The Good Friday Hymn: Man of Sorrows, What a Name


AS with the Palm Sunday hymn, I don’t think I can do better than repeat what I wrote last year about the terrible events of Good Friday.  

Faced with religious elders and a hostile crowd wanting Jesus executed on charges of subverting the nation, opposing taxes to Caesar and making himself a king, the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, abandons the courage of his convictions and hands him over to the mob to prevent a riot.

Jesus, who has already been viciously flogged, is made to carry the cross to which he will be nailed to the crucifixion site on a hill called in Hebrew Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’, or Calvary in Latin. When he collapses under its weight a man named Simon of Cyrene is told to carry it for him.

At Calvary Jesus is crucified, along with two thieves. His agony lasts six hours. During the last three hours on the cross, darkness falls over the country. Near the end, Jesus cries, ‘Eli, Eli, lam sabachthani?’ ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

Not long after he cries out again: ‘It is finished. Into your hands I commend my spirit.’

As he dies, there is an earthquake, tombs break open and the curtain in the Temple is torn from top to bottom. The centurion on guard at Calvary declares: ‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’

A rich man called Joseph of Arimathea, a secret follower of Jesus, asks Pilate for permission to take charge of the body.

He and another man named Nicodemus take it down from the cross, wrap it in linen with spices including myrrh, and carry it to a tomb carved out of rock which Joseph has reserved for himself. They lay it in the tomb and roll a massive rock against the entrance.

The chief priests and Pharisees are still uneasy and tell Pilate that Jesus had prophesied that he would rise from the dead on the third day. They ask Pilate to arrange for the tomb to be guarded so that Jesus’s followers cannot steal the body to make it seem that he had risen.

Pilate details a squad of soldiers to seal the stone and to post guards around the tomb.

And so, it seems, the story ends . . .

Today’s hymn, Man of Sorrows, What a Name, was suggested by TCW reader Roy Davey-Jenkins. Both words and music were written in 1875 by Philip Bliss (1838-1876), who also wrote the melody for It is Well With My Soul, which I wrote about here.

I have been sent a much fuller biography of Bliss by another TCW reader, Quartus, to whom thanks. It is from Notes from ‘Popular hymns and their writers’ by Norman Mable which appears on the STEM Publishing website.Here are some excerpts.

It is not generally known that the second initial of P P Bliss stands for no name at all. This popular hymn-writer had only one Christian name which was spelled in the unusual manner of Phillipp, and as a nom-de-plume he made use of the peculiarity by writing his signature Philip P Bliss, or more frequently P P Bliss. In 1850, at the early age of 12, Bliss was baptized by immersion and joined the Baptist Church of Cherry Flats, Tioga County, Pennsylvania. He did not confine his activities to that denomination, but associated a great deal with the Methodists, joining with them in camp meetings and revival services, gaining much experience thereby in evangelical work. In 1864, Bliss went to Chicago, where for nearly ten years he worked with George F Root, the noted American musician and composer, in the conducting of musical institutes and conventions in the West. In 1874, he was invited by Major Whittle the famous evangelist, to join him in evangelistic work, and the conjunction of Whittle and Bliss became nearly as well known as that of Moody and Sankey or Torry and Alexander. Like Mr Sankey and Mr Alexander, Mr Bliss led the singing at their meetings, and great was the impression he created by the charm of his renderings of sacred songs.

In 1870 Bliss was at a Sunday School meeting at Rockford, Illinois, with Major Whittle, at which the Major related the story of how, six years previously, during the American Civil War, the General of the Federal Army found himself in a fort with fifteen hundred men, completely surrounded by General French’s forces. The situation appeared to be hopeless and the Federals were about to surrender, when signalling was observed from the top of a mountain some twenty miles away. It was a message from an army sent to their relief, and read, ‘Hold the fort for I am coming, Sherman’. Encouraged by the signal, the Federals held out for another three hours until General Sherman’s troops arrived and the Confederates were forced to retreat. From this incident, Bliss quickly conceived the idea of a now famous hymn. And the next day at a Whittle and Bliss meeting in the YMCA rooms at Chicago, he wrote the chorus on a black-board:

Hold the fort, for I am coming,
Jesus signals still,
Wave the answer back to heaven,
By Thy grace we will.

Mr Bliss then sang the verses, and the audience speedily took up the chorus. Thus was first given to the world this celebrated hymn, which in a very short time became tremendously popular. Bliss, however, never shared in the general high opinion of it, and considered other of his compositions were much better. But posterity evidently thought otherwise, for when a monument was erected to his memory in Rome, Pennsylvania, the inscription placed thereon was ‘P.P.Bliss, author of Hold the Fort.’

Here is a rousing performance by an Oklahoma Baptist congregation.

Bliss’s end was sudden and tragic. On the 29th December 1876, he and his wife were travelling in a train bound for Chicago, when at Ashtabula, Ohio, as they were passing over a bridge it collapsed, and the entire train was hurled into the river below and the carriages caught fire. Bliss, who before the accident had been reading his Bible and writing a new song, managed to escape through a window; but, discovering that his wife was still in the burning train, he rushed back to save her, and in trying to do so lost his own life. Duffield relates how at the Memorial Meeting held in Chicago it was remembered that the last time Bliss sang in that city he had said, ‘I don’t know that I shall ever sing here again, but I want to sing this as the language of my heart’. Then he sang I know not the hour when my Lord will come.

Bliss was 37 when he wrote Man of Sorrows, What a Name, the year before he died. It is partly based on Isaiah 53 v 3: ‘He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (King James Bible). Here are the words:

1 Man of sorrows, what a name
for the Son of God, who came
ruined sinners to reclaim:
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

2 Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
in my place condemned he stood,
sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

3 Guilty, helpless, lost were we;
blameless Lamb of God was he,
sacrificed to set us free:
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

4 He was lifted up to die;
‘It is finished’ was his cry;
now in heaven exalted high:
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

5 When he comes, our glorious King,
all his ransomed home to bring,
then anew this song we’ll sing:
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!

This is a lovely performance, but I am not sure who it is by:

The Gaither Vocal Band:

Finally, for Audre Myers, here it is by Chris Rice.

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