If you follow this Customary’s “Daily Hymnody” plan, using the REC 2017 hymnal, one of the songs you’ll come to today (probably this evening) is #453, Before the throne of God above. This is a song that I really quite like a lot, and it’s got an interesting history behind it.
It is best known as a contemporary worship song; the music was written (as far as I’m aware) by Vicki Cook in 1997, and it became relatively popular in the CCM world in the 2000’s. As a music minister in the early 2010’s, it was on my shortlist of contemporary songs that I wanted to use along with the hymnal my church used at the time. It was one of the only songs I was sad to lose when we went hymnal-only. (That was mainly for practical and logistical reasons, by the way, not because of any serious push against CCM.) But the 2017 hymnal has this song in it, so I’m quite happy to have it back again!
Despite its current popular tune only just passing 20 years old, its lyrics go back to the American Civil War period, 1863. It never seemed to have universally settled on any one tune – perhaps the curse of the Long Meter Double metric is that there were too many possibilities. Whatever the case, this song remained somewhat obscure until Cook gave it a unique melody, and it has thrived ever since.
A big reason I like this hymn so much is because it explores a critical theological aspect of Jesus that doesn’t get a lot of attention elsewhere: his priesthood. I’ve addressed its lack of attention before, arguing for a greater place of prominence for it in understanding the atonement, our salvation, and the sacraments. Let’s take a look:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea,
A great high priest whose name is Love,
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on his hands,
My name is written on his heart.
I know that while in heav’n he stands,
No tongue can bed me thence depart.
(The modern tune has the last line of this and the following stanzas repeat.)
This is essentially an exposition of Hebrews 7:25 – “[Christ] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” – and its context in chapters 7 through 10. The second stanza addresses the self:
When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see him there
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died,
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on him and pardon me.
This is classic reformational soteriology – Jesus paid the price, cancelled the debt, for all sin. Even in the midst of theological precision, the poetry is striking: “the sinless Savior died / my sinful soul is counted free.” The final stanza does what the second stanza recommends, it looks “upward” to “see him there.”
Behold him there! the risen Lamb,
My perfect, spotless, Righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace!
One with himself, I cannot die;
My soul is purchased by his blood;
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Savior and my God.
If you are in a hymnal-only church, or just are personally critical of CCM (contemporary christian music), I recommend this hymn as a tasteful example of modern music-writing, and an example that modern settings of classic lyrics is indeed possible!
If you’re a contemporary music kind of person and aren’t usually into hymns, this song is an asset to you, too. It shows how classic lyrics can still come alive on modern lips, without drastic reworking of lyrics and the addition of bridges and choruses. If people can enjoy these words, perhaps there are more old hymns that can find their way back into the modern crowd also without doctoring!