Songwriting Analysis: “Death In His Grave” by John Mark McMillan

by Bobby Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop

Artwork by Erich Ferdinand, used under Creative Commons license“Death In His Grave” is one of my favorite songs of the last few years. We sing it at Sojourn worship services, and I recommend it to your church. I love the simple melody and the Dylanesque feel. But as you know, here at My Song In The Night we’re all about studying song lyrics, so let’s get to it.

When I read that McMillan wrote “Death In His Grave” on the inspiration of Steve Turner’s poem “The Morning That Death Was Killed” and the folk song “Jesse James,” I said “I knew it!” Upon first hearing McMillan’s line:

The man Jesus Christ laid death in His grave

I thought of the Woody Guthrie spinoff of “Jesse James” in my collection, “Jesus Christ,” which includes the phrase:

That dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in His grave

I’ve written here about Bob Dylan’s use of the work of other songwriters, and of my own borrowings. Study good songs and borrow from them. That’s lesson number one here. Now let’s dive into the “Death In His Grave” lyrics. First, if you’re not familiar with the song, here are the lyrics in entirety. And you can watch John Mark McMillan perform “Death In His Grave” live here:

This is the work of a skilled poet who knows his Bible well.

In the first verse McMillan uses the poetry technique “Personification” for the earth, sun and moon.

Personification Definition: When you make an object, animal or idea do something that humans do. In this case, the earth cries out for blood and craves men’s souls, and the sun and moon “turned their heads in disbelief.”

It reminds me of an Anne Steel hymn that Kristen and I are working on, where Steel writes:

Creation cries, “Our Maker bleeds!” The Sun cannot behold the deed.

Other masters of hymnody like Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and William Cowper also used Personification, as did David and the other Psalmists, and the Old Testament prophets. Modern writers of hymns and praise & worship songs should study this technique.

The Medicine by John Mark McMillan album cover

"Death In His Grave" is on the album "The Medicine"

The two verses in “Death In His Grave” are each two quatrains long, with four lines per quatrain, and an irregular end rhyme scheme that holds together because the fourth and eighth lines rhyme, and because of the wealth of poetry techniques like:

  • Internal rhyme, as in “earth” and “her” in the first two lines and “raging” and “craved” in lines three and four.
  • Alliteration, as in “disfigured and disdained” in line eight of the first verse and “days in darkness” in the first line of the second verse, plus all these “D’s” in the final four lines of verse two: Daughters/ Dues/ Debt/ Day. We singers get so much practice on the “D” sound that it helps us (on a subliminal level, of course) to really spit out that “Death in his grave” line, which makes the phrase that much more satisfying. Take that, Death.
McMillan uses another poetry technique, one that modern poets use constantly but is so dangerous in hymn writing that classic and modern hymn writers rarely use it:
Enjambment Definition: the continuation of a sentence or clause over a line-break (more on Enjambment courtesy The Poetry Archive)
We see enjambment in two places in Death In His Grave:
  1. But awoke with the keys/ of hell on that day (from the chorus)
  2. He has cheated/ Hell and seated/ Us above the fall (the bridge)
Gracia Grindal has written about the danger of using enjambment in congregational song: “One well-known example of that in a hymn can demonstrate very clearly why the technique does not often work in hymns:
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.

“The first line taken by itself means something entirely different from what it means on going around the line, and while it may speak the truth about what many lazy Christians would happily sing, it is not very good theology.”

The enjambment in “Death In His Grave” works because the individual lines, in themselves, present no theological muddles (one might argue for “He has cheated” but that would be nitpicking, in my opinion). Also, they are less confusing than enjambments would be in many hymns, because “Death In His Grave” is a folk ballad. It tells a story, one we all know. So we “know” where the lines are going, in a sense. This technique would be more difficult to pull off in a song that simply presented the singer’s emotional response to God, or a theological statement.

McMillan uses scriptural allusions and quotations throughout “Death In His Grave.” For example:

But awoke with the keys/ Of hell on that day/ The first-born of the slain
borrows from Revelation 1:18
The first-born of the slain
borrows from Paul’s teaching that Christ is the “Second Adam”  (see 1 Corinthians 15:45-57) and from the picture in Revelation 4-5 of Christ as the “lamb slain” for us.
The debt of blood they owed was rent
When the day rolled anew

speaks of the Old Testament sacrificial system, which Jesus ended by becoming the once-for-all sacrifice, and it speaks of God’s “from dust to dust” proclamation in Genesis. Our “rent,” our “dues,” is the giving-up of our bodies in death. But we were created for immortality. Christ’s sacrifice restores our right-standing with God and makes us fit to live forever in God’s Kingdom. “Death In His Grave” succinctly and brilliantly conveys this information.

But my favorite phrase in the song is:

On Friday a thief/ On Sunday a king

“On Friday a thief”? Not, “On Friday, hung between two thieves?” Even if the alternative made metrical sense, it would rob the chorus of its power. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21:

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (ESV)

Christ suffered as a thief. As a murderer. As a rapist. As an adulterer, con-man, child abuser. He became sin for us, so we would become the righteousness of God. On Friday, a thief. Four short words, but so much meaning. That’s the power of poetry.

I hope this has helped you see some of the techniques available for your own writing, and some of the skills necessary to write a good song for Christian worship. I also hope it helped you gain an appreciation for “Death In His Grave.” If so, why not sing it yourself? Here is John Mark McMillan’s “How To Play Death In His Grave” instructional video:


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