As we are reminded of Jesus’ treatment as a sort of outcast among His own this Holy Week, here we will look into a hymn that was written by a man in exile. Samuel Crossman was born in Suffolk, England in 1625. His father was part of the clergy, so he attended Pembroke College at Cambridge and obtained his Bachelors of Divinity. He obtained a position at a church in Bristol and ministered to both Anglican and Puritan congregations. But as one cannot serve two masters, Crossman began to fall more to the side of Puritanism. After attending the Savoy Conference of 1661, he was expelled from the Anglican church with the Act of Uniformity of 1662. He with a couple thousand clergymen were expelled on St. Bartholomew’s day of that year. Furthermore, he was also imprisoned because he did not cease to minister.
It was during this time, in 1664, that he wrote the poem “My Song is Love Unknown”. This poem was first found in his book The Young Man’s Meditation but it later became a hymn posthumously. Much later, in 1918, John Ireland composed the tine that we most often associated with this hymn, called “LOVE UNKNOWN”. There are three other tunes used occasionally with the poem. The best known is possibly “RHOSYMEDRE” by John Edwards. Yet it was Ireland’s tune that brought this hymn to a greater number of hymnals.
However, Crossman did not stay in exile forever. He eventually rejected his Puritan leanings and was welcomed back to the Church of England. Indeed, he was even reordained in 1665 and given a position of royal chaplain and later appointed as the dean of Bristol cathedral in 1683. Yet that position did not last long, for he died at the beginning of February of that year and was laid to rest in that very same cathedral. Though many of Crossman’s poems and hymns were kept in Anglican hymnbooks, his best known and loved broadly is “My Song is Love Unknown”. This hymn brings us back and forth through the life of Christ, demonstrating how unjust it was for Him to have to die for us, yet showing how this was the only way for us to receive true redemption from our sins.
My song is love unknown,
my Savior’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown,
that they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
This is by far my favorite verse in this hymn, and it is perfect a perfect opening verse. “my song is love unknown”. You could say my theme, my story, but what is it? It is this unheard-of love, something unrecognizable, something unobtainable (Jhn. 1:10-11). Christ’s love for us was unknown before He came (1 Jhn. 3:1). Not that God had never shown His love to us, but that people do not know or comprehend such love. It is beyond our grasp that God would love us (Psa. 8:3-5). God loved us so much that He sent His Son to be made in human likeness and die in our place (Jhn. 3:16-17). We were loveless not only because we didn’t understand but because we were dead in sin and He made us lovely (2 Cor. 5:21, Titus 3:3-7, 1 Jhn. 4:7-12).
I am reminded of the contemporary song “Who Am I?” in the final sentence of the stanza. Who are we that for our sake, not His, that He should die for us? We are but dust, a fleeting vapor, and yet God gave THIS love for us, for me! This is the gift we first glimpsed during Advent but now is contrasted with the reality of Good Friday (Jhn. 1:14). God came in human flesh, and now that flesh is slain so that we may have life (Gal. 2:19-20, Eph. 3:14-21, Heb. 2:14-15). How amazing this love is!
He came from his blest throne,
salvation to bestow;
but men cared not, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.
But oh, my Friend, my Friend indeed,
who at my need his life did spend!
Here we continue with the background of the previous verse. This one paints the picture of what Christ gave up for us. He not only took on the lowly form of a human, but He also became a servant that we might be saved (Phil. 2:5-11). Christ came to us, and we could not go to Him (Heb. 12:1-3). He came to love and to know us, yet we, neither then nor now, in our sin did not recognize Him for who He was (Isa. 53:1-6, Luk. 4:17-21). And yet He is that Freind “who sticks closer than a brother” and gave His life for His friends, His children, us! (1 Jhn. 3:1-2, Prov. 18:24, Jhn. 15:12-17) So this verse allows us to reflect on that Love that Jesus showed us, a love not just of a Savior but as a friend, and thank the Lord for this gracious gift (Jhn. 15:7-9).
Sometimes they strew his way,
and his sweet praises sing;
resounding all the day
hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
and for his death they thirst and cry.
This verse’s message is two-fold. On one hand, it is clearly about Holy Week from Palm Sunday through Good Friday, contrasting the two. At the beginning of the week, the people cheered on the Messiah, their long-awaited king! (Psa. 118:26, Mar. 11:9) But by the end, they called for His death! We wonder, how can people be so fickle? And yet, we are here as well. Many people claim admiration of Christ, yet despise His sacrifice for us. We Christians were also lost and condemned sinners saved only with the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior. We daily need God’s grace. Remember: We put Christ on the cross, too. So we are reminded here of the path Christ walked towards Calvary for us and our place on that path as well. We were just in need of a savior as they. We will sing hosanna in a few days, but first, we reflect on how our sin cried “Crucify!” to our Lord (Rom. 5:6, 6:23, Matt. 21:6-16).
Why, what hath my Lord done?
What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run,
he gave the blind their sight.
Sweet injuries! Yet all his deeds
their hatred feeds; they ‘gainst him rise.
And now we stop to consider that day before Pilate. We consider this anger towards the One who came to save. This verse shows how truly unjust Christ’s suffering and death were. He healed these people! He tended to their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs! (Mat. 15:30-31, Isa. 35:5, Luk. 4:23, 23:35) What could be the reason for their hate? Could they reject Him simply because He showed love to them? Yes, for they were as evil and fickle as we (Col. 2:13-14, Jhn. 15:25). But His death was unjust because He was without sin, our spotless Lamb (Heb. 4:15). We were the ones who deserved to be on that cross, to be separated from God. He did this for us, and we esteemed Him not.
They rise, and needs will have
my dear Lord sent away;
a murderer they save,
the Prince of Life they slay.
Yet willing he to suff’ring goes,
that he his foes from thence might free.
Yet how does our Lord respond? He knew this was His Father’s will. He knew this was the redemption price for us! And willingly He died for us. Not only was Barabbas pardoned, we are the murderer saved. The line “the Prince of Life they slay” is so perfect. Slaying Him who gave us life, what a contrast! (Jhn. 10:10, Acts 3:13-15) And why does He do it? Why does He go to die? Because then His foes might be free. These were not just those who physically or verbally put Him on the cross, but it is us all. We were enemies of God, sold as slaves to sin, and now we are free at last in Christ! (Rom. 5:10, 6:5-7)
In life, no house, no home
my Lord on earth might have;
in death, no friendly tomb
but what a stranger gave.
What may I say? Heav’n was his home,
but mine the tomb wherein he lay.
Finally, we are brought to our Lord’s death. He was without a home while He lived, and now in His death, He is buried in a stranger’s grave (Matt. 8:20, 27:59-60). He gave up His heavenly home for this? No, He gave up that and His life for us. That should have been our tomb! (Rom. 6:23, 2 Cor. 4:9-10, Isa. 53:5) Hell should be our resting place – an eternity separated from God. But God chose this home for His son that we might dwell with Him (2 Cor. 5:2-4, Jhn. 14:2).
Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.
This final verse is a reflection of the first. The whole hymn has been a reflection on our own unworthiness, the life of Christ, and the path towards Calvary. But we do not end Holy Week with Christ in the grave. Dwelling only on what Christ has done for us seems to be enough. He gave up heaven, he served us, he lived in flesh and blood, he died the death we deserved that we might live! What a divine story is this. Christ lived and died so that we might live and not die! (Gal. 4:4-7, Heb. 2:9-10)
What love is this? One day, we shall sing His praises for all our unending days when He comes again, and why? Because thankfully, we don’t have to stay at the tomb, for He is risen! We can live because He lives! Death did not master Him. This divine story is that our Holy God saved us, redeemed us from our sin and brought us back into the fold of God (Jhn. 10:11-18, 2 Cor. 5:15-19, Rom. 5:1-11). He showed us a love in his life and death that we cannot help but spend our days in His praise to share this good news with others. We are still in Good Friday, and so it is good for us to remember His suffering and death (1 Tim. 1:15-17). But thanks be to God, we are Easter people, so I look forward to that Sunday morning where we again say, “He is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!”
Blessings to you and yours,
“Samuel Crossman.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.