Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Abide With Me

Praise for the Lord #7

Words: Henry F. Lyte, 1847
Music: William H. Monk, 1861

Henry F. Lyte (1793-1847) was born in Ireland and attended Trinity College in Dublin, where he distinguished himself in poetry. After serving Anglican parishes in Ireland, he moved to Brixham in 1823 in hopes that the milder weather would help his continual health problems. He died from his ailments in 1847, leaving behind two volumes of religious poetry from which a number of hymns have been set.(Britannica) Two other hymns by Lyte appear in Praise for the Lord: "Jesus, I my cross have taken"(#354) and "Praise my soul the King of heaven"(#533).

As a younger man I thought this hymn was pretty, but it held no particular meaning for me. Encroaching middle age changes things. I have to face the fact that (statistically speaking) I have probably already lived more of my life than what remains to me; I have been to more and more funerals recently; and the cloudless skies and limitless possibilities of youth are, to say the least, not what they once were. Now I find that the truth of this hymn was always there, waiting for me to reach the place in life where I would need it.

Stanza 1:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Some sunsets are beautiful, others are unremarkable; but one thing they all have in common is their inevitable progression toward night. In the same way, though we may be at different points in life, and have different qualities of life as we face its end, we all share the inevitability of its ending. Nightfall is still a time that we ask the questions, What will this night bring? Are we in a place of safety and security? Or does the dark hold danger?

In the face of this dichotomy--the certainty that night will fall, the uncertainty of what it will bring--the author pleads twice, "Lord, abide with me." It may have been inspired by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who met the resurrected Lord and begged Him, "Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent."(Luke 24:27) How sweet beyond description must it have been, to spend an afternoon walking and talking with Jesus, and then to spend the evening breaking bread with Him! We should invite Him into our hearts and homes right now; and all the more so, as we see night approaching.

The second half of the verse touches on a subject that hurts us deeply when we think about it, because other helpers do fail. Friends, family, even those closest to our hearts cannot always help; time teaches this as well. The parent who seemed all-powerful turns out to be human; the friend who seemed genuine casts us aside; the loved one we always turned to is taken from us. But God is always there. "To you the helpless commits himself; You have been the helper of the fatherless."(Psalm 10:14b)

Stanza 2:
Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Ecclesiastes 1:14 says, "I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind." The joys and glories of this life will someday be no more; how sad to spend a life chasing after these things and then to say with the Preacher, "Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun."(Ecclesiastes 2:11). Better to say with Moses, "Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom."(Psalm 90:11)

Change and decay are written into the laws of the universe; I may not fully grasp the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but a quick look into my garage tells me that order requires concentrated effort, whereas disorder and decay just seem to happen on their own. Things get old and wear out, whether we are talking about a car, a house, or our own bodies.

Sometimes we enjoy change, but sometimes change is painful. The home that is no longer standing leaves a vacant spot in our hearts. The vacant chairs at family gatherings will never truly be filled again. People and places once well-known, after a long enough interval, we find changed and unfamiliar to us. We find ourselves in places we never expected, having to do things we never expected, and bewildered at how we have arrived there. Often we would gladly go back to the way things were at some point in the past. (Whether this is wise or not is a moot point, since we cannot.)

But God does not change. This world may be one of "change and decay", but God is above the laws that govern His creation. "[The things of this world] will perish, but You will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but You are the same, and Your years have no end."(Psalm 102:26-27) People may betray us, even well-intentioned friends and family may fail us, but "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change his mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?"(Numbers 23:19) What a blessing to know He has said, "For I am the Lord; I change not."(Malachi 3:6)

In Lyte's original text there follow three more stanzas, which are omitted from Praise for the Lord and from other hymnals I have used:

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

One could speculate endlessly about why these verses have so often been omitted. Perhaps the poetry is not quite of the quality of the rest; some of the lines sing a little awkwardly, and are even a little unclear in their meaning. (Does "Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee" mean that Jesus has not left him as many times as he left Jesus?) Sometimes "lost verses" from hymns are real gems that deserve to be restored, but in this case, the hymn seems as good or even better in the edited version.

Stanza 3:
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

God has promised, and we know He cannot lie and will not fail. When we are fighting temptation and seem to see no relief, we can know that "no temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."(1 Corinthians 10:13)

Jesus relied upon God's word in facing temptation, and afterward was ministered to by angels.(Matthew 4:1-11) In this and an unknown number of other instances He met with and overcame temptation, and now stands ready to help us do the same. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."(Hebrews 4:15)

Stanza 4:
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Henry Lyte was gravely ill when he wrote this hymn, and knew that death might be near; in fact he died only weeks later. He certainly knew what the weight of ills could be, and had to face his mortality. But in faith he looked to the word that says, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"(1 Corinthians 15:55) "Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him."(Romans 6:9), and therefore we can believe His promise, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die."(John 11:25-26) When we are free from the fear of the second, spiritual death, we can see physical death with an assurance that all is well. "When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'"

Stanza 5:
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

As we move closer day by day toward the end of this life of "vain shadows", may we cultivate the calm assurance that Jesus is ours, and we are His, in both life and death. "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."(Romans 14:8)

About the music: Henry Lyte wrote his own tune for this hymn, but the obvious beauty and appropriateness of Monk's EVENTIDE have made the latter tune far more used.(Cyberhymnal) William Henry Monk (1823-1889) was the first music editor of the famous Hymns Ancient and Modern, the longest-running and most widely used hymnal in the Church of England. Though sometimes criticized for his simplified arrangements of other composers' works, Monk knew what would work for the average congregation. He appears more often as an arranger, e.g. the tune DIX ("For the beauty of the earth, PFTL #157), but his lovely original tune EVENTIDE shows considerable craftsmanship and originality. The near-constant contrary motion of the soprano and bass parts lends the music a rich texture, and the occasional touch of dissonance sweetly resolved gives it a poignancy that perfectly matches the text.


Lyte, Henry Francis. Encyclopedia Britannica, New Werner American Edition. Akron, OH: 1907, v.15, p.122.

Cyberhymnal. Abide with me.

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