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Thy Strong Word


Music Notes

6 February, 2011


Thy Strong Word  Although this hymn has become somewhat of a favorite in many Lutheran churches, it is of relatively recent origin, the text having been composed by Martin Franzmann in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO. 

            Franzmann, a lifelong member of the LCMS, taught exegetical theology at several institutions in the US before his ordination in 1969. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, England, where he served as a professor in a theological college. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.

            This hymn text reminds us again of God’s commands to us and of the supremacy of His Word.  This hymn reminds us of God the Father’s omnipotence: God’s word “did cleave the darkness” and spoke Creation into being! Both “light” and the “ordered seasons” are part of God’s domain of which this text reminds us. Franzmann’s second stanza laments those who “dwelt in darkness, dark as night and deep as death,” a darkness through which “broke the light of Thy salvation, breathed Thine own life-breathing breath.” Here Franzmann captures the stark reality of sin and death as well as life and salvation in a manner reminiscent of Luther, for whom the light and dark dichotomy was always suggestive of the great battle between Christ, “the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected” and the nefarious “world’s prince,” a metaphor for the reality of Satan. Today’s gospel reading illustrates the theological reality of such an image when Jesus says in Matthew 5:


You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

      You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.


Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, with wages occasionally being paid in salt instead of currency (ie., the word “salary” is derived from “salt.”) It was valuable as a preservative, for taste, and even for pickling. (In Elizabethan times, a dinner guest of social importance was placed closer to the salt shaker [cellar] than one of lesser importance, who was not “worth his salt.”) Without salt, the world would grind to a halt, just as it would without Christians whose spiritual life is enlightened through Word and Sacrament. It is Christ’s light which informs our lives as Christians as we meet together to worship, to hear and to study His Word, and to receive the sacrament. We don’t become metaphorically saltier and more enlightened by sitting at home Sunday mornings watching television preachers nor by making up excuses why not to participate in the life of our congregation. The fourth stanza points us to a Christological foundation: “From the cross Thy wisdom shineth breaketh forth in conquering might; from the cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light,” paraphrasing Paul who writes in I Cor. 18 that “. . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

            This famous tune, known in Welsh as “Ton-Y-Botel,” literally means “tune in a bottle,” for it was said that a bottle washing up on the Welsh coast in the 19th-century contained this unexplained and tuneful melody.  Perhaps that explains why Wales has produced so many lovely tunes over the years. . .


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Water, Blood, Spirit Crying


Music Notes

10 May, 2015


“Water, Blood, Spirit Crying” This hymn text and tune are new to Lutheran Service Book, although our church sung it for several years now.

            Pastor Stephen Starke, a friend of Lord of Life’s music ministry and author of a couple dozen hymn texts in the new hymnal, penned this text based on I John 5: 5-8:


Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the one who came by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and the three are in agreement.


Of course, simply reading this vivid hymn text will recall to mind other scriptures, particularly of baptism, and the hymn itself may be found in the baptismal section of the hymnal. Consider the Christocentricity of the first stanza, how all points to Christ: “Water, blood, and Spirit crying, By their witness testifying to the One whose death defying life has come, with life for all.” This stanza does not point us to our emotions, or to a charismatic personality, or to a mountaintop experience, elements which seem to confuse many in our modern culture. Consider the baptismal implications of stanza two: “In a wa’try grave are buried all our sins that Jesus carried; Christ, the Ark of Life, has ferried us across death’s raging flood.” What imagery! Of course the watery grave of sin is accomplished in our baptism, but also notice Starke’s allusion to the Flood which washed away the sinful world, from which only those who were faithful were carried to safety in the Ark. Our baptism washes away our sinfulness in the eyes of God in the same way the Flood cleansed the earth. And what other hymn continues this way? “Dark the way, yet Christ precedes us, past the scowl of death He leads us; spreads a table where He feeds us with His body and His blood.” This dramatic imagery, in the mind of the anonymous writer of music notes at least, calls to mind Greek mythology in which the deathly Charon ferries across the River Styx the newly-deceased soul, only to meet the ferocious scowl of the three-headed canine Cerberus, whose constant task it is to guard the gates of Hades. This story frightened this writer when he was little, but when we grow up we tend to lose our fear of such abstractions. Yet, in reality, we know that “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (I Peter 5: 8) Christ’s act of salvation bears little meaning if we know not from what it saved, and we know that sin and death have brought corruption into the world. The hymn continues this thought, “Though around us death is seething, God, His two-edged sword unsheathing, by His Spirit life is breathing through the living, active Word.” Here we turn from Law to Gospel! Death may be “seething,” but God’s victorious sword is able to defeat death and Satan. How is this done? Through the “living, active, Word.” Here is Starke’s strong Lutheranism evident—rather than being shaped spiritually simply by our experiences and feelings, the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God. When it is preached and read on Sunday morning, when it forms the core of our hymns and liturgy, and when it is studied at home, God’s Word has prominence, exemplifying the core principle of the Reformation, sola scriptura, scripture alone. In the words of the final stanza, it is only “Spirit, water, blood entreating, working faith and its completing in the One whose death defeating life has come, and life for all.” Through the Word the Holy Spirit is active, through the Word the sacraments are imbued with meaning, and through the Word we know that our salvation has been accomplished through the “blood.”

            This tune, composed by another friend of Lord of Life’s music ministry, Jeff Blersch, is sung today in a concertato (organ/instruments/choir/congregation) arrangement also composed by Dr Blersch. The anonymous writer of music notes asked him to write a few sentences to you, the half dozen readers of music notes, about what this tune means to him as composer:


When I first saw the poem that Pastor Starke had written, he had titled it:  “Water, Blood, and Spirit:  The Three Witnesses.”  When the hymnal committee decided to use my tune, they asked me what the tune name was.  So, I thought back to Pastor Starke’s original subtitle, focusing on the word “witness.”  The first thing that came to my mind was my grandfather, Otto Filter, who was (and probably still is) one of the greatest Christian witnesses I have ever known.  He was a life-long LCMS member, church musician in Cincinnati, and very active in the LLL.  So I decided to name the tune FILTER in honor of him.  (As a side note, I thought he would just be tickled pink to see his name in the new LCMS hymnal!).


This hymn may be new to you, and discomfort often besets those who are learning new tunes, but this is such a strong hymn text and tune that we will be singing it much in the future in our efforts to utilize even more of the rich, evangelical resources found in the hymnal.


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