Lenten Hymns and their Story

March 13, 2023

“Not all the Blood of Beasts”

Before Isaac Watts (1674-1748), English Protestants at worship tended to sing rhymed, metrical paraphrases of the Psalms alone.  Watts took the structures and tunes of these “metric psalms” and gave them fresh, expressive lyrics that were not limited to the Old Testament texts.  In doing so with such poetic power, Watts became known as the “father of English hymnody.”
“Not all the Blood of Beasts” was first published in 1709 in the 2nd Edition of “Hymns and Spiritual Songs”.  It was printed, originally, with the header above the title, “Faith in Christ our Sacrifice.”
The first line is not meant to cast dispersions on the Old Testament Jewish faith, as some might assume.  It is a reference to Hebrews, chapter 10, which speaks of how the Old Testament sacrifices never took away sin, but instead pointed to the coming sacrifice of Christ.  The first verse speaks of both a “guilty conscience” and the “stain of sin”, which is the unclean-ness of our fallen nature.  The blood of animals cannot give peace and cannot “wash away the stain”, but as the second verse says, the “richer blood” of Christ, the Lamb of God, certainly can.
In the Hebrew sacrificial system, before killing the animal, the one who brought the sacrifice would lay his hand on the offering, signifying the transfer of his sin onto the sacrificial victim [Leviticus 3-4].  In verse three of the hymn, the sinner is laying his hand on the head of Christ.  He does this by confessing his sin and receiving by faith Christ and His vicarious atonement for sin.
The most striking poetic effect is in the last words of the hymn: “His bleeding love.”  Christ’s love is not an abstraction, a general quality or feeling.  Christ’s love bleeds for us.  This hymn begins with the blood of beasts and a guilty conscience ends with rejoicing and a “cheerful voice” singing of the “bleeding love.”

Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.

LSB 431

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