When I drive in my car (which isn’t often), I listen to some of my favorite MP3s on a CD. One of them is Selah’s rendition of “O Sacred Head,” which is one of my favorite hymns. So as I was driving to T.J. Maxx on Saturday, the song began to play and I began to worship.

Which reminds me of an internet ditty that’s been floating around. If you’ve heard it before, I’m sure the original is funnier than what you’re about to read here:

Seems a farmer went to a different church in town, where they advertised that they sang “praise choruses.” When he got home, his wife said, “So . . . what are the praise choruses like?”

The farmer scratched his head. “Well,” he finally said, “If I were writing a farmer’s hymn, I might write something like, ‘Oh, the cows are coming home tonight.'”

The wife lifted a brow. “Okay.”

“Well, a praise chorus could be about the same thing, but they’d sing it like this: ‘Oh, the cows, the cows, the cows, the brown cows . . . are coming, coming, yes coming, they’re coming home home home tonight.”

LOL! (I told you the original was funnier, but the story still makes me laugh.)

Now I like praise choruses as much as anyone, particularly if they are based in Scripture. Randy Alcorn blogged the other day about how God sings over us, and I simply adore that image. (His blog is worth the read, BTW.)

BUT–there is nothing like the beauty of some of the majestic older hymns. Read carefully and prayerfully through the following lyrics and realize that it’s not repetition or music that gives this song power, it’s the sheer poetry of the lyrics. The following is James Alexander’s version:

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,
Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee and flee before Thy glance.
How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished their color once so fair;
From Thy red lips is banished the splendor that was there.
Grim death, with cruel rigor, hath robbed Thee of Thy life;
Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, Thy strength in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

My Shepherd, now receive me; my Guardian, own me Thine.
Great blessings Thou didst give me, O source of gifts divine.
Thy lips have often fed me with words of truth and love;
Thy Spirit oft hath led me to heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, from Thee I will not part;
O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,
When soul and body languish in death’s cold, cruel grasp,
Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can never be spoken, above all joys beside,
When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.
O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,
Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me when death is at my door;
Then let Thy presence cheer me, forsake me nevermore!
When soul and body languish, oh, leave me not alone,
But take away mine anguish by virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my consolation, my shield when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfolds Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

(From Wikipedia: The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare, with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ’s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but it first appears in the 14th century.

The last part of the poem was translated into German by the prolific Lutheran hymnist Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). The German hymn begins, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden.”

The hymn was first translated into English in 1752 by John Gambold (1711-1771), an Anglican vicar in Oxfordshire. His translation begins, “O Head so full of bruises.” In 1830 a new translation of the hymn was made by an American Presbyterian minister, James W. Alexander (1804-1859). Alexander’s translation, beginning “O sacred head, now wounded,” became one of the most widely used in 19th and 20th century hymnals.)



  1. Patti Goldbach

    That farmer has it down to a science with one addition – after you’ve sung it a couple times then you sing it again but in a higher key. Don’t get me wrong, I love contemporary music – to a point. But nothing beats the old hymns. I grew up singing them with an old tinny piano in a little country church. Recently we sang “The Old Rugged Cross” with the orchestra playing and it was just awesome.

  2. Accidental Poet

    “what language shall I borrow” is one of my favourite phrases. Makes me stop and think about the writer behind the words, striving for excellence …


  3. Suzanne

    Wow, you took me back nearly 30 years to when I first heard this song on an old Amy Grant album. Actually, that is the only place I know this song from and it is beautiful indeed.

  4. Anonymous

    Isn’t St. Bernard of Clairvaux credited with the words of this hymn?

  5. Kay

    It is the first time I have read all the words. Beautiful.
    “Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee” — my favorite line.

  6. Cindy Swanson

    Angela, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I worry that many young Chrisians have never even heard some of these amazing old hymns. My personal favorite is “Anc Can it Be?” The picture evoked by “…thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray…I woke, the dungeon flamed with light…my chains fell off, my heart was free…I rose, went forth, and followed thee…” Wow.

  7. ArcadeFiddle

    I have to agree with Kay on a favorite line from this hymn. Having watched both grandfathers suffer and fail under Alzheimer’s who once boldly proclaimed the Word of God and were used by our Great Savior to perform miracles, the line “let me never, never outlive my love to Thee”, became very personal and dear. In the case of one grandfather, he reached a point before his death where his language and actions seemed so contrary to the faith he had claimed all his life. In the case of the other, when he could remember nothing else, even his wife of 54 years’ name, he could remember the verses and songs that had led him through so many battles in his life.
    It seemed, at least from my earthly perspective, that the former grandparent lived beyond what his love for his Savior did (I know that I cannot see into the heart and mind of God; I can only voice my observations), and that my other “Paw” lived his love for the risen Christ when he could live nothing else.
    That said, that line from this hymn has come to be so dear and so much a prayer for my life as well as those of my family.

  8. Richard Mabry

    Thank you so much for posting all the verses of this glorious hymn of the faith. I suppose it’s my age showing, but I still like the hymns best. And there are some praise songs that are founded in Scripture, true songs of adoration and service, that speak to me. But I absolutely can’t abide what I call “7-11 songs”: seven words, sung over again eleven times. Those aren’t praise songs, they’re chants, and remind me of a Buddhist spinning a prayer wheel.
    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting a nosebleed from the altitude on this soapbox.

  9. Anonymous

    This has long been a favorite in the Lenten season for this singer. I looked it up in both my 1940 and 1982 Episcopal hymnals – the former has only four verses and the latter has five. Tune by Hans Hassler-1601, and adapted and harmonized by J.S. Bach. (No wonder I love the alto in this one!) But, what a treat to read the poem in its entirety. In both hymns the poem is attributed to Paul(us) Gerhardt-1656, with translation attributed to Robert Bridges-1899 and James Waddell Alexander (one stanza only).

    Thx for sharing this one, Angie! Clyde

  10. Christina Berry

    On Mother’s Day, we got a call from the nursing home that they couldn’t find a pulse on my grandmother, who has late stages of dementia, and her heartrate was faint. A few minutes later, as we were rushing out the door, they called back to say she was better. Of course we still went to her.

    Our family sat around her frail form and sang. The old hymns as well as children’s songs like “This Little Light of Mine.” Though Grandma has a weak speaking voice and clears her throat often when talking, her voice rang out clear and strong on all the songs. She remembers the words that praise her Maker though she doesn’t remember my name.

    Surprisingly, my eight-year old daughter sang along. She’s learned the words from times like that, not from our contemporary church. Sigh.

    Several times, as Grandma quieted and let her eyes drift closed, we wondered if we might lose her even as we sang. (We didn’t. She’s still with us for now.)


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