Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Behold a Stranger at the Door

Praise for the Lord #65

Words: Joseph Grigg, 1765
Music: George Hews, 1835 (HOLLEY)

Joseph Grigg (ca.1720-1768) was the child of poor parents, brought up with every expectation that he would be a laborer or tradesman. But from the age of 10, reputedly, he began to write hymns; and his interest in spiritual pursuits and learning led him into the ministry. In his early twenties he became an assistant minister of the Silver Street Presbyterian Church in London, but after only a few years he resigned and married a woman with property, from which situation he was able to continue his writing undistracted.He published a few small hymn collections, and several hymns in The Christian's Magazine. In 1861 Daniel Sedgwick, one of the earliest hymnologists, collected Grigg's hymns and other poetry into Hymns on Divine Subjects.(Julian) But besides "Behold a stranger," only "Jesus, and shall it ever be?"(PFTL#339) has seen widespread use. Grigg also published sermons, including one titled The young chevalier: no God-speed to him (London, 1745), in which he railed against the Jacobite uprising in Scotland under "Bonnie Prince Charlie."

Stanza 1:
Behold a stranger at the door!
He gently knocks, has knocked before,
Has waited long, is waiting still;
You treat no other friend so ill.

The inspiration for this hymn is, no doubt, Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me." Several points arise from this verse. To begin with, Jesus, who has "all authority in heaven and on earth,"(Matthew 28:18) waits at the doors of our hearts, minds, souls, and lives, hoping that we will choose to let Him in. He could overwhelm our wills in an instant and have our undivided obedience, breaking down that door if He so chose, but He wants us to let Him in by our own choice. In fact, under no other condition will He come in; He will not be an uninvited Guest. Yes, someday "every knee will bow,"(Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10) when Jesus is revealed as the "King of Kings and Lord of Lords."(Revelation 19:16) But for now, He waits outside the door and knocks, hoping to be let in as a Friend.

Would any dignitary of this world act in such a way? If we were to meet the President of the United States, most likely we would go somewhere to see him, rather than him coming to our home. But if he did, do you imagine that he would come up to the door himself and knock? He would certainly have people with him who would do it, or more likely, we would be waiting with the door open when he arrived.

But would we leave him standing outside and knocking? We are apologetic even to strangers when we make them wait at the door. But as Grigg points out, Jesus has knocked before, and is knocking now, patiently waiting in hopes that He will be noticed. He "is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance."(2 Peter 3:9)

Stanza 2:
But will He prove a Friend indeed?
He will--the very Friend you need!
The Man of Nazareth, 'tis He,
With garments dyed at Calvary.

We would be honored to have a President or other high official visit our home; no doubt we would tell that story repeatedly in our families down through the years. But what if that person were actually a close family friend, who then attained high office? It would be hard not to drop that name, or mention that relationship, when speaking to our neighbors! Yet we can claim friendship with a Ruler on a far higher level than any temporal office; Jesus said to His disciples just before His death, "No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you."(John 15:15)

What a blessing friends are! If you have just one friend "that sticks closer than a brother,"(Proverbs 18:24) it is far easier to bear the burdens of life. "Friends in high places" is a catchphrase, of course, because it is such an obvious part of human affairs; it is often more important who you know, rather than what you know. Now, you may have no friends at city hall, or at the state capital, or in Washington, D.C., but Who you know in heaven is far more important in the long run. Friends in "high places," to be certain! And the quality of that friendship is far beyond most of our human relationships. In John 15:13 Jesus defined the test of His friendship with us as this: "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." How many people would do this for you? For how many people would you do it? But Jesus has done it, for all of us, even for those who railed against Him then and those who do so today.

The following stanza is omitted in Praise for the Lord, but occurs at this point in the original:

Rise, touched with gratitude divine;
Turn out His enemy and thine,
That soul destroying monster, sin,
And let the heavenly Stranger in.

The "soul destroying monster" is an odd phrase for a hymn, and may be the reason for its omission. It is certainly no overstatement, however! Sin will often destroy the body, but it will most definitely destroy the soul. Another interesting point in this stanza is that the spiritual "house" is not empty; there is a spiritual master of one sort or the other. As the parable of the empty house in Luke 11:24-26 shows, the spiritual realm does not admit a total vacuum any more than the natural. Like all vermin, Satan and his forces will move back in as soon as they find a dwelling not occupied by a power strong enough to keep them out.

Stanza 3:
O lovely attitude! He stands
With melting heart and laden hands!
O matchless kindness! And He shows
This matchless kindness to His foes.

It is an old custom to bring gifts when visiting, one that we still often observe on a first visit to a friend's home. A still more widely observed custom is the housewarming gift, meant to wish a family well on their taking up a new residence, and to show them a welcome into their new neighborhood. When Jesus enters into the heart of a person, He is no less gracious! "He stands ... with laden hands!" Consider the gifts that Scripture tells us Jesus brings:
  1. In talking to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, "Jesus answered her, 'If you knew the gift of God, and Who it is that is saying to you, "Give Me a drink," you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.' ... But whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."(John 4:10,14)
  2. "And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'"(Acts 2:38)
  3. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."(Romans 3:23-24)
  4. "For if, because of one man's trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ."(Romans 5:17)
  5. "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."(Romans 6:23)
Jesus certainly does not come to us empty-handed, asking entrance into our hearts. Truly we can say with Paul, "Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift!"(2 Corinthians 9:15) Even more amazing, as this stanza of the hymn points out, is that the same gifts are extended to the staunchest enemies of Christ. And how much better evidence of anyone's character, than how he treats his enemies when they are at his mercy?

Stanza 4:
Admit Him, for the human breast
Ne'er entertained so kind a guest;
No mortal tongue their joys can tell
With whom He condescends to dwell.

"Condescending" has a negative flavor to it; we don't like it when someone is "condescending" to us. We don't like for someone else to act as though they are above us, and are doing us a favor by associating with us. But in the case of our Lord, that is exactly what He is doing! The second chapter of Hebrews addresses this at length:

But we see Him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that He, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the Founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers ... 
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. ... 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.(Hebrews 2:9-11,14,15,17)
To return again to our example of earthly dignitaries, we are always glad to see that people in high office have the "common touch" and "aren't afraid to get their hands dirty." Politicians go to considerable lengths to convey this image, sometimes making themselves quite ridiculous in the process; it is fairly easy to tell when a man has actually done manual labor, or is just playing at it. The bona fides of Jesus, in this respect, are indisputable: He was a man--a common, working man, just as sweaty as the rest. And though under provocation He sometimes revealed His true nature ("Before Abraham was, I AM," John 8:58), His favorite appellation was clearly "Son of Man." 

A final stanza, often omitted:
Sovereign of souls, Thou Prince of Peace,
O may Thy gentle reign increase:
Throw wide the door, each willing mind;
And be His empire all mankind.

This is the devout wish of every committed Christian. The Prince of Peace would take this world, not by storm, but by quiet invitation; not by the sword, but by the Word. May His people always remember this and follow His example in gentle persuasion.

About the music:

This tune is also used for "Lord, speak to me"(PFTL#381), and frequently for "Softly now the light of day."(Butterworth & Brown) George Hews (1806-1873) was a Bostonian, and one of the first generation of American piano makers (along with his better known friend, Jonas Chickering). Hews also played organ at the famous old Brattle Street Church (at that time a Unitarian congregation). He was, significantly, a member of the Handel and Haydn Society for over forty years, and vice president for nine years.(Hurd) This places him within the orbit of the American hymnody giant, Lowell Mason, and Hews's hymn tune could easily pass for a work of Mason's. According to Butterworth & Brown, Hews worked with Mason on some of the latter's hymnals, and may have contributed music to them. 

They share a certain careful refinement (bordering on syrupy preciousness) that typified the 19th-century Boston hymnists' break with their rough-and-ready colonial past. Mason of course often rose above this style; whether Hews did or not is hard to tell without more examples of his work. Hurd (loc. cit.) claims that he wrote "several hymns," but I have not been able to find them.

A couple of nice features in the melody and harmony: The first three chords of the first two phrases ("Be- hold a...") and ("He gent- ly...) are a very distinctive progression from the tonic chord, through a fully diminished 7th chord, and back to the tonic. This could also be analyzed as doubled lower neighbor tones between the soprano and tenor, but I think the second combination sounds as a chord, G#-B-(D omitted)-F. From a harmonic analysis standpoint, this is a "common-tone diminished 7th," or a non-functional diminished 7th, i.e. not functioning as a leading tone chord. (This is also a common barbershop quartet progression!) Using this bit of chromatic coloring at the beginning of the first phrase, then sequenced up a 3rd to begin the second phrase, ties the music together nicely so that it seems to grow naturally out of the initial idea. Another unifying feature is the ascending scale pattern in the first phrase, on "at the (door)." This four-note stepwise motion appears in descending motion to end the second phrase, and again in descending form at the end of the third phrase.

A nagging problem about this music (at least with this text), to me, is that it strains the rhythmic emphasis in a typical long meter text. The rhythm opening each phrase is LONG-short-short-LONG, whereas long meter hymns are anapestic throughout, with each line opening short-LONG-short-LONG. For this reason, several lines of Grigg's hymn are forced into somewhat unnatural rhythms:

"BE-hold a STRAN-ger AT the DOOR" 
instead of 
"be-HOLD a STRAN-ger AT the DOOR"

"AD-mit Him FOR the HU-man BREAST"
instead of
"ad-MIT Him FOR the HU-man BREAST"

Of course some things like this can hardly be avoided, especially when we sings several stanzas to the same tune, but the reversal of emphasis in "BE-hold" and "AD-mit" is a little annoying. It isn't the fault of either Grigg or Hews; it's just a difficult marriage (that has nonetheless lasted for many decades)! But try singing this text to the tune of "Father of mercies" (PFTL#141) or even OLD 100TH ("Praise God from Whom all blessings flow"); either of them fits the lyrics better.


Julian, John. A dictionary of hymnology, 2 vols. Mineola, New York: Dover, 1957.

Hurd, Duane Hamilton. A history of Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Philadelphia: Lewis, 1890, I:504.

Butterworth, Hezekiah, and Theron Brown. The story of the hymns and tunes. New York: American Tract Society, 1906, 483-484. http://books.google.com/books?id=ezIAAAAAMAAJ

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