Story songs are among the most memorable, and communicate not only on a cognitive level but emotionally as well.
“Ode to Billy Joe,” (1967) “The Gambler,” (1978), and “El Paso” (1959) are examples from secular music. My generation could say or sing most all the words of those songs, and tell you exactly what the story was. Younger generations have equally mesmerizing and memorable story songs from the 21st century as well.
Many years ago, a music director (known today in Christian circles as a worship leader) for a well-known preacher/evangelist, was asked to sing a song for a church meeting.
The song was based on Luke 15 where Jesus tells three parables that reveal the loving heart of God the Father: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, I would like to share that song and its message. The famous old hymn “The Ninety and Nine” is based on the first of these parables: the lost sheep; a compelling story if there ever was one.
The back story is as compelling as the hymn itself.
The text of this hymn is by Elizabeth Clephane (1830–1869), who had a lifelong fondness for storytelling and literary pursuits, but whose limited hymnic output reached a broader audience only a year before she died, and in some cases, posthumously. In 1868, she had been invited by a friend of hers, the editor of The Children’s Hour, to submit material. In reply, she wrote her poem “The Lost Sheep,” beginning “There were ninety and nine that safely lay,” which is based on the parable in Matthew 18:10–14 and its parallel in Luke 15:1–7. It was probably written at her home in Melrose, Scotland1.
The story behind the music and the song’s debut is even more astounding.
Ira Sankey was D.L. Moody’s song leader for his crusade ministry. His testimony is as follows:
It was in the year 1874 that the poem “The Ninety and Nine” was discovered, set to music, and sent out upon its worldwide mission. Its discovery seemed as if by chance, but I cannot regard it otherwise than providential. Mr. Moody had just been conducting a series of meetings in Glasgow, and I had been assisting him in his work as director of the singing.
We were at the railway station in Glasgow and about to take the train for Edinburgh, whither we were going upon an urgent invitation of ministers to hold three days of meetings there before going into the Highlands. We had held a three-month series in Edinburgh just previous to our four-month campaign in Glasgow.
As we were about to board the train I bought a weekly newspaper for a penny. Being much fatigued by our incessant labors at Glasgow, and intending to begin work immediately upon our arrival at Edinburgh, we did not travel second or third class, as was our custom, but sought the seclusion and rest which a first-class railway carriage in Great Britain affords. In the hope of finding news from America, I began perusing my recently purchased newspaper. This hope, however, was doomed to disappointment, as the only thing in its columns to remind an American of home and native land was a sermon by Henry Ward Beecher.
I threw the paper down, but shortly before arriving in Edinburgh, I picked it up again with a view to reading the advertisements. While thus engaged, my eyes fell upon a little piece of poetry in a corner of the paper. I carefully read it over, and at once made up my mind that this would make a great hymn for evangelistic work—if it had a tune. So impressed was I that I called Mr. Moody’s attention to it, and he asked me to read it to him.
This I proceeded to do with all the vim and energy at my command. After I had finished I looked at my friend Moody to see what the effect had been, only to discover that he had not heard a word, so absorbed was he in a letter that he had received from Chicago. My chagrin can be better imagined than described. Notwithstanding this experience, I cut out the poem and placed it in my musical scrapbook—which, by the way, has been the seedplot from which sprang many of the Gospel songs that are now known throughout the world.
At the noon meeting on the second day, held at the Free Assembly Hall, the subject presented by Mr. Moody and other speakers was “The Good Shepherd.” When Mr. Moody had finished speaking, he called upon Dr. Bonar to say a few words. He spoke for only a few minutes but with great power, thrilling the immense audience with his fervid eloquence. At the conclusion of Dr. Bonar’s words Mr. Moody turned to me with the question, “Have you a solo appropriate for this subject, with which to close the service?” I had nothing suitable in mind and was greatly troubled to know what to do.
The Twenty-third Psalm occurred to me, but this had been sung several times in the meeting. I knew that every Scotchman in the audience would join me if I sang that, so I could not possibly render this favorite psalm as a solo. At this moment I seemed to hear a voice saying: “Sing the hymn you found on the train!” But I thought this impossible, as no music had ever been written for that hymn.
Again the impression came strongly upon me that I must sing the beautiful and appropriate words I had found the day before, and placing the little newspaper slip on the organ in front of me, I lifted my heart in prayer, asking God to help me so to sing that the people might hear and understand. Laying my hands upon the organ I struck the key of A-flat and began to sing.
Note by note the tune was given, which has not been changed from that day to this. As the singing ceased a great sigh seemed to go up from the meeting, and I knew that the song had reached the hearts of my Scotch audience. Mr. Moody was greatly moved.
Leaving the pulpit, he came down to where I was seated. Leaning over the organ, he looked at the little newspaper slip from which the song had been sung, and with tears in his eyes said: “Sankey, where did you get that hymn? I never heard the like of it in my life.” I was also moved to tears and arose and replied: “Mr. Moody, that’s the hymn I read to you yesterday on the train, which you did not hear.” Then Mr. Moody raised his hand and pronounced the benediction, and the meeting closed. Thus “The Ninety and Nine” was born2.
There were Ninety and Nine that safely lay In the shelter of the fold But one was out on the hills away Far off from the gates of gold Away on the mountains wild and bare Away from the tender Shepherd's care Away from the tender Shepherd's care.
Lord, thou hast here thy Ninety and Nine
Are they not enough for thee?
But the Shepherd made answer this of mine
Has wandered away from me.
And tho' the way be rough and steep
I go to the desert to find my sheep
I go to the desert to find my sheep
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed
Nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
'Ere he found his sheep that was lost
Out in the desert, He heard its cry
Sick and helpless and ready to die
Sick and helpless and ready to die.
The story has a beautiful and happy ending that causes the heart of every believer to swell with joy and gratitude, since, after all, in one way or another, it is our story. We were that lost sheep.
Then all through the mountains thunder riven
And up from the Rocky steep
There arose a glad cry from the gates of Heaven
Rejoice, I have found my sheep
And the angels echo around the Throne
Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own
Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own3
The music is strong, hauntingly beautiful, and stirring, but the lyrics mirroring the Scriptural account in Luke 15 that picture Jesus the Good Shepherd going into the mountains and the remote places looking for a sheep that had wandered away, are truly memorable.
We were lost, helpless, and hopeless; unless and until He came looking for us. Praise God, He did. If we are His sheep by faith in His death and resurrection, now we are found! “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Jesus wants us to be in His fold, saved, safe, and secure.
I believe it is crucial that we present Jesus to people as the Good Shepherd with love and compassion seeking the lost sheep so that the Spirit might work in their hearts to draw them to Him. Not beating them over the head with a gospel hammer. Not condemning them (they are already condemned), but pointing them to the Shepherd who actively, intentionally, and lovingly seeks them.