In His wisdom, God has blessed His church with amazing diversity (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). This diversity is evident when one surveys the various men who have contributed to the rich hymnody of the people of God throughout the centuries. One thinks of Martin Luther. Luther was a giant of a man; he had a giant passion, a giant faith, and a giant intellect. By contrast, Phillip Bliss, the writer of the hymn Man of Sorrows, What a Name, was not an educated man. He was an poor American, who grew up in the eighteen hundreds in rural Pennsylvania.
In this post I’d like to offer a brief biographical sketch of Phillip Bliss, as well as a sort of exegesis of his most beloved hymn, Man of Sorrows, What a Name.
Phillip Bliss was converted to faith in Jesus Christ at the age of twelve. As a young man in the church he developed a deep love for the music of worship and became a self taught musician and hymn writer.
Eventually his hymns began to be published, and he developed connections to evangelists such as D.L. Moody.
To this day, his two best known works are the Children’s song O How I Love Jesus, and the classic hymn we are looking at now, Man of Sorrows What a Name.
This hymn takes as its inspiration Isaiah 53, one of the most profound sections of Old Testament Scriptures looking forward to the vicarious atonement of Christ on the cross for sinners. Bliss’s hymn captures much of the spirit of the text as it meditates on the shock and beauty of Christ’s sacrificial sufferings.
I pray it will be a blessing to our souls to work through this great hymn line by line and see how it captures the great themes of the gospel for us in song. Perhaps this brief study will even stir some who read it to take up a pen (or a keyboard) and compose their own songs of praise to the God who has saved sinners and who receives our worship from the very throne of heaven.
The hymn begins:
Man of Sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came.
One of the most critical theological truths to grasp in understanding the Biblical Christian faith (yet one of the hardest to fathom) is the dual natures of Christ. We confess that Christ is the only one who has been both man and God. Fully man and fully God, at the same time, yet without either truth diluting the truthfulness of the other. The 1689 Baptist Confession states this beautifully in chapter 8 paragraph 2.
The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.
When we consider God the Son, the brightness of the Father’s glory, of one substance and equal with Him coming to earth through physical birth and taking on all the weakness and infirmity of man, even taking on a life of such pain and suffering to be called Man of Sorrows, we should wonder with the hymn writer, “what a name indeed for the Son of God who came, that he should be called Man of Sorrows!” In the next line we see the reason for such sacrifice and condescension on the part of God
The son of God came incarnate, we go on to sing:
Ruined Sinners to Reclaim, Hallelujah, what a Savior.
He came with purpose, a perfect predestined purposed that could not be thwarted. He came to reclaim the lost and straying children of sis. He came to make us into children of God.
Jesus came on a rescue mission. He is the great Seeker. He has a personal and unbreakable love for sinners. In Luke 15 we read three parables that push home this truth, the truth that Christ came on a mission of gracious love to pursue and rescue ruined sinners. He is like the shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep. He is like the woman who searches and searches for the one lost coin. He is like the Father who falls on his prodigal son’s neck and weeps with joy over his salvation. And indeed, there is joy in heaven over the rescuing of each and every ruined sinner (Luke 15:7, 10).
And then all of the verses in Bliss’s hymn are punctuated with this same refrain: Hallelujah, what a Savior!
Hallelujah is transliterated Hebrew. Basically (as my Bible dictionary tells me), Hallel means praise, and Jah is the same as Jehovah or Yahweh, which is the covenant name of God. So the word Hallelujah can be understood to mean praise to Jehovah.
Hallelujah, what a Savior. When we look into these details of the person of Christ and his work for sinners, details that even angels long to look into, should that not be our response? Should we not immediately lift our heads from the page and cry with the hymn writer Hallelujah, what a Savior? God forgive us for how numb to these things our hearts can be.
The second stanza pushed deeper into the rescue Christ provides for ruined sinners:
Bearing Shame and Scoffing Rude, In my place condemned He stood. Sealed my pardon with His blood, Hallelujah, what a Savior!
If you understand that verse, you have understood the gospel.
Bearing shame and scoffing rude. The cross was a disgrace. The son of God was beaten, was spit upon, was hung up like a criminal and was killed publicly. John MacArthur comments that it is one of the great ironies of all eternity that the creator was spurned by his creatures and put to death by those to whom he gave life.
All of that is true. The physical sufferings of our Lord where real and terrible, but if that is all you see you haven’t truly understood the cross of Christ.
In my place condemned he stood. What can that possibly mean? In what sense did Christ take your place on the cross? Were you guilty of what the Jews accused him of, blasphemy against God, and what the Romans suspected him of, stirring up unrest? No, of course not, you weren’t even born yet! So how did he take your penalty when he was executed on that cross?
We must go to Isaiah 53:4-6:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
have turned—every one—to his own way;
rand the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Jesus was smitten by God! He stood in our place, not simply in first century Palestine, but in the great courtroom of God’s justice. We have transgressed the law of God, yet He was wounded for our transgressions. We have sinned, yet He was bruised for our sin. All we like sheep have gone astray, we all deserve the wrath of God’s judgment, yet the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
When you sing “In my place condemned he stood,” think of Isaiah 53, and think of 2 Corinthians 5:21: He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.
The line goes on to say that he has sealed my pardon with his blood. On the cross Christ fully satisfied the penalty of sin, he made full propitiation for the sins of his sheep, and so whenever we consider the shed blood of Jesus Christ we must know that our pardon is sealed. Hallelujah, indeed. What a Savior.
In stanza three the focus turns to the comparison between the recipients and the provider of this grace.
Guilty, vile, and helpless we; Spotless Lamb of God was He.
It has been charged that the Reformed system of theology puts too much emphasis on human depravity and sin. While it is true that misunderstandings abound concerning what we actually believe in this regard, it is undeniable that the pervasiveness of sin and its consequences is fundamental to how we understand the grace of salvation. To those who feel we ought not talk of such things I would counter that the lower we view man, the higher we view God by comparison. The more serious and grievous we see sin, the more powerful and wonderful we see the cross. There is a logically inverse relationship to these things, a relationship supported by the Scriptures when they say that where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20). It is this inverse relationship driving the line Guilty, vile and helpless we; spotless Lamb of God was he.
The third stanza is completed with the line Full atonement can it be? Hallelujah, what a Savior.
Is this not the only proper respnce to what we have been considering. Full atonement? For me? On behalf of the sufferings of the spotless Lamb of God? Can it truly be?
This thought continues in to the fourth stanza:
Lifted up was he to die, it is finished was his cry, Now in heaven exalted high, hallelujah what a savior.
See the a progression in this verse. The Man of Sorrows is lifted up on the cross, there he accomplishes full atonement, there he cries out ‘it is finished,’ now He is in heaven exalted high. Jesus Christ, who is still fully God and fully man, is in heaven on a throne. His body is glorified but He still bears the marks of the cross, the holes in his hands, feet and side, and there he is forever, making intersession for his people.
The last stanza gives us a proper perspective and hope in light of the glories of the gospel we have been singing about:
When he comes our glorious King, All His ransomed home to bring, Then anew this song we’ll sing Hallelujah, what a savior.
I don’t have anything to add to this last verse. How could I? All we can do is say Amen, come quickly Lord Jesus.
Whether Christ returns while we live or if we go home when me pass away from this life, for all those that he died for, for all of those in whose place he stood may it be ever true that to live is Christ, to die is gain (Philippians 1:21).
Phillip Bliss, the writer of this hymn clearly had a firm grasp on the gospel. His hope was in the right place. The testimony of history tells us that this man was a dear Christian brother, and it is amazing the fellowship available to us across the great divides of time when we realize that our hearts are singing the exact same songs about the exact same Savior.
When Phillip Bliss was just thirty eight years old he was involved in a horrible accident. He was traveling home with his wife after Christmas when their train derailed and fell into a ravine. One hundred passengers, including Phillip Bliss, were killed in the crash.
I don’t know anything about the other travelers on that train, but from the words he wrote in this amazing hymn, I expect that when our glorious King does come and we sing anew that eternal song Hallelujah what a Savior, one of the voices that will mix with ours and all the other multitude of redeemed saints singing praises to God will be the voice of the writer of this hymn. Amen, come quickly Lord.