Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say

Down through the centuries many have observed how people of true faith tend to exhibit an uncommon degree of confidence, courage, resilience, and inner peace. It's not that they don't occasionally suffer doubt, fear, sorrow, or discouragement, but they're able to fight through these challenges and emerge in a better place.  Why?  Perhaps it's faith that we have a Savior who traded his Heavenly glory and His mortal life to save us from our own sin, who provides us a sure refuge and guidance in times of trial, and who has kept for us an eternal and blissfully happy home with Him. Believers know these things because He promised them Himself, in the Gospel!

Horatius Bonar
One of the most inspiring hymns reflecting on our Lord's precious promises is I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.  The text was written in 1846 (or perhaps a few years earlier) by Scottish churchman and poet Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). It was published the same year in Bonar's Hymns Original and Selected (and in his Hymns of Faith & Hope (1857)), in three stanzas, under the title “The Voice from Galilee." At this time Bonar was pastoring a Presbyterian church in the rural market town of Kelso in the Scottish Borders area. Bonar remained in Kelso for 28 years, after which he moved to a larger church in Edinburgh, where he served the rest of his life. By this time he had become one of his country's most admired preachers. Bonar was acclaimed "the Prince of Scottish Hymn Writers" and "the Charles Wesley of Scotland," having written over 600 hymns during his career. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say is generally considered to be his finest. (See Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 104-105)

As with most of his hymns, Rev. Bonar wrote this one with children in mind--specifically, his Sunday School students--being always concerned that they learn and sing the great truths about the person and work of Christ.  Perhaps his love of children derived from the fact that he and his wife lost five of their own in rapid succession, yet he had hundreds in his Sunday Schools. (See Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2003), p. 117)  In later life, his widowed daughter and her five children had to move in with him. Bonar rejoiced; to him it was as if God had given him five children to replace those he had lost. In any case, while many of his hymns were originally written for children, they were so full of sound teaching that adults loved to sing them as well.


The four stanzas of "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" (often the fourth is omitted from hymnals and performances) presents in a compelling way several of our Lord's pointed, personal invitations to mankind and the promises attached to them. In the second pair of lines in each stanza, the individual's acceptance of the invitation, and the spiritual results promised, are described. (See Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, 1982), pp. 104-105)

Stanza One:    Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. (Matt. 11:28)

Stanza Two:    [W]hosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (John 4:14)

Stanza Three:    I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.  (John 8:12)

Stanza Four:    In my Father's house are many mansions . . .  I go to prepare a place for you. (John 14:2)

Now let's see how beautifully Horatius Bonar expressed these priceless truths in his verse:

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto Me and rest;
    Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon My breast.”
    I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad;
    I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
    The living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
    I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
    My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, “I am this dark world’s Light;
    Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.”
    I looked to Jesus, and I found in Him my Star, my Sun;
    And in that light of life I’ll walk, till traveling days are done.

    I heard the voice of Jesus say, "My Father’s house above
    Has many mansions; I’ve a place prepared for you in love."
    I trust in Jesus—in that house, according to His word,
    Redeemed by grace, my soul shall live forever with the Lord.


Over the years Bonar's text has been set to a number of different tunes.

John Bacchus Dykes
The first first was specifically composed for it in 1868 by English clergyman and hymnist John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876), and called VOX DELICTI--Latin for "Voice of the Beloved."  In it, the Lord's gracious invitations to our burdened souls are expressed in a somber G-minor key, while the responses and the contentment they bring are heard in a happier G-major key. This key change halfway through accents the positive message of the last two lines, "I came to Jesus…"

In the following video (which is, unfortunately, static), Bonar's text is set to VOX DELICTI and sung by Bradley Garvin, a bass-baritone with the Metropolitan Opera of New York City, with piano accompaniement by his mother Martha Reed Garvin of "Musical Memories" fame.

John D. Brunk
In 1911, American music educator John D. Brunk (1872-1926) composed an uplifting tune for I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say which he called, appropriately, BONAR. Brunk was a member of the Mennonite Church (MC). He was not only a compiler of hymns and tunes but also an able composer, writing many hymn and gospel song tunes in the spirit of the church and for her use. He was also greatly loved and respected by his many pupils. BONAR is the tune yours truly first heard I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say sung to, and it remains my favorite. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find sheet music for this tune to present here. The performance in the video below is by the Antrim Mennonite Choir.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Today, the most popular musical setting for Bonar's text appears to be the tune KINGSFOLD, arranged in 1906 by the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).  KINGSFOLD is based on a folk tune, thought by some scholars to date back to the Middle Ages, set to a variety of texts in England and Ireland. The tune is familiar to many as that associated with the Irish folk song "Star of the County Down" and Vaughan Williams' arrangement of the traditional ballad "Dives and Lazarus."  After having heard the tune in Kingsfold, Sussex, England, Vaughan Williams introduced it as a hymn tune in The English Hymnal (1906) as a setting for I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.

The performance to KINGSFOLD in the video below is by the Manchester Cathedral Choir.

Contemporary artists are still putting Horatio Bonar's inspiring text to new tunes. Here is a beautiful example (the performer isn't identified):


Henry Ward Beecher
I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say is reported to have been the last hymn that the great 19th-century evangelist Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) heard sung in his beloved Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, on March 6, 1887, just two days before he passed away. As the choir was practicing the hymn, Beecher was seen embracing two young street urchins who had wandered into the church to enjoy the music. A few hours later, Beecher lapsed into a coma and died without regaining consciousness. As stated by Rev. Duncan Morrison in The Great Hymns of the Church (Toronto, Canada: Hart & Company, 1890): "It was fitting that he who took such an active part in the emancipation of the slave should close his life under the inspiration of this tender hymn, and take those two street arabs to his heart as representing the humanity he loved so well!"

* * * * *
A salient thing to know about the Lord's invitations to us, and the promises attached to them, is that they are essentially unconditional. They require no special preparations or qualifications, nor do they depend on our own "righteousness." The only sacrifice He requires is "a broken and a contrite heart." (Psalm 51:17)  We need but "come" and "drink," and Christ's infinite blessings are poured out upon us. We are made clean and a new creation not by our selves, but through His atoning sacrifice on the Cross. May every one that is weary of this world and thirsting for a better, eternal life hear and accept the Lord's gracious invitations to come, rest, drink, and live through Him!

"[W]hosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him
shall never thirst; the water that I shall give him
shall be in him a well of water springing up
into everlasting life." (John 4:14)


  1. What beautiful words--and so many different tunes! I especially like the Vaughan Williams' traditional English folk tune melody; I've always enjoyed that in his 'Variations on 'Dives and Lazarus'. There was one version of this hymn recorded by the Edwin Hawkins Singers (of 'O Happy Day' fame) that used yet another tune. Of those found here, I like the Vaughan Williams and the contemporary one at the end the best.

  2. Please, my choir which is located in Calabria (Southern Italy) has for several years the score of this song in your version of Edwin Hawkins Singer. Can anyone help us to find it or buy it? thanks

    1. Giovanni, sorry for my tardy reply. I only recently found out about the Edwin Hawkins Singers version of this hymn, after the original post. It is a wonderful jazz turn on this traditional hymn. You can find it on YouTube at http://youtu.be/MHPPpW6IFn0 I'll add to my post as soon as I can. Thank you for visiting! Also visit this site's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/SongsOfPraises.

  3. Hi, I'm looking for the notes (sheet music). Does anyone know, where I can find it?