Words: William C. Dix, 1867
Music: Rowland H. Prichard, 1831; arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1951
This is a beautiful hymn that we just haven't traditionally sung in the Churches of Christ, at least in this country (you folks in the U.K. may have to come teach us). William C. Dix (1837-1898) is a good example of how a person can do one thing for a living, but truly excel in an avocation. He came by it honestly; his father was a surgeon who wrote literary criticism in his spare time. William settled into the life of a respectable Victorian businessman, managing a maritime insurance agency in Glasgow, but like his father, his first love was poetry. He wrote about 40 hymns, the most famous of which by far is "What Child is this?". The text at hand was originally published in his Verses on the Holy Eucharist, a fact that is important in understanding some of the alterations this text has undergone.(Cyberhymnal, "Dix") It was written for Ascension Sunday, as we will see on closer examination.
Alleluia! sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne.
Alleluia! His the triumph, His the victory alone.
Hark! the songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood.
Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by His blood.
The images of scepter and throne were more meaningful to Dix, of course, who wrote to a culture that shared the traditions of monarchy; but they are Biblical images as well. Psalm 45:6 says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom," and in Hebrews 1:8 this verse is applied to Christ himself.
Scepters represent authority from several angles. The most obvious connection, of course, is that they resemble a decorative or ceremonial mace, a weapon of war. In this sense a scepter embodies the power of punishment, and in the hands of a ruler, the power of judgment. (The judge's gavel is a similar symbol in our culture.) A scepter also resembles a staff, a symbol of leadership and shepherding. One survival of this in our culture is the ceremonial mace sometimes carried at the head of an academic procession. An even more vivid remnant is the mace used by the drum major of a traditional military-style marching band; here the mace is used to give orders, and once the group is called to attention every eye is to be kept upon it.
The authority of Christ is made absolutely clear in Matthew's record of Jesus' words before His ascension:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in [fn] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."(Matthew 28:16-20)
Jesus had accomplished all that He had been sent to do, and His victory was complete. When the hymn says "His the victory alone", we might remember that anguished moment on the cross when His Father turned His back--it was truly a victory that Christ had to win on His own. For this and so many other reasons, the heavenly choir sings with voices "like the roar of many waters"(Revelation 14:2) the Song of the Lamb:
"Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed."(Revelation 15:3-4)
Christ brought to fulfillment the great promise of God throughout the Bible, that a world divided by race, by language, by nation, and most of all by sin, would be brought together once more as God's people. God promised Abraham that "in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."(Genesis 22:18) Here at last, in Revelation 15, we see "all nations" coming to worship the Lamb, who is now the "King of the nations."
Alleluia! not as orphans are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! He is near us, faith believes, nor questions how;
Though the cloud from sight received Him when the forty days were o’er
Shall our hearts forget His promise, “I am with you evermore”?
Here the author references Matthew 28 again, and the Lord's promise that "I am with you always." Jesus told His disciples before His death that,
"I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him."(John 14:18-21)
Jesus refers in the same passage, of course, to the coming of the Holy Spirit as an indwelling partner in the Christian life:
"I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you."(John 14:16-17)
Paul's prayer for the Ephesians gives insight about how this takes place:
...that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith--that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.(Ephesians 3:16-19)
Faith, founded on love for God, invites the power of Christ and His Spirit into our lives, starting with our initial obedience to Him in baptism.(Acts 2:38) It continues as we grow in our knowledge and love of Him through prayer, fellowship, and study of His word. Where Ephesians 5:18 says "be filled with the Spirit", the parallel passage Colossians 3:16 says "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly." (I do not agree with those whose views practically equate the Spirit with the word, but it also seems obvious that a Christian cannot have one without the other!)
There are times we might wish we had the apostles among us, or the gift of inspired teaching and other miracles as those in the early church did, but we should remember that many Christians even then had to get by without them, and did not even have all of the revealed word yet. We are in no way left out, and in many respects better off. Jesus provides for us too, and mentioned us in His prayers alongside the disciples of that era: "I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word..."(John 17:20)
The first two lines of the next stanza were originally:
Alleluia! bread of angels, Thou on earth our food, our stay;
Alleluia! here the sinful flee to Thee from day to day:
Though it is not apparent to me why the second line was changed, the alteration of the first line is part of the de-contextualizing of this hymn, removing the directly Eucharistic language. I am not sure why this was done, though the expression "bread of angels" is a bit puzzling and perhaps best left off. There is also a fourth stanza along these lines, omitted in many hymnals:
Alleluia! King eternal, Thee the Lord of lords we own;
Alleluia! born of Mary, Earth Thy footstool, Heav’n Thy throne:
Thou within the veil hast entered, robed in flesh our great High Priest;
Thou on earth both priest and victim in the Eucharistic feast.
Once again the language is a bit awkward (e.g. "robed in flesh"), but I see nothing doctrinally objectionable; in fact, it I believe Dix meant it as a summary of Hebrews 9:24-26,
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
And perhaps the "awkwardness" of his terminology is no fault; one of the functions of poetry is to use language to cause us to see things in a different light, sometimes by startling us with unconventional expressions. Be that as it may, we are still left with a fine hymn.
Alleluia! Heav'nly High Priest, Thou on earth our help, our stay;
Alleluia! Hear the sinful cry to Thee from day to day:
Intercessor, Friend of sinners, Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me,
Where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.
It is easy for us, conditioned as we are to human perspectives of time, to read to the ends of the gospels and consider Jesus' work to be over at that point. In a sense it was, as He said on the cross when He won the victory and could say "It is finished."(John 19:30) But it is certainly mistaken to think that He is simply sitting in heaven unoccupied until the final judgment. Dix ends this fine text with a contemplation of Jesus' continuing work as our High Priest.
Jesus' work continues as He intercedes on behalf of those who accept God's offer of grace. Hebrews 7:25 says, "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them."
Jesus' work continues as He advocates for His saved ones before God's throne, continuing to cleanse them from sins as they walk in His light. "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."(1 John 1:7) This is not license, but reassurance: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous."(1 John 2:1)
Jesus' work continues as He strengthens us and helps us against temptation. "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. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."(Hebrews 4:15-16)
As Jesus said in John 5:17, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." Even though He has left this earth in physical form, what a joy to know that He is working in us still today, just as He promised!
About the music: Relatively little is known of Rowland Huw Prichard (1811-1887); from the fact that he was working as an "assistant loom tender" into his 70s, we may infer that he was poor and not well-connected in the musical world. In 1844 he published Cyfailly Cantorion ("The Singer’s Friend"), a children's songbook, which contained this tune, known as HYFRODOL (Welsh for "cheerful").(Cyberhymnal, "Prichard") Obscure though he may have been, he stood in a long tradition of great Welsh singers, and the graceful, rolling lines of this tune are exactly what we would expect from the land of the bards. A Cyberhymnal MIDI version can be heard here.
The harmony is by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, music editor of the English Hymnal, also the arranger of "All creatures of our God and King"(PFTL#16). Unlike that arrangement, this one is quite singable by an a cappella congregation, with a little work; it is probably not more difficult than, for example, "O sacred head now wounded"(PFTL#484) or "Christ the Lord is risen today"(PFTL#97). Particularly enjoyable is the way Vaughan Williams creates interesting, melodious lines for each of the voices, matching the fluid nature of the soprano and creating rich, interesting harmony. I would strongly recommend singing this with a 1-beat-per-measure feel, rather than counting beats on all three quarters, to keep it from bogging down.
Cyberhymnal. William Chatterton Dix. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/d/i/x/dix_wc.htm
Cyberhymnal. Rowland Huw Prichard. http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/p/r/prichard_rh.htm