Have you ever been baffled by the words of a favorite hymn? Maybe it’s a line that talks about “raising an Ebenezer.” Maybe it’s a reference to a place called “Beulah Land.” Whatever the situation, it becomes clear very quickly that the writers of these songs used language common to them but often unfamiliar to us today. These songs are often classics that have stood the test of time, and they address issues (such as the Second Coming) that may not always be as well discussed in contemporary music. It would be a shame just to set aside these songs because we don’t understand a word or two.
Fortunately, many of their mysteries can be, at least partially, solved with a Bible and a good concordance. A deeper knowledge of the original biblical languages even further enhances understanding. A new richness and joy can be added to our worship by explaining 10 of the more interesting and mysterious terms that we meet in the hymns we sing at church.
This word, which is found in innumerable hymns, is more than just a convenient way to end a prayer. It is related to a Hebrew word that means “believe,” and another that means “faith.” In Psalm 106:48 God is to be blessed “from everlasting to everlasting.” Then the people are called to say, “Amen.” The “Amen” is the congregation’s response of agreement to the statement of praise just proclaimed. The people are saying, “We believe, we agree, yes, so be it.” When we say “amen” at the end of a prayer, then, we are emphasizing and reaffirming our belief in God and in the validity of what we have said in that prayer. When we sing “Amen,” we are placing our stamp of approval on what we are singing and joining with all others who do the same.
An old favorite about heaven refers to a place known as Beulah Land. Beulah, in Hebrew, actually means “married.” The reference to a land being called “married” is found in Isaiah 62:4, where the land of Zion will no more be desolate, but will be called Beulah. An Israelite woman without a husband to provide for her could be considered desolate. Deuteronomy 24:19-22 and 26:12, 13 command that special charity be shown to widows in their desolation. In Isaiah’s reference, then, God is saying that though the land may experience a time of desolation, those days would be numbered. In the next verse God says that He Himself will rejoice over the land as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. In a sense, then, Beulah is a time as much as it is a place. The term draws us to think of Revelation 21:1, 2, where the New Jerusalem is described as a bride adorned for her husband. In that place and time the years of sin and desolation will forever be behind us, and we shall rejoice eternally in the bliss of those just newly married.
The Seventh-Day Adventist Hymnal, no. 334, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” begins its second stanza with the words “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” What is an Ebenezer? To understand, we must look at 1 Samuel 7:7-12. In verses 7-11 God helps Israel win a great victory over the invading Philistines. Then in verse 12 Samuel responds by setting up a stone and naming it “Ebenezer,” saying that God has helped His people. The term, in Hebrew, literally means “stone of help.” The stone would remind God’s people of God the true rock, who helps all who trust in Him. In the song, then, raising one’s Ebenezer refers to taking measures to remember the victories that God, our rock, has performed for us by His grace.
One of the most common of current expressions drawn directly from the Hebrew language is the word “Hallelujah,” which literally means “praise the Lord.” It occurs many times in the Hebrew Bible (eg., Ps. 106:1; 117:2). It also occurs in the English of Revelation 19:1, though the King James Version renders it “Alleluia,” based on Greek and Latin pronunciations. The word is a combination of “Halal,” “praise” in Hebrew, and Jah, or Yah, short for “Yahweh,” the personal name for God in the Old Testament. The “U” between “halal” and “Jah,” makes “praise” plural, meaning that when we say “hallelujah,” we are calling on a group, even an entire congregation, to join with us in praise.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He was met with praise and rejoicing. Matthew 21:9 records the people’s exclamations, “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” We find an explanation of the word “hosanna” in Psalm 118:25, 26. The second of these verses says: “Blessed be He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Verse 25 begins: “Save, now, I beseech thee” (KJV). “Save, now,” or, “save, please,” in Hebrew, is “hosha’-na’.” “Hosha’ ” is translated as the plea “save.” The word comes from the same root, in fact, as “Yeshua,” “salvation,” the Hebrew name for “Jesus.” Since Matthew was written in Greek, and the Greek language does not have the “sh” sound, “hosha’-na’ ” becomes “Hosanna.” But whether we say “Hosha’-na” or “hosanna,” we are calling on God to save us now.
Perhaps you have heard this name for Jesus in a carol at Christmas. Matthew 1:22, 23 tells us that Jesus’ birth to Mary fulfilled a prophecy that predicted that a virgin would bear a son named Immanuel, which means, according to Matthew, “God, with us.” The prophecy referred to is Isaiah 7:14. Hebrew manuscripts give additional insight concerning this name. In Hebrew, “immanu” means “with us,” while “El” means “God.” Literally, then, Immanuel, in Hebrew, means “with us, God” or “with us is God.” When Matthew interprets Immanuel, the translation given uses the same irregular word order, reading literally, “with us, God” in Greek. Both languages would put special emphasis on words placed first in a sentence. This means that the important concept in the name is the “withness” of God. It isn’t just that God exists and, among many things, happens to now be with us. Rather, the message is that with us, near us, among us, no longer seeming distant, is God, the Almighty.
A well-known example of a hymn with this name is found in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal, no. 538, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” The name is of fascinating derivation. Transliterated from Hebrew, the word might first appear as “Yehowah.” If we take away the vowels, we end up with YHWH, the consonants in Yahweh, the sacred name for God in the Old Testament. Generations of Jews have considered it irreverent to pronounce this name out loud. Instead, they would say “Adonai,” or “Lord,” whenever YHWH appears in the text. The developers of the word “Jehovah” changed YHWH into JHVH to make it fit the style of Latin-influenced Western languages, and set in it the vowels for Adonai, making a new word, “Jehovah.”
Contrary to some popular supposition, this term does not mean “Lord of the Sabbath.” We know it particularly well from the second stanza of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress,” no. 506 in The Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal. Isaiah’s great vision of the throne of God helps reveal its true meaning. There the seraphim are heard to exclaim, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:3, KJV). In the Hebrew, “hosts” is tzabha’ot. When the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, was translated, about 200 years before Jesus’ day, this word for “hosts” was simply spelled out with Greek letters in Isaiah 6:3. The rest of the verse was translated into the Greek of the day. The Greek pronunciation of this word is “sabaoth,” as it appears in the song. Thus, “Lord Sabaoth” simply means “Lord of hosts.”
Maranatha isn’t simply a mission trip or a music company. Rather popular in Christian music, the word is found in 1 Corinthians 16:22 and means “Our Lord, come” (KJV), a reference to the anticipation of Jesus’ second coming. The term is Aramaic in origin. Aramaic is the language of parts of the original text of Ezra and Daniel and was commonly spoken by Jesus (Mark 5:41; 15:34). Aramaic is also popularly known as the language of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. When we say “Maranatha,” we are declaring our desire for Jesus to come soon to take us to heaven.
Pisgah is the name of the mountain where, according to Deuteronomy 34:1-4, Moses viewed the Promised Land before his death. At the time, the Israelites were positioned ready to cross the Jordan River into Canaan, and after the death of Moses they would. Singing of Mount Pisgah, then, is sensing the nearness of the promised heavenly land that our Leader has offered to all His followers.*
We have certainly not explored every enigmatic term in Christian music. But we have hopefully demystified some of the more often used and confusing ones. Does it make you a bit more willing to lead the next song service? Certainly you’ve got something to share that should help your congregation sing, not just with the Spirit, but with a bit more understanding too (see 1 Cor. 14:15).
* See stanza 2 of “O Day of Rest and Gladness,” The SDA Hymnal, nos. 382, 383; and stanza 3 of “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” The SDA Hymnal, no. 478.
Ray Mc Allister is the first blind Ph.D. from Andrews University’s Theological Seminary and a passionate lover of the God he worships in song. This article was published March 22, 2012.