How the Wesleys Describe the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a set of hymns or worship songs to describe the goodness of God, what would be at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

A few years ago I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for it.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what John Wesley had done in organizing the collection in this way.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” message.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

As we move through the remaining weeks of Lent, looking towards Good Friday, let’s not rush through our contemplation of the cross.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

[revised and re-blogged  from a post on March 31, 2010]

A Hymn for Ascension Day

One of my favourite Charles Wesley hymns is “Arise my Soul, Arise.”  Originally published in Hymns and Sacred Poems in 1742, it was included as no. 194 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780).

The hymn emphasizes the assurance that comes from knowing that the sufficient once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is forever made effective through the ongoing high priestly work of the same ascended Lord, who intercedes on our behalf continually.   Assurance, therefore, comes not from an inner feeling or from self-examination but from the objective reality of Christ’s fully sufficient work on our behalf.  This assurance is communicated to us through the testimony of the Spirit, who assures us of our forgiveness and adoption specifically by witnessing to the very same saving work of Christ for us.

Scripturally, the hymn recalls several passages from Hebrews, notably 4:14-5:10, and chapter 10:1-25.

I grew up singing this to the tune “Darwall” (better known for “Rejoice the Lord is King), but online I’ve heard a number of other arrangements, including some new tunes.   You can find a nice one by Kevin Twit on the Indelible Grace hymn site, here.

1 Arise, my soul, arise,
Shake off thy guilty fears,
The bleeding sacrifice
In my behalf appears;
Before the throne my surety stands;
My name is written on his hands.
*
2 He ever lives above
For me to intercede,
His all-redeeming love,
His precious blood to plead;
His blood atoned for all our race,
And sprinkles now the throne of grace.
*
3 Five bleeding wounds he bears,
Received on Calvary;
They pour effectual prayers,
They strongly speak for me;
Forgive him, O forgive, they cry,
Nor let that ransomed sinner die!
*
4 The Father hears him pray,
His dear anointed one,
He cannot turn away

The presence of his Son:
His Spirit answers to the blood,
And tells me, I am born of God.
*
5 My God is reconciled,
His pard’ning voice I hear,
He owns me for his child,
I can no longer fear;
With confidence I now draw nigh,
And Father, Abba Father, cry!

A Forgotten Christmas Hymn, by Charles Wesley

I found this wonderful hymn a couple of years ago, when looking through A Collection of Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord, compiled by John Wesley in 1744.  There are some interesting gems in there, but the following hymn, by brother Charles (#11 in the collection) really stood out.

My favourite phrase is “In our deepest darkness rise” – and I love the title given to Christ in verse three: “Thou mild Pacific Prince.”  I wrote a tune for this last year, and I hope to be able to record it some time down the road.

LIGHT OF THOSE WHOSE DREARY DWELLING

Charles Wesley

Light of those whose dreary dwelling,
Borders on the shades of death,
Come, and by Thy love’s revealing,
Dissipate the clouds beneath :
š›š›The new heaven and earth’s Creator,
In our deepest darkness rise,
Scattering all the night of nature,
Pouring eyesight on our eyes.
~
Still we wait for Thy appearing,
Life and joy Thy beams impart,
Chasing all our fears, and cheering,
Every poor benighted heart:
Come and manifest the favour,
God hath for our ransom’d race;
Come, Thou universal Saviour,
Come, and bring the gospel grace.
~
Save us in Thy great compassion,
O Thou mild pacific Prince,
Give the knowledge of salvation,
Give the pardon of our sins ;
By Thine all-restoring merit,
Every burden’d soul release,
Every weary, wandering spirit,
Guide into Thy perfect peace.

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” as Quaker Polemic

Though I’m sure I’ve heard it before, this hymn was brought to my attention when I watched the movie Atonement.   There is an amazing 5 minute scene (all shot in one take on one camera) in which lead character Robbie is wandering on a beach in Dunkirk, waiting to be evacuated to England.  The beach is in complete chaos, with thousands of soldiers hanging around, seemingly without any organization – fighting, drinking, trashing vehicles, and waiting helplessly.  In the midst of the chaos, however, a choir of soldiers stands in a bandstand, singing this hymn of clamness, stillness, and rest.

The hymn is taken from a longer poem called “The Brewing of Soma,” written in 1872 by Quaker poet John Greeleaf Whittier.  In context, it is actually a strong Quaker critique of more traditional forms of Christian spirituality.  Whittier begins by depicting a scene from Vedic religion, in which priests concoct a drink, called “Soma,” which is then used in an attempt to come into contact with the divine.  In those times, “All men to Soma prayed,” Whittier writes, but his eye is on more recent Christian worship practices, which he believes are no better.  “And still with wondering eyes we trace / The simple prayers to Soma’s grace, / That Vedic verse embalms.”

Clearly Whittier has the Christian sacraments, hymns, and liturgical prayer in mind.  As the poem continues he writes,

As in that child-world’s early year,
Each after age has striven
By music, incense, vigils drear,
And trance, to bring the skies more near,
Or lift men up to heaven!

All religious ceremony is, in his mind, a vain Babel-like attempt to reach the heavens by human effort.

The final six verses of Whittier’s poem are the ones we have come to know as “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”  The seventh to the last verse is the climax of his critique:

And yet the past comes round again,
And new doth old fulfil;
In sensual transports wild as vain
We brew in many a Christian fane
The heathen Soma still!

It’s amazing that we have taken this polemic against historic forms of Christian worship and turned it into a standard hymn, particularly popular in Anglican circles!   When you keep Whittier’s Quaker faith and the rest of the poem in mind, you can still catch the traces of polemic in the verses we know and sing:

  • The “simple trust” in unmediated grace (v. 2)
  • the idea of rising up “without a word” (v. 2)
  • the “Sabbath rest” depicted as the “silence of eternity” (v. 3)
  • the “noiseless” blessing of God falling on the worshippers (v. 4)
  • the “still dews of quietness” which cause “all our strivings” to cease (v. 5)
  • and finally, the dumbing of the senses in the presence of the “still small voice” (v. 6)

Reading it from this perspective, these verses clearly reflect Quaker theology and practice in a very distinctive way.

Should non-Quakers still sing this song, since we don’t ascribe to their beliefs about worship?   I would say so.  Though it is good to recognize the Quaker aspects of the hymn, poetry does not have one fixed meaning.  Even anglo-catholics might be able to interpret this hymn in  a way that fits with their approach to worship, particularly since most of the imagery in the hymn is thoroughly biblical.   All Christians can affirm the restfulness of being in God’s presence, the place that quietness ought to occupy in worship, and the way that God’s blessing comes to us in spite of our strivings – without taking these convictions in the direction of Quaker theology.

And to be honest, most people are probably so enraptured by the amazing tune, Repton, that they wouldn’t notice the distinctive Quaker aspects of the hymn!

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

Wrestling Jacob

This is one of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns, though it has not proved popular for congregational singing.  This may have something to do with its length, and the fact that it would be difficult to eliminate verses without disrupting the structure of the hymn.

Originally published in 1742 inHymns and Sacred Poems, this version is from A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodist (1780), no. 136 [online here as nos. 140-141].

In the notes of the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works (vol. VII, p. 250), John’s obituary tribute to his brother is quoted as having said:

“His least praise was his talent for poetry; although Dr. Watts did not scruple to say that that single poem, “Wrestling Jacob,” was worth all the verses he himself has written.”

High praise, coming from the second greatest English hymn writer of all time.

The hymn is a fascinating meditation on Genesis 32:22-32, with the angel interpreted as a figure of Christ.  My favourite line is the first line of the last verse: “Lame as I am, I take the prey”  – a powerful summary of the gospel.

WRESTLING JACOB

Charles Wesley (1742)

1

Come; O thou Traveller unknown,

Whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone,

And I am left alone with thee;

With thee all night I mean to stay,

And wrestle till the break of day.

2

I need not tell thee who I am,

My misery or sin declare;

Thyself hast called me by my name,

Look on thy hands, and read it there.

But who, I ask thee, who art thou?

Tell me thy name, and tell me now.

3

In vain thou strugglest to get free,

I never will unloose my hold;

Art thou the Man that died for me?

The secret of thy love unfold:

Wrestling, I will not let thee go

Till I thy name, thy nature know.

4

Wilt thou not yet to me reveal

Thy new, unutterable name?

Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell;

To know it now resolved I am:

Wrestling, I will not let thee go

Till I thy name, thy nature know.

5

What though my shrinking flesh complain

And murmur to contend so long?

I rise superior to my pain:

When I am weak, then I am strong;

And when my all of strength shall fail

I shall with the God-man prevail.

6

Yield to me now—for I am weak,

But confident in self-despair!

Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,

Be conquered by my instant prayer:

Speak, or thou never hence shalt move,

And tell me if thy name is LOVE.

7

Tis Love! ‘Tis Love! Thou diedst for me;

I hear thy whisper in my heart.

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure Universal Love thou art:

To me, to all, thy bowels move—

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

8

My prayer hath power with God; the grace

Unspeakable I now receive;

Through faith I see thee face to face;

I see thee face to face, and live!

In vain I have not wept and strove—

Thy nature, and they name, is LOVE.

9

I know thee, Saviour, who thou art—

Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;

Nor wilt thou with the night depart,

But stay, and love me to the end:

Thy mercies never shall remove,

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

10

Sun of Righteousness on me

Hath rose with healing in his wings;

Withered my nature’s strength; from thee

My soul its life and succour brings;

My help is all laid up above:

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

11

Contented now upon my thigh

I halt, till life’s short journey end;

All helplessness, all weakness, I

On thee alone for strength depend;

Nor have I power from thee to move:

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

12

Lame as I am, I take the prey,

Hell, earth, and sin with ease o’ercome;

I leap for joy, pursue my way,

And as a bounding hart fly home,

Through all eternity to prove,

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

The Good Samaritan, by John Newton

Further to my previous post, here is a hymn by John Newton, reflecting on the same idea – that the parable of the Good Samaritan points us to Christ.  Taken from Olney Hymns (1779), Book 1, Hymn 99.

*

How kind the good Samaritan

To him who fell among the thieves!

Thus Jesus pities fallen man,

And heals the wounds the soul receives.

*

O! I remember well the day,

When sorely wounded, nearly slain;

Like that poor man I bleeding lay,

And groaned for help, but groaned in vain.

*

Men saw me in this helpless case,

And passed without compassion by;

Each neighbor turned away his face,

Unmoved by my mournful cry.

*

But he whose name had been my scorn,

(As Jews Samaritans despise)

Came, when he saw me thus forlorn,

With love and pity in his eyes.

*

Gently he raised me from the ground,

Pressed me to lean upon his arm;

And into every gaping wound

He poured his own all–healing balm.

*

Unto his church my steps he led,

The house prepared for sinners lost;

Gave charge I should be clothed and fed;

And took upon him all the cost.

*

Thus saved from death, from want secured,

I wait till he again shall come,

(When I shall be completely cured)

And take me to his heav’nly home.

*

There through eternal boundless days,

When nature’s wheel no longer rolls,

How shall I love, adore, and praise,

This good Samaritan to souls!

Hymns that didn’t last: “Ah, Lovely Appearance of Death”

It’s interesting to speculate as to which hymns and songs we sing today will still be in use in the decades and centuries to come.   This is the kind of question that can’t really be answered until the hymns and songs in question have stood the test of time.  One way to think about it is to look back on hymns from the past that are no longer in use today.

Here’s an interesting one from Charles Wesley, called “Ah, lovely appearance of death.”  We don’t sing about death too much these days.  We don’t even like to talk about it, actually – we avoid the topic of death at all costs.   But it was not always so.  In much of human history, death was a much less “avoidable” topic – it was simply a part of every day life.

The early Methodists believed in “holy dying” as well as “holy living.”  That is, they thought a holy life needed to be crowned by a holy death, and therefore they spent significant time reflecting on what it meant to die well.  Methodist publications would frequently include death-bed stories, as examples to other believers about how death was to be faced.

Reading this hymn today seems almost comical – there’s just no way you’d get away with singing about the delight of  surveying a corpse in today’s Church.   Still, though we might not sing it, there could be a lesson here for us:  this hymn reminds us that as Christians, we ought to be able to talk freely about our mortality.   We don’t need to fear death – but we shouldn’t avoid talking about it either.

Any suggestions as to good hymn tunes for this gem?

 

Ah, lovely appearance of death!

What sight upon earth is so fair?

Not all the gay pageants that breathe

Can with a dead body compare.

With solemn delight I survey

The corpse when the spirit is fled,

In love with the beautiful clay,

And longing to lie in its stead.

 
 

How blest is our brother, bereft

Of all that could burden his mind;

How easy the soul that has left

This wearisome body behind!

Of evil incapable thou,

Whose relics with envy I see,

No longer in misery now,

No longer a sinner like me.

 
 

This earth is afflicted no more

With sickness, or shaken with pain;

The war in the members is o’er,

And never shall vex him again;

No anger henceforward, or shame,

Shall redden this innocent clay;

Extinct is the animal flame,

And passion is vanished away.

 
 

This languishing head is at rest,

Its thinking and aching are o’er;

This quiet immovable breast

Is heaved by affliction no more;

This heart is no longer the seat

Of trouble and torturing pain;

It ceases to flutter and beat,

It never shall flutter again.

 
 

The lids he seldom could close,

By sorrow forbidden to sleep,

Sealed up in eternal repose,

Have strangely forgotten to weep;

The fountains can yield no supplies,

These hollows from water are free,

The tears are all wiped from these eyes,

And evil they never shall see.

 
 

To mourn and to suffer is mine,

While bound in a prison I breathe,

And still for deliverance pine,

And press to the issues of death.

What now with my tears I bedew

O might I this moment become,

My spirit created anew,

My flesh be consigned to the tomb!

#47 in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists (1780).