of salvation in his sermon The Scripture Way of Salvation,

“It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world…It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of.”

To “own that love” of God in Christ Jesus is heaven, and so we “anticipate our heaven below” by living with and for Christ now, transformed by sanctifying grace such that the Imago Dei is restored more and more fully in us.  Thus, “O For A Thousand Tongues” celebrates the full panoply of Wesleyan and ancient views of salvation: that whosover will may come, that God is a redeemer of the worst sinners, and that the fulsome redemption He brings is lived out here and now, anticipating what is to be enjoyed in eternity.

This a hymn for the thirsty.  And who among us is not? We try to sate that thirst with so many other things, with lesser goods and lesser gods.  But when we get a sip of living water, a foretaste of heaven here below, a thousand tongues are not nearly enough to sing the praises of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


P.S. For an excellent contemporary rendition of this classic, we can thank David Crowder:

3 thoughts on “A Hymn for the Thirsty: “O For A Thousand Tongues to Sing”

  1. You can’t forget the evangelical call of this hymn either … “O for a THOUSAND tongues to sing …” It’s a bit of hyperbole on Chuck’s part, but that goes to the Methodist movement they were bringing about – real concern to share the real gospel to every possible person within the lackadaisical atmosphere within the 18th century CoE. And guess what, THOUSANDS of people were gathering to sing and hear the Word spoken. It’s good stuff!

  2. Great post on this song. I didn’t know the history of the song and now that I do it only adds to the depth of richness it already had. And who can deny David Crowder Band their nod on their excellent modern version?

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