Friday, August 20, 2010

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve

Praise for the Lord #62

Words: Philip Doddridge, 1755
Music: "CHRISTMAS", George F. Handel, 1728, arr. Lowell Mason, 1821

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) was minister of a Dissenter congregation in Northampton, and superintended a seminary for like-minded preachers until his untimely death from tuberculosis.(Cyberhymnal) He was an accomplished scholar with a D.D. from the University of Aberdeen, and was friends with both Isaac Watts and the Wesley brothers, whose careers overlapped his.

His hymns were only published posthumously, in a 1755 compilation, but were circulated in manuscript during his lifetime. Though he wrote about 375 hymns in all, only a few have remained in common use.(Julian) Among the best known are "Grace! 'Tis a charming sound" (PFTL #199), the interesting "O God of Bethel" (PFTL #466), and the perennial baptismal favorite, "O happy day" (PFTL #463)--an excellent text that has the misfortune of sharing a tune with "How dry I am."

Stanza 1:
Awake, my soul, stretch ev'ry nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heav'nly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown.

Though this could certainly be used as a morning hymn, perhaps the "sleep" here implied is more than just physical lethargy. The expression "stretch every nerve," referring to the old use of "nerve" for "sinew," was a British figure of speech for giving the utmost effort;(OED) thus the image of a simple morning yawn-and-stretch might need to be replaced with that of a reawakening to duty, shaking off a stupor of inactivity, as Paul says in Romans 13:11, "the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed."

The central metaphor used in this hymn is that of running a footrace, which was one of Paul's favorites. (1 Cor. 9:24, 2 Tim. 4:7, Phil. 3:14; I have wondered if Paul himself was an athlete.) Doddridge is referring in particular, though, to the imagery of Hebrews 12:1-2 (which may have been by Paul as well):

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the Founder and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
The picture at the right shows one of the starting blocks from Olympia in Greece, site of the ancient Olympic Games. A runner placed one foot in each of the grooves, one in front and one behind, and we can easily imagine the athletes crouched and ready for the signal to start. In training, the runner might carry a weight in each hand or wear a belt with weights (the Greeks anticipated much of the modern concept of resistance training!), but on race day he would put these aside.(Theodorus) This is perhaps what the writer of Hebrews had in mind in "laying aside every weight, and sin that clings closely." The Christian runner has left these behind, lightening the load and making the most of every possible advantage in the contest.

Stanza 2:
A cloud of witnesses around,
Hold thee in full survey:
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way.

The second stanza calls on the powerful imagery of Hebrews 12:1. Having spent the preceding chapter in a brilliant and inspiring roll call of heroes of the faith, the writer now calls on the doubting Christian to remember that these witnesses (witnesses of the faith, and also witnesses of our race) are rooting us on. Any athlete can attest to the power of crowd involvement in a game; the sight of fans on their feet, cheering on the home team, is a powerful emotional motivator, just as the sight of fans' backs as they walk out early is a depressing confirmation that the game is all but lost. We need not worry about the loyalty of this "cloud of witnesses;" they are no fair-weather fans! Abraham, Moses, and Elijah can relate to your long, hard-fought struggles and times of doubt when the victory seems impossibly far off.

Doddridge calls upon another great athletics reference, Philippians 3:13b-14: "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal..." We have probably all seen athletes succumb to the failures of the past. We encourage them to "shake it off," and reassure them with calls of "That's okay!" In the Christian life we also need to shake off the past and focus on the rest of the race. We could all do with a bit of Yogi Berra's optimism when he (supposedly) said, "Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting."

On a personal note, one of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a musician is not to critique myself during a performance. Jazz bass was the best medicine for me, because in a walking bass line (especially when played from just a chord chart!) there is no time to consider what just happened, there is only what is happening now and what happens next. Even dwelling on the next measure has its dangers. Now, there is certainly a time for reflection and self-examination. When Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:28, "Let a person examine himself" before taking the Lord's Supper, obviously the only things we can examine about ourselves are our past actions. But when the past becomes a hindrance to the present and the future, we need to remember which way we are running. No one wins an Olympic footrace while looking backwards.

Stanza 3:
'Tis God's all-animating voice
That calls thee from on high;
'Tis His own hand presents the prize
To thine aspiring eye.

The runners of ancient times ran toward a goal-post, literally a post sticking out of the ground at the end of the stadium. (Paul used this very term in Philippians 3:14, "I press on toward the goal.") Behind the goal-post sat the judge, usually some dignitary, who decided the winner and awarded the prize.(ISBE) Paul may refer to this in 2 Timothy 4:8, "Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day..." But unlike a literal footrace, thankfully the Christian race does not have a single winner. Paul continues, "and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing."

The "crown" mentioned here is the Greek stephanos, a wreath typically made of olive or laurel branches (hence our term "laurels"). It had no intrinsic value, yet it was the most coveted award in the world for an athlete of that day, because of the accomplishment it symbolized. But it would soon wither and crumble, and even the honor itself was only as long-lasting as the next race. Records are made to be beaten. By contrast, the "crown of life" for which we strive is eternal, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:25, "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable." If the athletes of this world will make such sacrifices and commit so much time and effort toward reaching an honor that is remembered only for a little while, how much more should we be willing to do for eternal life?

Stanza 4:
Blest Savior, introduced by Thee,
Have I my race begun;
And, crowned with vict'ry, at Thy feet
I'll lay my honors down.

The final stanza refers to Revelation 4:10, "The twenty-four elders fall down before Him who is seated on the throne and worship Him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, "'Worthy are You, our Lord and God...'" The athletes of this world receive the honors that are due to their own achievements; the better among them will humbly give credit to God who gives them the health, strength, and talent to so achieve. But in the Christian race there is absolutely no question to Whom the glory is due. It is due to God, "who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of His own purpose and grace..."(2 Timothy 1:9)

About the music: Though Handel is best known for his sacred oratorio Messiah, he spent most of his career in the secular field of opera. This tune is adapted from the aria "Non vi piacque" from his opera Siroe, Re de Persia, which premiered in 1728. (Click here for a PDF score and go to page 67 to see the original.) This tune is also widely used with the text "While shepherds watched their flocks by night," thus the tune name "CHRISTMAS."


"Philip Doddridge." Cyberhymnal.

Julian, John. "Philip Doddridge." A Dictionary of hymnology, 2 v. New York: Dover, 1957. Vol. 1, pp. 305-307.

"Nerve." Oxford English Dictionary, 13 v. Oxford: Clarendon, 1933.

Ioannidas Theodorus, et al. "Syncretism of coaching science in ancient Greece and modern times." Serbian Journal of Sports Sciences 2:4 (2008)

"Games." International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.