Horatius Bonar was born just before Christmas in 1808 to James and Marjory Bonar in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father was from a line of notable churchmen of the Church of Scotland, and this highly influenced young Horace, who would later follow in this legacy. Bonar stayed in Edinburgh through his University education. After graduation, he began preaching as a mission in Leith, Scotland, and by 1837, became the minister of North Church at Kelso. It did not take long for him to become ‘well-known’ throughout his country, especially because of his work in evangelism and with other evangelists.
Bonar wrote a number of books for ministry and evangelism, many of which were widely popular during his lifetime. But some of his most significant work was done for Sunday School and adding to our body of hymns. The best description I have seen of his hymn texts is “devotional,” that is, they teach and are meditative. He wrote in a variety of styles, and his hymns were well-loved even in their day. One of his hymnals, Hymns of Faith and Hope, a fitting title, sold over 140,000 copies. This, however, was unsurprising, as most of his books were quite popular and in high demand and sale.
But selling books and hymnals was not his greatest joy. Instead, Bonar’s goal was to construct hymns that were simple, instructive, and perfect for the young Christian, especially children. Hymns, such as the one discussed here, were designed to be sung not only by the congregation but specifically by children. Bonar’s great concern was that his hymns could be sung by the greatest number of people possible.
His hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” has been claimed to first been published in 1846 in a book called Hymns Original and Selected, but this claim is said to be erroneous by Bonar’s son, who also became a minister. Instead, it seems that whenever Bonar first wrote the hymn, it was not until many years later, in 1850, that he published the hymn. In this first publication, the hymnal contained only the text and no music. In another hymnal published in 1857, the hymn was known as ‘The Voice from Galilee.”
Various tunes have been applied to the text of “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” There are at least half a dozen that I have found, including those called ATHENS, EVAN, KRIMAIR, and several others. In 1868, John Bacchus Dykes composed a tune specifically for this hymn in Hymns Ancient and Modern called VOX DILECTI. This tune is peaceful and cheerful, moving from a minor key to a major one as the melody progresses.
In 1904, Bonar’s son published a collection of his father’s hymns, including this one, though some of the lyrics were different. It is possible that his publication renewed interest in this hymn. Only two years later, the text appeared in The English Hymnal set to the tune referred sometimes as KINGSFOLD and other times as DIVES AND LAZARUS. This tune is considered a fold ballad, or carol, and the first name originates with a song about the rich man and Lazarus of Jesus’ parable. It appears that the earliest record of the text to this ballad is from the late 1600s, but the tune was possibly much older. Some historians have suggested two folk tunes from before that time, though even then, there was a text of similar nature and melody from which the ballad “Dives and Lazarus” originated.
The tune continued in use long enough to be added to Ralph Vaughan William’s folk songs collection. He named the tune KINGSFOLD after a city in Sussex, England. He used it in both The English Hymnal and English Country Songs with both the text of “Dives and Lazarus” and Bonar’s “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” While it is a very old English folk tune, the music is powerful on the organ. It is both sobering and glorious to sing. Personally, I find it the best melody to set this text to, and it how I know this hymn.
Even so, it is not the last tune associated with this hymn, nor the one found in our Lutheran Service Book. Instead, you will find the tune SARAH-ELIZABETH by Amanda Husberg in our current hymnal. This quiet, introspective tune was composed in 1996. To my understanding, the tune is found in only two hymnals: the LSB and the hymnal Voices Together, where it is paired with “God, Bless the Work Your People Do.” Husberg will likely go down as one of the great composers of the century. Born in 1940 in Chicago, she graduated from Concordia, Seward, after which she taught elementary school, served at a church, and continued her education. She has helped in daycares, been the director of music at churches, and composed nearly three hundred hymn tunes. Her tunes are found in numerous hymnals, various denominations, and at least five countries. In addition, she has also written a handful of her own hymns.
Nearly twenty years after becoming an ordained minister, Horatius Bonar transferred to the Free Church of Scotland. Around this same time, in 1843, he married Jane Katherine, daughter to a minister in Kelso, where he had worked as a minister. Like her husband, she also wrote hymns and poetry. Ten years later, Bonar received his doctorate of divinity from Aberdeen. A little more than ten years after this, he was made minister of the Chalmers Memorial Church in his hometown. As was becoming more popular in the Iles and the United States at that time, he was among those who regularly practiced open-air preaching.
Sadly, his wife died in 1876. Yet he had three children to bless his days afterward, including his son, who would follow his father’s steps and become a minister. He soon followed his wife and was buried with her in July of 1889, after living a long and full life of service and music. While he had a great many works, both prose and poetry, that are to be commended, his hymn “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” is likely among the greatest. This is a hymn of comfort, of peace, of rest and restoration. Written for children, we as children of God can still find comfort in its words today as it points us to the comforting words of Christ.
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,
So weary, worn, and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.
This song is about the message of the Gospel and what we find in Christ. In a way, this song goes back to before our baptism, when we were alone, weary, thirsty, and in darkness. At the same time, it is a reminder for us to continually go back to the foundation of our faith and hope: Christ Jesus, our Lord. Thus, we begin by listening to Christ, who called us first, calling us to Him to find our rest (Matt. 11:28-30). He had to call us by the Gospel first, and then we were able to come to Him, weak and pitiful as we were and are, and find rest in Him. Notice the words used here: weary, worn, and sad. Such a life is despondent, devoid of joy and the means to find comfort. But in God, we find our resting place, our hiding place from this desolate and dark world (Psa. 4, 32:7, 62, 27:7-9). Truly, our salvation comes from Him.
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.
We turn our ear again to the voice of our Shepherd and hear what He has to say. He makes us not only lie down in green pastures, but He leads us to still waters to restore us (Psa. 23). And this is not just water that comes with our daily bread. This water He calls us to is the waters of baptism, the water of Life that comes only from Him, making us clean, whole, satisfied, renewed. Christ tells us to come to Him and find these things (Jhn. 4:10-14, 6:35, 7:37, Isa. 55:1-3, Rom. 6:4, 1 Pet. 3:20-21). And so, we go to Jesus and drink of this everlasting life-giving water (Rev. 21:6, 22:1, 17). And now, we truly can live in Him as He has called us.
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 trav’ling days are done.
Finally, we hear the voice of Jesus a third time. He reminds us once again that He is what we need: Light in this dark world. In Him, our “morn shall rise,” or rather, our life shall actually begin. Before, we were dead in our sin and lying in darkness; now, we can truly see and live (Jhn. 1:1-14, 8:12, Isa. 9:2, Matt. 4:13-16, Rom. 5:6-8, Eph. 2:1-9)! This does not mean that our life will be perfect, but now we find true peace, joy, and contentment, finding life in the light that God provides in our lives through Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6, Gal. 2:20, Psa. 27:1). So we look towards Jesus, and no other thing, to be our guide and hope. In this well-lit path, we shall walk with His guidance until the day He calls us home. Thus, we find comfort and hope in this hymn as it reminds us of the rest, renewal, and life we find in our Savior.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig
“699. I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” The Lutheran Service Book. 2006.
“Amanda Husberg.” Hope Publishing.
Chris Fenner. “Dives and Lazarus.” Hymnology Archive. 15 Jan 2020.
Chris Fenner. “I heard the voice of Jesus say.” Hymnology Archive. 17 Apr 2020.
“I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” Hymnary.org.
Sidney Lee. “Horatius Bonar.” Hymnology Archive. Dictionary of National Biography, 1901.