Friday, January 9, 2009

According to Thy gracious word


Praise for the Lord #8

James Montgomery was the orphaned child of Moravians living in Scotland, and from a young age showed a passion for writing epic poetry and novels that sometimes surpassed his actual talents.(Prescott, 146) But when he was at his best, he gave the world some wonderful hymns, including:

"Angels from the realms of glory" (PFTL #42)
"Go to dark Gethsemane" (PFTL #168)
"Hail to the Lord's Anointed" (PFTL #201)
"In the hour of trial" (PFTL #328)
"O God, Thou art my God alone" (PFTL #475)
"Stand up and bless the Lord" (PFTL #964)

After an unpromising start in school and business, he stumbled into the ownership of a newspaper in Sheffield, which occupied him until, later in life, his accrued knowledge and art in literature allowed him to make a modest living as a lecturer.(Prescott, 147ff)

Stanza 1:
According to Thy gracious word,
In meek humility,
This will I do, my dying Lord,
I will remember Thee.


According to what gracious word? Sometimes writers--especially in poetry--make us work for our answers. Montgomery opens the text with an adverbial clause, and makes us wait until the end of the stanza to find out what it modifies. Our challenge is to read him carefully. What are we doing according to Christ's word?Remembering Him. When did Christ give an instruction to remember Him? The third line gives the clue, "my dying Lord"--it was close to His death. Montgomery refers to the command at the Last Supper, "Do this in remembrance of me."(Luke 22:19)

It bears mentioning, in our antinomian age when law and love are falsely pitted against each other, that love for Jesus and humility in view of His sacrifice for us is the reason we remember Him "according to [His] gracious word". "And this is love, that we walk according to his commandments."(2 John 1:6) True humility will never balk at following God's commands, but will seek to do all that is pleasing to Him: "Seek the Lord , all you humble of the land, who do his just commands; seek righteousness, seek humility."(Zephaniah 2:3) Certainly in this most holy supper, when the Lord spiritually breaks bread with us, we will approach Him in all humility and obedience!

Stanza 2:
Thy body, broken for my sake,
My bread from heaven shall be;
Thy testamental cup I take,
And thus remember Thee.


"Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, 'Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'"(Matthew 26:26-28) Montgomery skillfully weaves the main ideas of this passage into the second stanza, referencing as well John 6:51 "I am the living bread that came down from heaven." Here Jesus (following the feeding of the multitudes) asserted that as manna came from heaven to keep the Israelites alive in the Exodus, so now He is the manna that comes down from heaven to give everlasting life.(John 6:49-50) His startling statement in John 6:56 that "whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him," is seen fulfilled in the Last Supper, where we come to understand that partaking of these symbols represents His redeeming and resurrecting life abiding in us.

Stanza 3:
Gethsemane can I forget?
Or there Thy conflict see,
Thine agony and bloody sweat,
And not remember Thee?


Montgomery turns now from the blessings Christ brought us, to the price that He paid. It is interesting that in all the events of the last day of Christ's life, Gethsemane occupies such a large place in our thoughts. It is not the trials, or the beatings, or the road to Calvary, that have inspired so many hymns; it has been, next to the crucifixion itself, Christ praying in Gethsemane. Perhaps we relate to the dreadful waiting, to the anguished, repeated prayer, from our own experiences; but we will never know the half of it. Some have been disturbed by the graphic expression "bloody sweat" in the third line, but it is no more than is represented in scripture, and no doubt it is far less brutal than was the reality.

Stanza 4:
When to the cross I turn mine eyes
And rest on Calvary;
O Lamb of God, my sacrifice,
I must remember Thee.


Turning our thoughts to Calvary, however, Montgomery does not even attempt to describe the scene. It is as though he knows that he cannot adequately describe the scene, that any attempt to set it down in poetry would fall so far short of its subject that it would detract from, rather than enhance, our meditation. It is a refreshing and wise choice for this poet whom Prescott called "dangerously fluent"(148), and is reminiscent of the masterful portrayal of Christ in the 1959 version of Ben Hur, in which the Lord's face is never shown, but His influence on others made evident.

Montgomery wrote two more stanzas that are not retained in Praise for the Lord:

Remember Thee, and all Thy pains,
And all Thy love to me;
Yea, while a breath, a pulse remains,
Will I remember Thee.

And when these failing lips grow dumb,
And mind and memory flee,
When Thou shalt in Thy kingdom come,
Jesus, remember me.


The first of these two may be making an oblique reference to the great Isaac Watts text "I'll praise my Maker while I've breath", which was in turn a paraphrase of Psalm 146 (particularly referencing verse 2, "I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being."). The latter stanza obviously refers to the thief on the cross, who begged Jesus, "Remember me when You come into Your kingdom."(Luke 23:42) Though these stanzas are not to be faulted, their omission keeps the focus of the hymn directly on Christ, His sacrifice, and our need to remember Him, thus making it an excellent hymn before Communion.

References:

Cyberhymnal. According to Thy gracious word. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/a/c/accordtt.htm

Prescott, John Eustace. Christian hymns and hymn writers: a course of lectures. Deighton, Bell & Co., 1883. Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=Z4sXAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage

4 comments:

  1. Just discovered your blog. Wonderful! I'll be back often, at least to read.

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  2. This poetry reminds me of this Hymn translated to English

    Here is love, vast as the ocean,
    Lovingkindness as the flood,
    When the Prince of Life, our Ransom,
    Shed for us His precious blood.
    Who His love will not remember?
    Who can cease to sing His praise?
    He can never be forgotten,
    Throughout Heav'n's eternal days.

    On the mount of crucifixion,
    Fountains opened deep and wide;
    Through the floodgates of God's mercy
    Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
    Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
    Poured incessant from above,
    And Heav'n's peace and perfect justice
    Kissed a guilty world in love.

    I would love to hear this Hymn in it's native Welsh tongue.

    Love your work David

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  3. Thanks for your encouragement. I love the Welsh hymn tradition; there is a ruggedness and passion in both the words and music that is hard to beat. Thanks for sharing this hymn; I wasn't familiar with it.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful meditation on the Lord's Supper, and James Montgomery's great hymn on that theme.

    And if you’ll excuse a brief “commercial:” With the arrival of fall, we begin to think of the Christmas season up ahead. If you do not have a good book on the subject of our Christmas carols, I encourage you to take a look at mine, Discovering the Songs of Christmas. In it, I discuss the history and meaning of 63 carols and Christmas hymns. The book is available through Amazon, or directly from Jebaire Publishing. (Might make a great gift too!)

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