Monday, February 7, 2011

Beyond the Sunset

Praise for the Lord #71

Words: Virgil P. Brock, 1936
Music: Blanche Kerr Brock, 1936

The origin of this song is so unique, and so well documented by the author, that it is worth looking at in full.

The song was born during a conversation at the dinner table one evening in 1936. We had been watching a very unusual sunset at Winona Lake, Indiana, with a blind guest, my cousin Horace Burr, and his wife Grace. A large area of the water appeared ablaze with the glory of God, yet there were threatening storm clouds gathering overhead. Our blind guest excitedly remarked, "I've just never seen a more beautiful sunset." I responded, "People are always amazed when you talk about seeing, Horace." "I can see," he replied. "I see through other people's eyes, and I think I can see more clearly because I see beyond the sunset." 
The phrase "beyond the sunset" and the inflection of his voice struck me so forcibly. ...I began singing the first few measures. "That's beautiful," his wife interrupted. "Virgil, please go to the piano and sing that phrase again." We went to the piano and soon completed the first verse. Then our guests urged, "Now you should try a verse about the storm clouds." And the words for this verse came quickly as well. Recalling how for so many years our guests had walked hand in hand together due to his blindness, the third verse was soon added. Before the evening meal was finished, all four stanzas had been written, and we sang the entire song together.(Osbeck, 25-26)

The writer's attention to the beauty of nature, his empathy for the positive example set by the Burrs in the face of hardship, and his quick ear for a profound and arresting turn of phrase, gave us this song that has been a source of comfort to untold numbers. Though it is an appropriate meditation for any time, it has of course been a traditional favorite at funeral services for many years.

Stanza 1:
Beyond the sunset, O blissful morning,
When with our Saviour heaven's begun;
Earth's toiling ended, O glorious dawning,
Beyond the sunset when day is done.

The sunset, of course, has long been associated with the end of life. Jesus used this image in John 9:4, "We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work." Paul uses that implication of day's inevitable end in 2 Corinthians 6:2, "Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation." In the same fashion, the writer of Hebrews warns of that coming sunset of life, "But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin."(Hebrews 3:13)

But if there is a sunset of life, Christianity certainly teaches that there is a new dawn beyond it. It is the end of one thing, but the beginning of another, infinitely more glorious. The apostles eagerly pointed us toward that sunrise as a means of encouragement, as is said so beautifully in 2 Peter 1:19, "And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the Morning Star rises in your hearts." Thinking on that eternal morning also can increase our determination and faithfulness, as Paul said in Romans 13:12: "The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."

Stanza 2:
Beyond the sunset, no clouds will gather;
No storms will threaten, no fears annoy.
O day of gladness, O day unending!
Beyond the sunset--eternal joy.

"And fearing that we might run on the rocks, they let down four anchors from the stern and prayed for day to come."(Acts 27:29) So Paul describes the fearful night before his shipwreck at the island of Malta. Have you been through a night like that, when you prayed for day to come? I can remember some nights on the road, driving through thunderstorms, when just the least bit of morning light would make all the difference. Far worse was a 2-o'clock-in-the-morning drive to the emergency room, which came out well in the end but was at the time utterly unnerving in a far more profound sense.

Though there are beautiful nights, full of calm, restful contemplation, we have a natural preference for the day. Predators (of the four- and two-legged variety) stalk at night, because darkness conceals their actions. Honest folk are apprehensive about night, then, because it holds real dangers. But Revelation 22:5 promises of heaven that, "night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever." The prophetic words of Isaiah promise a coming day of rest for God's people: "O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires."(54:11)

Storms likewise are a source of fear (or at least considerable concern!) in this life. Of course, we may admire them as well, from a certain perspective, realizing that God's "way is in whirlwind and storm."(Nahum 1:3) They do serve to remind us of His power and authority, and of our abject helplessness in the face even of the power of His creation, much less His own sovereign might. But we are glad to see them pass! What a comfort to know that "He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed."(Psalm 107:29) The tumult and danger of the storms of this life, literal and figurative, will someday be calmed forever by the same Lord who told the Sea of Galilee, "Peace, be still!"(Mark 4:39)

Stanza 3:
Beyond the sunset, a hand will guide me
To God the Father whom I adore.
His glorious presence, His words of welcome,
Will be my portion on that fair shore.

"Hold my hand!" If you have had charge of a small child, you have said that more times than you can count; if you were a small child yourself, you heard it at least as many times. When the child is big enough to walk, but not big enough to make wise choices in where it goes, there is a long period when an adult's trusted hand is the lifeline of safety in a complicated world of unrecognized dangers. Years have passed, and now my teenage son would find this quite awkward, and my teenage daughter has found that she would rather hold the hand of a certain young gentleman instead; but I remember with some satisfaction those days when the touch of my hand and the reach of my arm placed them within a sphere of freedom, yet safety, from which they surveyed the world with growing confidence.

Though the "right hand of God" is frequently unleashed in judgment in the imagery of the Old Testament prophets, the Psalmist frequently spoke of God's hand in the tender terms of a guiding Parent. "Nevertheless, I am continually with You; You hold my right hand."(Psalm 73:23) There is the same sense of dependence: "My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me."(Psalm 63:8) There is also the sense of reassurance and guarantee of safety in a dangerous world: "The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in His way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand."(Psalm 37:23-24)

The hands of Jesus were the same hands of love, protection, healing, and guidance. Jesus' hands touched the untouchable, as when a leper asked for healing, "and Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, 'I will; be clean.' And immediately his leprosy was cleansed."(Matthew 8:3) Jesus' hands reach out to save; when Peter tried to walk on the waters of Galilee, but found his faith failing, "Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him."(Matthew 14:31a) His hands tenderly brought a young girl back from death to life; "but when the crowd had been put outside, He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose."(Matthew 9:25) These hands will likewise tenderly reach down to wake us on the last day, and guide us to our home in heaven.

Stanza 4:
Beyond the sunset, O glad reunion,
With our dear loved ones who've gone before;
In that fair homeland we'll know no parting,
Beyond the sunset forever more.

One of the most comforting and encouraging passages in Scripture falls at the end of the 4th chapter of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians. These good Christians, living at the dawn of the gospel era, expected the return of Christ at any moment (a wise way to live in any age!), but were concerned that those who had preceded them in death would miss out on the glory of His coming. Paul unfolded a greater revelation of these mysteries:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.  
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.(1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)
No better reassurance, or greater anticipation of reward, could be imagined. Paul concludes the thought with the instruction, "Therefore comfort one another with these words."(v. 18) These are words of comfort, and encouragement as well. "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us."(Hebrews 12:1)

About the music:

The relationship between lyricists and composers, when they actually work together in real time, is often a complex dynamic. The comic operas of Mozart and Da Ponte, or of Gilbert and Sullivan, might never have clicked without that particular chemistry. The American stage has given us similar combinations--the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and others--that simply become more than the sum of their parts. Hymn-writing teams sometimes fall into such patterns as well, as we have already seen with Thomas O. Chisholm's collaborations with Lloyd O. Sanderson. But a husband-wife songwriting team is a truly interesting relationship. Long before the Gaithers came along, the Brocks were an inseparable team that produced a large crop of successful gospel songs.

Virgil Prentiss Brock (1887-1978) was a minister in the Christian Church, but was best known for his musical activities in connection with the conservative evangelical community around Winona Lake, Indiana, which included evangelist Billy Sunday and songwriter/publisher Homer Rodeheaver. Most of his songs were written with his wife, Blanche Kerr Brock (1888-1958), a conservatory-trained pianist.(Cyberhymnal) Though Virgil composed the lyrics and melodies, he confessed that "after Blanche had notated the melody of my song and supplied the necessary harmony, I couldn't even read the notes."(Osbeck, 25) It was a fortunate combination of his intuitive musicianship and natural gift for melody, and her classical training in music theory. There is really no reason for these to ever be in conflict.

(WARNING: MUSIC THEORY CONTENT) The genius of this melody is in the first five notes, underlying the words that gave the song birth. First, it is a striking melodic profile--an upward leap of a 4th, B-flat to E-flat (SOL-DO), then an upward leap of a major 3rd, E-flat to G (DO-MI), and yet another upward leap of a 4th, G to C (MI-LA)--covering the distance of a major 9th, an octave plus one step, in the words, "Be-yond the sun-." Then, in resolution into a tonic harmony (the DO-MI-SOL chord), the final note relaxes down one step to B-flat (SOL). This resolves the slight dissonance created by the preceding note C (on "sun-"), which falls outside the tonic chord. 

This particular use of melodic dissonance against the harmony is an "appoggiatura," in which the melody leaps one note further than it should (as it were), then moves by step into the "correct" note for the given harmony. Typically this is done on a strong beat in the measure, with the resolution on a weaker beat. In "Beyond the sunset" this technique is used to good effect, in the following spots:

Beyond the SUN-set, O blissful MORN-ing,
When with our SAV-iour heaven's begun;
Earth's toiling END-ed, O glorious DAWN*-ing,
Beyond the sunset when day is done. 

"DAWN-ing" is not technically an appoggiatura but a suspension, since it is approached not by leap but by repetition of the same note; still the effect is the same, especially since it occurs in the same spot in the phrase. Having used these little dissonances so consistently, we expect perhaps to hear one at the final "SUN-set" in the fourth line, but instead the melody emerges triumphantly on the tonic note, right in line with the harmony, on the strong beat and at the top of the scale. It is an excellent musical picture of building anticipation and a final, satisfying resolution, perfectly in line with the message of the text.


Osbeck, Kenneth W. Beyond the Sunset: 25 Hymn Stories Celebrating the Hope of Heaven. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2001.

"Virgil Prentiss Brock." Cyberhymnal.

"Blanche Kerr Brock." Cyberhymnal.

1 comment:

  1. This background information just added so much more context to the hymn. Thank you so much for sharing it with all of us!