The Most Famous New Year’s Day Hymn

jnxl-social

“Amazing Grace,” by John Newton, is the most famous New Year’s Day hymn in Church history. Newton wrote and unveiled “Amazing Grace” to his Olney congregation on January 1, 1773.

The entire hymn is inspired by 1 Chronicles 17, a chapter that speaks of King David’s past, present, and future. Newton does the same, reflecting on past grace, present grace, and the hope of future grace. It is a perfect way to begin the new year.

Newton originally titled the hymn “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” but today it is more widely remembered by its first two words.

Setting the text of “Amazing Grace” alongside 1 Chronicles 17 will show just how deeply Newton’s hymn soaked up the rich biblical theology of this chapter of Scripture. Direct lines of contact are made by the terms house/home, word, and forever. Also notice the corresponding tenses of the hymn echoed in 1 Chronicles 17: past (v. 7, “I took you from the pasture”), present (v. 16, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”), and future (v. 26, “O Lord, you are God, and you have promised this good thing to your servant”).

While writing my book on Newton, I made this colorized chart to trace the correlations between Newton’s hymn (left) and the inspiring themes from 1 Chronicles 17 (right):

ag
Reflecting his personal practice on New Year’s, Newton’s hymn itself provides a doxological moment in time to stop to thank God for his past mercies, his present mercies, and his future mercies.

The entire Christian life is here in Newton’s hymn:

  • salvation (“sav’d a wretch like me”)
  • trials (“many dangers, toils, and snares”)
  • struggles with doubts and need for divine promises (“his word my hope secures”)
  • protection in spiritual battle (“he will my shield and portion be”)
  • aging and facing death (“when this flesh and heart shall fail”)
  • hopes for re-creation (“earth shall soon dissolve like snow”)
  • anticipation for the beatific vision (“A life of joy and peace”)
  • and treasuring God forever (“But God, who call’d me here below, / will be for ever mine”)

[Note: The final lines, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years…,” were not penned by Newton, but found in the Afro-American worship tradition, and later added to Newton’s hymn, as documented in, of all places, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 (see here).]

From the beginning to the end of this autobiographical hymn, we are introduced to the unwavering grace of God throughout the Christian’s immortal, eternal existence. Newton communicates this vision of the Christian life in catchy language very easily read and sung. Most of the words he uses (about 85 percent of the hymn) are one syllable, and that reveals much about Newton’s commitment to clarity and simplicity, traits that spill over into all his pastoral work and explain his enduring place as a spiritual luminary so many centuries after his death.

Of course, nothing from the pen of Newton endures like this hymn. Amazon.com currently sells the song in 12,700 different versions. It has been recorded in every genre, including jazz, country, folk, classical, R&B, hip-hop — even heavy metal! The popularity of the hymn is obvious at sporting events and political rallies, among other settings. It endures as one of few religious songs that can be sung impromptu in public because many people (if not most people) can recite at least the first verse by heart.

The hymn is, first, brilliant biography (of David) and, second, brilliant autobiography (of Newton). Newton is the wretch, a term he often used to allude to his own sin and to a period of captivity he endured before his conversion. But most brilliantly of all, the hymn functions as a collective autobiography for every Christian. “Amazing Grace” is perceptive biblical theology, embraced by one man deeply moved by his own redemption, articulated for corporate worship. And it is the perfect hymn to study on New Year’s Day.

The Thanksgiving Condition of Enjoyment

When I think of Thanksgiving I think about food — and so does Paul. Note the correlations between giving thanks to the Creator and enjoying a delicious feast:

1 Timothy 4:1–5:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Writes Hans Conzelmann (TDNT):

1 Tm. 4:3f attacks the Gnostically based demand for asceticism in meats by pointing to the custom of grace at meals, which is here connected with faith in God as the Creator. No laws can be set up in terms of foods. The norm is the attitude towards God. In this sense thanksgiving is the condition of enjoyment.

The Temple of Eden

In his book The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, Greg Beale argues that the Garden of Eden was the first archetypal temple. He provides 14 conceptual and linguistic parallels between Eden and future tabernacle/temple structures.

Here are my brief summaries of his major points.

1. The Garden as the unique place of God’s presence. Eden was the place where God walked back and forth with man, paralleled this with later references to the Tabernacle (Gen. 3:8 with Lev. 26:12, Deut. 23:14; 2 Sam. 7:6–7).

2. The Garden as the place of the first priest. Adam was placed in the garden to “cultivate and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). Taken alone, “cultivation” has obvious agricultural meaning. But this pair of terms (“cultivate/keep” also translated “serve/guard”) is used elsewhere in the OT to describe the work of the priest (Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26; 18:5–6; 1 Chr. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14). Thus “the task of Adam in Genesis 2:15 included more than mere spadework in the dirt of a garden. It is apparently that priestly obligations in Israel’s later temple included the duty of ‘guarding’ unclean things from entering (cf. Num. 3:6–7, 32, 38; 18:1–7), and this appears to be relevant for Adam, especially in view of the unclean creature lurking on the perimeter of the Garden and who then enters” (69).

3. The Garden as the place of the first guarding cherubim. After sin was introduced into the garden, Adam and Eve are barred from the tree of life by cherubim. This reveals that Adam’s work included more than gardening — he was to protect the garden from evil and uncleanness (Gen. 3:24 with Ex. 25:18–22; 1 Kgs. 6:29-35, 8:6–7; Ezek. 28:14–16, 41:18).

4. The Garden as the place of the first arboreal lampstand. Likely, the Tree of Life provides the model for the lampstand placed directly outside the holy of holies (Ex. 25:31–36).

5. The Garden as formative for garden imagery in Israel’s temple. Temple references in the OT possess botanical, garden-like features (1 Kgs. 6:18, 29, 32; 7:20–26, 42, 47; Zech. 1:8–11; Ps. 74:3–7; 52:8; 92:13–15; Lam. 2:6; Isa. 60:13, 21).

6. The Garden as the first source of water. Like Eden, the eschatological temples feature a source of water (Gen. 2:10 with Ezek. 47:1–12; Rev. 21:1–2).

7. The Garden as the place of precious stones. Note the correlation between precious stones in Eden and the building materials of the later tabernacle and temple (Gen. 2:12 with 1 Kgs. 6:20–22, Ex. 25:7, 11–39; 28:6–27; 1 Chr. 29:2).

8. The Garden as the place of the first mountain. Eden was situated upon a mountain (Ezek. 28:14, 16) just like Mount Zion (Ex. 15:17) and the eschatological temple (Ezek. 40:2; 43:12; Rev. 21:10).

9. The Garden as the first place of wisdom. “The ark in the holy of holies, which contained the Law (that led to wisdom) echoes the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (that also led to wisdom). Both the touching of the ark and the partaking of the tree’s fruit resulted in death” (73–74).

10. The Garden as the first place with an eastern facing entrance. Like the future tabernacle and temples, Eden was entered from the east (Gen. 3:24 with Ezek. 40:6).

11. The Garden as part of a tripartite sacred structure. Genesis 2:10 reveals that “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden.” This reference formally distinguishes Eden from the garden. From this Beale builds the case that Eden and its adjoining garden “formed two distinct regions” (74). He sees here tripartite degrees of holiness, similar to the temple complex, comprised of (a) the region outside the garden (the outer court); (b) the garden representing a sacred place (the holy place); and (c) Eden, where God dwells (the holy of holies).

12. Ezekiel’s view of the Garden of Eden as the first sanctuary. In Ezekiel 28:13–18 the prophet draws a number of parallels between Eden and Israel’s tabernacle/temple. Specifically, the prophet references Eden as a sanctuary and pictures Adam dressed as a priest (v. 13). And “Ezekiel 28:18 is probably, therefore, the most explicit place anywhere in canonical literature where the Garden of Eden is called a temple” (75–76).

13. The Ancient Near Eastern concept of temples in association with garden-like features. “Gardens not untypically were part of temple complexes in the Ancient Near East” (76).

14. Early Judaism’s view of the garden as the first sanctuary. Beale provides evidence from the non-canonical Jewish literature to further prove that “Judaism in various ways also understood the Garden to be the first sanctuary in line with the above Old Testament evidence” (27).

Conclusion: “The cumulative effect of the preceding parallels between the Garden of Genesis 2 and Israel’s tabernacle and temple indicates that Eden was the first archetypal temple, upon which all of Israel’s temples were based” (79–80).

Read more on these conceptual and linguistic parallels on pages 66–80 of Beale’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.