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40 Favorite Hymns on the Christian Life: A Closer Look at Their Spiritual and Poetic Meaning (Ryken)

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We treasure hymns for their messages of comfort or conviction or for their associations with beloved believers and meaningful events. But many hymns are also powerful works of devotional poetry—displaying levels of artistry that we easily miss when we are simply singing through them.

This anthology of great hymns invites us to experience these works as poems—to slow down and savor their well-turned phrases, their surprising metaphors, and their evocative language. English professor Leland Ryken provides historical background and literary analysis for each hymn, finishing each with a Scripture reading to accompany it. The result is a wonderfully devotional and poetic study of the Christian life, drawing on hymns such as “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Be Thou My Vision,” “In Christ Alone,” and many more.

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Leland Ryken, author of more than fifty books on biblical and literary topics, is the literary editor of the ESV Bible and emeritus professor of English at Wheaton College in Illinois.



“A foundation of powerful and beautiful hymns is essential in the development of a community of believers and the expression of God’s goodness through their lives. Thank you, Dr. Ryken, for this resource to the church.”  

—Keith Getty, Award-Winning Hymnwriter, Musician

“The “lyric” of a song is a lyric poem. Sometimes the music draws all our attention, so that we skim over the words and what they mean. This is certainly true of hymns. Their lyrics are devotional poems of the highest order, and reading them closely can be a spiritual experience. Leland Ryken takes the texts of forty classic hymns and gives us just the help we need to understand their meaning and appreciate their greatness. In doing so, he helps Christians to realize why these time-honored hymns are such treasures.”  

—Gene Edward Veith, Professor of Literature Emeritus, Patrick Henry College

“If you are seeking God’s will for your life and are faced with obstacles, if you are a student of poetry and desire fresh insights into literary devices, if you are a song writer like I am and you need some excellent worship texts, this short collection of hymn poems will strengthen your faith and your craft. I have read these poems and meditations for my daily devotions, and every day I found fresh insights from Watts, Cowper, or Francis Havergal. Though we usually sing these verses with fellow worshipers, they are rich food for contemplation.”  

—James Ward, Recording Artist, Singer-Songwriter 

“Have you ever thoughtlessly sung a hymn, carried along by the familiar tune and well-known words, but disengaged in your heart and mind? In this intriguing volume, Leland Ryken is about to rescue you from such mindless, if melodic, repetition. By analyzing the poetry of forty well-known and beloved hymns, the author offers insight into these compositions as verse, enabling readers to appreciate the form and style of each piece. He also highlights the theology of each poem and links it to Scripture, providing ample material for meditation and prayer as well as inspiration for robust and thoughtful singing!”  

—Rhett P. Dodson, Senior Minister, Grace Presbyterian Church, Hudson, Ohio

“What a great idea for a book! Professor Ryken helps hymn lovers to slow down and savor the words of such classic hymns as “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” While providing fascinating historical and authorial background, Ryken draws us into the special poetic language and metaphors that have made each hymn so beloved, memorable, and life-changing.”  

—Louis Markos, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence, Houston Baptist University; Author, Literature: A Student’s Guide and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis

“This fine little book will serve as a salutary antidote to the thinning content of much of what passes for worship music today. Contemporary Christian music is in desperate need of theological depth. Leland Ryken brings all of his poetic experience as a master teacher to bear on this critical subject. His poetic sensibilities have enabled him to make impeccable choices. I highly recommend this book as an aid to worship, an instruction in the value of poetry, and a vital voice in the contemporary conversation about worship music.”  

—Gregory Reynolds, Editor, the Ordained Servant Journal; Pastor Emeritus; Author

“In his fascinating study of poetry as praise, Leland Ryken breathes life into the old hymns and, by doing so, reminds us how to sing to the Lord a new song.”  

—Carolyn Weber, Award-winning Author; Professor, University of Western Ontario, and Heritage College and Seminary