This is one of two hymns (along with “Tis Sweet to Sing the Matchless Love” in the hymnbook with two different tunes. Samuel McBurney wrote “Saul” (hymn #173) and Alexander Schreiner wrote “Aeolian” (hymn #174), but in either case, the lyrics are the same.
So why include two versions of the same song? When was the last time you even sang the other one in church? And for that matter, which one is the other one? Personally, I most closely associate “Aeolian” with this hymn; when I saw that this was next on the schedule for me, that was the tune I hummed while I thought about the lyrics. I don’t have any evidence to back it up, but I think “Aeolian” is the tune I hear with this hymn most often in church, too. And if I had to venture a guess, I’d say that’s because of the two, “Aeolian” is the more somber and reserved. (“Aeolian” is to be sung “fervently,” while “Saul” is to be sung “reverently,” for what it’s worth.)
The sacramental hymns tend to be serious and almost dark. Many incorporate minor elements to give us a sense of the Savior’s suffering. Each of these tunes uses those elements, and they’re not hard to pick out–just look for accidentals. “Saul” has them in the second phrase (“for us on Calvary’s cross he bled” in the second verse), while “Aeolian” has them in the third (“and thus dispelled the awful gloom” in that same verse). The choice of where to place those accidentals is, well, no accident; the following phrase relieves us of the tension caused by those accidentals by returning us to a major key.
So when you hear that transition from a temporary minor key back into a major, you know that the composer is trying to give you a sense of relief, and that the lyrics those transitions coincide with are also supposed to give you relief, hope, inspiration, you name it. And so it’s interesting that while “Aeolian” (which, again, is the one I feel we sing most often in church) resolves on the final phrase of each verse, “Saul” provides resolution for both the third and fourth phrases. This might be picking at nits somewhat, but I feel there’s a difference between taking hope from the phrase “our hearts and hands are clean and pure” and the phrase “let us remember and be sure/our hearts and hands are clean and pure.” A subtle difference, to be sure, but a difference nonetheless.
If you want to take a larger view of the hymn, it’s worth considering the third verse to see whether it provides tension or release, just as the third phrase in each verse does. The “Aeolian” model would place tension on the third verse, which reads:
The law was broken; Jesus died
That justice might be satisfied,
That man might not remain a slave
Of death, of hell, or of the grave.
Part of our psalmodic culture has us sing about death in a hushed, mourning way. There’s a subconscious fear of death reflected in our music. Think about the last time you sang or heard “Come, Come Ye Saints.” How was the phrase “and should we die before our journey’s through” handled? It’s common for arrangements of the hymn to dip to a minor key on that phrase to reflect sadness and struggle, even though, paradoxically, the following phrase is, “Happy day! All is well!” Death is not to be feared. Death, as Paul tells us, has no sting, and the grave no victory. It is the last enemy that shall be destroyed, yes, but it shall be destroyed. The Savior has won the victory.
The “Saul” model would have this be the release. Yes, Jesus died, but He did so that justice might be satisfied. We are no longer slaves to death thanks to His sacrifice. It’s not His death we sing about, but His sacrifice and the freedom that comes from it. We sing about his victory and conquest of death, even if we aren’t as exultant as we are during, say, hymns about Zion.
And if you don’t believe me, well, just listen to this final verse, which provides release for us in both “Saul” and “Aeolian,” and try to tell me you don’t hear anything about victory:
But rise triumphant from the tomb,
And in eternal splendor bloom,
Freed from the pow’r of death and pain,
With Christ, the Lord, to rule and reign.