Saturday, January 3, 2009

A Charge to Keep I Have

Praise for the Lord #3
Text by Charles Wesley, 1762; music "Boylston" by Lowell Mason, 1832

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was one of the "two W's" of early English hymnnody, the other being his predecessor Isaac Watts. It is no stretch to say that these two had more to do with the founding of the English hymn tradition than anyone else. Wesley will take a separate post to discuss!

The text of this hymn is adapted, interestingly enough, from Matthew Henry's commentary on Leviticus 8:35, "At the entrance of the tent of meeting you shall remain day and night for seven days, performing what the Lord has charged, so that you do not die, for so I have been commanded."(Cyberhymnal) As the brother of John Wesley and a co-founder of Methodism, Charles Wesley must surely have disagreed with Henry's Calvinist teachings; but something in the passage struck the common chord between the two: a God-fearing humility, a deep sense of our indebtedness to God, and an awareness of the urgency of our mission. These are qualities always in too short supply!

It is interesting to compare the two texts:

(Henry:) "We have ev­ery one of us a charge to keep, an eter­nal God to glor­i­fy, an im­mor­tal soul to pro­vide for..."

(Wesley, stanza 1:)
A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

(Henry:)"...[a] needful duty to be done, our generation to serve;"

(Wesley, stanza 2:)
To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

(Henry:) "and it must be our dai­ly care to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will short­ly call us ac­count about it..."

(Wesley stanza 3:)
Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

(Henry:) "Keep it 'that ye die not'; it is death, eternal death, to be­tray the trust that we are charged with; by the con­sid­er­a­tion of this we must be kept in awe."

(Wesley, stanza 4:)
Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

All this from a verse in Leviticus about tabernacle ritual. How many lessons are we missing, because we fail to read, and to meditate on God's word?

It feels out of place to offer any comments of my own after witnessing the creative devotional process that took place between these two gentlemen; but a few scriptures come to mind that highlight the main themes of this hymn.

1. "A charge to keep." In his letters to Timothy, Paul uses the expression "I charge you" three times (1 Timothy 5:21, 2 Timothy 2:14, 4:1), the last time intensifying it to the extreme: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom..." Timothy was hardly a flighty, inattentive young man; but even so, Paul could not overemphasize the seriousness with which he should take his responsibilities. In our time of broken vows, broken promises, broken contracts, Christians need to recapture this sense of solemn "do-or-die" committment to what God has called us.

2. "To serve the present age." In his Antioch sermon recorded in Acts 13, Paul makes an interesting aside about King David: "For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep..." Here is a goal to last for a lifetime--to serve God's purpose in our generation, and then go to our reward.

3. "I shall forever die." I have known people who find the conclusion of this hymn unsatisfactory, and to tell the truth, I have often felt it to be uncomfortably abrupt. But perhaps it is simply the modern American resistance to acknowledging the reality of death; if you haven't noticed, we are dying every day, and yet act and speak as though it were an unfortunate sort of "accident" that only happens to other people. The final stanza of this hymn reminds us that life is not a dress rehearsal--this is the real thing, and the stakes are eternal.

About the music: Lowell Mason also deserves an entire post of his own; he is often considered the father of the American music education tradition, and was a champion of bringing classical music to the masses, as seen in his frequent hymn adaptations of melodies from classical composers. This tune, however, is an original. The ending is made somewhat awkward by the melody's conclusion on the 5th step of the scale (SOL) instead of the 1st step or keynote (DO), which is by far more common as a final note of a melody. It would be interesting to know whether this hymn would be sung more if it were set to another tune, such as that of "Rise up, O men of God" (PFTL #553) or "We give Thee but Thine own" (PFTL #724).

Cyberhymnal. A charge to keep I have.

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