Tuesday, May 19, 2009

At Even, when the Sun was Set

Praise for the Lord #56

Words: Henry Twells, 1868
Music: Timothy B. Mason, 1836

This is the only hymn by Henry Twells (1823-1900) included in Praise for the Lord, and I am not familiar with any of his other works. The selections of his texts linked at Cyberhymnal, however, are well worth perusing: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/t/w/e/twells_h.htm. They show a profound humility in approaching God, seen in this text also.

Stanza 1:
At even, ere the sun was set,
The sick, O Lord, around Thee lay;
O in what divers pains they met!
O with what joy they went away!

The setting is Capernaum, after the healing of Peter's mother-in-law: "Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them."(Luke 4:40) Jesus was the Great Physician; He demonstrated His power over every kind of misfortune that could happen to the physical body. He gave sight to the blind, not only healing the optical organs, but imbuing the mind with the sense of sight itself if necessary.(Mark 8:22-25) He restored deformed limbs to their rightful shape and function.(Mark 3:1-5) He even raised a man from the dead after four days!(John 11) Of course, all of these were signs of an even greater power to heal:

"Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--He said to the paralytic--"I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home." And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!"(Mark 2:9-12)

In Mark 6:56 we read that "wherever He came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored Him that they might touch even the fringe of His garment." Can we imagine the scene of misery through which He walked? But Twells touches on a another common thread in all of Jesus' healings; despite the diverse nature of the maladies He encountered, there was a common spirit of joy among all His patients afterward.

Stanza 2:
Once more ’tis eventide, and we,
Oppressed with various ills, draw near;
What if Thyself we cannot see?
We know and feel that Thou art near.

Now Twells applies the scripture to the Christian assembly: though we do not necessarily come with visible, physical needs, we confess that our spiritual needs place us in the same situation as those in Capernaum. When we look at the world around us, and when we look out our own feeble attempts at righteousness, we know that Jeremiah 17:9 rightly says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"

Fortunately, we have come to the right place, because our Lord said of His ministry, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."(Mark 2:17) Though many rejected Him, and still do, it has always been His desire that "they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them."(John 12:40) So we draw near to the miraculous Healer, the only One who can offer a cure. What if we cannot see Him physically, as they did in Capernaum? Neither can we see physically the diseases of the heart from which we need deliverance. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."(John 20:29)

Stanza 3:
O Savior Christ, our woes dispel;
For some are sick, and some are sad;
And some have never loved Thee well,
And some have lost the love they had.

Though the emphasis of the hymn is on the spiritual, we need to remember that physical illness is stil the burden many bear with them to the assembly. Besides the pain or discomfort it may bring, there is the frustration of not being able to do as one wishes, and the uncertainty of the outcome. Added to the cares of daily life, it can quickly become emotionally and spiritually overwhelming. Let us never forget that "the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up... The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working."(James 5:15-16) At the same time, let us do those little practical things to help the sick that both show our concern and do them material good.

Twells also speaks of those who come to worship "sad". I confess that I have always been a little irritated by worship leaders who castigate the congregation for not showing an acceptable level of excitement in worship. Yes, most congregations could stand to become more emotionally and spiritually invested in the worship service; but I have often counseled younger songleaders not to judge the worship in another's heart by the (apparent) expression on his face.

A congregation comes together to worship with many different "back-stories"; it would be an eye-opener if we really knew all that was going on in every life! Some might be mourning for sins they cannot seem to escape; others might be heartbroken because of disappointments in relationships; others might be battling depression. Would we dare criticize the worship of Isaiah, when his response to the presence of God was "Woe is me, for I am undone!"?(Isaiah 6:5) Would we criticize the tax collector who "standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!'"?(Luke 18:13) Let the book of Psalms, the hymnal of the Old Testament, be our guide--it contains both the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow, sometimes in the same Psalm.

The last two lines of this stanza are particularly intriguing. Those who "never loved Thee well" seems to speak of the nominal Christian who knows his walk with the Lord is not what it should be; or maybe it even speaks of the more frightening situation of those who do not even realize their true distance from God. Those who have "lost the love they had" remind us naturally of Christ's assessment of the church in Ephesus:

"I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first."(Revelation 2:2-4)

This is a disturbing situation, because up until the last sentence it sounds like a congregation that is doing quite well. On an individual level, we can sometimes look and act like a Christian, and yet have drifted from our moorings. It should give us pause.

Twells continues with two stanzas that were omitted in Praise for the Lord, no doubt for sake of space. They are an excellent expansion on the theme of the second stanza, and startlingly applicable even 141 years later:

And some are pressed with worldly care
And some are tried with sinful doubt;
And some such grievous passions tear,
That only Thou canst cast them out.

And some have found the world is vain,
Yet from the world they break not free;
And some have friends who give them pain,
Yet have not sought a friend in Thee.

How many lines in the above describe an average congregation? We know what we should be, or we would likely not be present; but we are vaguely aware that we are not yet what we should be. The first two lines of the latter stanza are especially jarring for a generally materialistic society; we know that we should be "not of the world"(John 17) and yet we have difficulty letting it go.

Stanza 4:
And none, O Lord, have perfect rest,
For none are wholly free from sin;
And they who fain would serve Thee best
Are conscious most of wrong within.

Hebrews 4:9-11 says, "So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God... Let us therefore strive to enter that rest..." Inherent in that statement is that entering Christ's kingdom of salvation is not the same as entering the perfect peace of our final rest with God. How can it be, when we are still in an arena of spiritual struggle? Paul told the Corinthians,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.(1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

This was no mere abstract possibility; Paul knew it from personal experience.

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?(Romans 7:15-24)

Who indeed?

Stanza 5:
O Savior Christ, Thou too art man;
Thou has been troubled, tempted, tried;
Thy kind but searching glance can scan
The very wounds that shame would hide.

Here Twells voices the heartfelt appeal that countless souls have made through the ages. Hebrews 2:14-15 teaches us that Jesus became human in order to break the power of sin:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.

But our initial salvation is only the beginning; verses 17-18 tell us that His work continues every day.

Therefore He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because He himself has suffered when tempted, He is able to help those who are being tempted.

At Sinai, God showed His power and authority; at Calvary He showed His love and condescension. Jesus said shortly before His death, "No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends..."(John 15:15) We can hide nothing from Him, and if we come to Him in penitent obedience, we need hide nothing from Him. "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you."(1 Peter 5:6-7)

Stanza 6:
Thy touch has still its ancient power.
No word from Thee can fruitless fall;
Hear, in this solemn evening hour,
And in Thy mercy heal us all.

We need to be reminded sometimes that Jesus was not just some long-ago historical figure (though He certainly was that); He is living today and working in His church. In the beginning of the Revelation we see the image of the seven lampstands, which according to chapter 1, verse 20 represent the seven congregations Christ chose to address. Christ calls himself the one "who walks among the seven golden lampstands."(Revelation 2:1) Throughout these messages to the congregations of Asia Minor, Christ appears not as a distant, unconcerned monarch, but as a watchful Shepherd who promises both discipline and blessing.

It is a great comfort, too, to remember that God's word does not fail. Human words fail often--promises are broken, laws are revoked, treaties are ignored--but not one word of God will fail. Joshua, in his farewell address to the Hebrew nation, summarized his experiences thus:

And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. (Joshua 23:14)

In the beautiful 55th chapter of Isaiah, God describes the power and trustworthiness of His word in even more beautiful language:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.(Isaiah 55:10-11)

May we always turn to Christ for healing, in the humility, obedience, and trust described in this hymn.

About the music: The music given with this text in Praise for the Lord is, in my opinion, an unfortunate choice. The tune is simply too busy, with too many skips, to work well for congregational singing. (A MIDI file of this tune, named EDEN, can be heard here.) It is very pretty, and would sound fine sung by a choir, but it doesn't suit a cappella congregational singers. An alternate tune can be heard at http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/a/t/e/atevener.htm.

I mean no disrespect to the composer; it is a well-written work, much what I would expect from someone from such a prominent musical family in 19th-century America. Timothy Battelle Mason (1801-1861) was the younger brother of Lowell Mason, who was a determined advocate of music education, for which I salute him, but was rather narrow in his view of what constituted "good music". (Even his tastes within the classical music tradition were pretty narrow!) While Lowell dominated the Boston environs, Timothy Mason moved west to Cincinatti and pursued much the same career with the establishment of his Eclectic Academy of Music.(Osborne,86)


Osborne, William. Music in Ohio. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004.

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