The gospel hymn “Ivory Palaces” may not often be associated with the Christmas season, but it certainly speaks of the Lord’s obedience to the Father to come to earth as a child to offer the free gift of salvation. What made the Son of God leave the glory of heaven to suffer and die for sinners? “Ivory Palaces” gives the answer to that question.
Both the words and music were written by Henry Barraclough (1891 -1983) in 1915. He was the pianist for the evangelistic team of Wilbur Chapman, and Charles Alexander was the song leader. The team was holding meetings at the conference center in Montreal, North Carolina when one night Chapman preached on Psalm 45 and verse 8 caught Barraclough’s attention. All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad. (Psalm 45) As the men drove to their hotel after the service, the song began to take shape in Barraclough’s mind. When they stopped at a small country store, he wrote three stanzas and a refrain on a small card. The next day, the song was sung as a duet in the morning service. The song, as we know it today, has a fourth stanza which was added at the suggestion of Chapman.
Chapman believed that Psalm 45 was a prophetic “Messianic” Psalm referring to Christ coming out of the ivory palaces of heaven to redeem the world. Clothed in garments perfumed in different spices symbolizes aspects of the Saviour's mission. “Myrrh” was a perfume associated with extreme joy or happiness, representing the glory of heaven. “Aloes” was a bitter herb used for embalming, reminding us of the bitter suffering of Christ and His death on the cross. “Cassia” was a spice used as a medication, as Christ is the Healer and Saviour. The fourth stanza points to Christ’s glorious return.
With only some 20 songs to his credit, Henry Barraclough was not a very prolific hymn-writer. “Ivory Palaces” was popular during the early twentieth century and is still sung by choirs occasionally. Care should be taken not to take the song too quickly, lest it takes on the style of a waltz. It was suggested that the song be sung “slowly, softly, and with much expression.” Since the song was conceived as a duet, the melody is sometimes in the alto line to begin the refrain and moved back to the soprano line after the word “great.” And “His great eternal love” mentioned at the end of the refrain gives the answer to why the Son of God came to earth. Praise His name!
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour. (Ephesians 5:2)
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