Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Children of the Heavenly King

Praise for the Lord #87

Words: John Cennick, 1742
Music: PLEYEL'S HYMN, Ignaz Josef Pleyel, 1788

John Cennick (1718-1755), a surveyor from Reading, England, became acquainted with the Wesleys in his early twenties and took up a course of ministry that would occupy the remainder of his brief life. He served first as headmaster of John Wesley's new school for the coal mining community of Kingswood near Bristol.(Julian, 215) Cennick differed with Wesley, however, on the outward manifestations of the Spirit that accompanied the latter's revival services, and eventually rejected the Wesleyan doctrine of "second grace" or "Christian perfection." For a time he worked alongside George Whitefield in the growing evangelical wing of the Church of England, undertaking preaching tours through Wiltshire that faced sometimes violent opposition. He eventually found kindred spirits among the Moravian Brethren in London, and spent the remainder of his ministry in that fellowship.(Hutton, bk.2, ch.11) In addition to his theological tracts and books of sermons, he published four hymn collections and contributed several hymns to the Moravian Hymnal. Besides the present hymn, he is remembered today for "Lo, He cometh, countless trumpets," better known in its altered version, "Lo! He comes with clouds descending" (PFTL #406).(Julian, 216)

"Children of the Heavenly King" appeared first in Cennick's 1742 collection Sacred Hymns for the Children of God, with twelve stanzas. George Whitefield reduced it to six stanzas in his hymnal of 1753, and this is the form in which it has been passed down.(Julian, 219)

Stanza 1:
Children of the heav'nly King,
As ye journey, sweetly sing;
Sing your Savior's worthy praise,
Glorious in His works and ways.

Millions of people throughout Great Britain and the Commonwealth, and a surprising number of us in the States, were glued to their television sets to watch the wedding of Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton. It is surely an oddity of history that Americans, whose ancestors fought for independence from the British royals, are so enamored of them today. (And they do seem like such nice young people!) But the thing that brought them to our attention at all, of course, is that Prince William is second in line to a throne.

The child of a king (or grandchild of a queen in this case) is someone special. From the moment he was born, Prince William was different from all the other boys his age. There are certain privileges, to be sure, that the rest of us do not enjoy. There are also responsibilities of the office--the tradition of military service, and of support of charitable works--as well as the concern not to bring criticism upon the family. It is the life to which he was born.

You and I, of course, cannot become a part of the Windsor family, any more than Prince William could choose not to be. But in the ancient cultures of Bible times, it was not unheard of for an individual to adopt an heir, who could indeed inherit a property, a title, or even a kingdom. The emperors of Rome sometimes followed this pattern, in fact, and headed off potential disputes over succession by adopting their chosen successors as their "children" even when they were near the same age! I think this understanding of adoption lies behind the language of Ephesians 1:5-6, "In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved." Adoption in Western culture today is also motivated by love, and perhaps to some extent through a desire for heirs; but this is an adoption into the "royal family" of God Himself, with all the privileges and responsibilities of such a change of station.

How do we become "children of the heavenly King," adopted into this family of privilege? It begins with faith: "While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light. These things spake Jesus, and departed, and did hide himself from them."(John 12:36) But it is a certain kind of faith, a faith that follows through: "For you are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ."(Galatians 3:26-27) We are brought into the family by this active faith in Christ, a faith that is put into action when we are baptized into Christ.

I can never forget when my brother- and sister-in-law were going through the procedures to adopt two children who were in the custody of the state. The state officials said yes, it looks good, we do not anticipate any problems, etc.; but we were all praying and holding our breath until the day came when a judge pronounced the adoption final, and all the legal papers were signed. It was a very definite process--up to a certain point, they were not their legal children, but after that point, they were. We should not be surprised that there is also a definite point at which we enter into the family of God, marked by the ritual of baptism.

Once we have come into the royal family, how should we act? In Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, two nearly identical boys, one the son of the king and the other a street urchin, switch places as a prank. The "fish out of water" humor that follows has inspired films and television comedies ever since! We are much the same as that pauper, coming into the family of God; the Lord has a lot of reforming yet to do even after He has taken us into His family. The Bible gives us plenty of guidance, of course, to tell us how to get started:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him."(Romans 8:14-17)
So we are "led by the Spirit" to act like the children of God we have become. The Spirit reveals in this passage that the children of God are characterized by confidence in their Father's love--a great reassurance, as we find ourselves so often falling short of the calling we have received.

We also learn that suffering may be part of our lot as children of God, because not only has our relationship to God changed, but our relationship to the world. Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."(Matthew 5:9) He did not have to point out, of course, that peacemakers necessarily exist in the midst of conflict. He set the bar even higher later in the same discussion:
"But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that you may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust."(Matthew 5:44-45)
Being "children of the heavenly King" is a serious responsibility and a high calling--but Cennick's opening stanza rightly calls on us to rejoice. Paul's theme of rejoicing is so well known, and so abundant throughout his writings, that it needs no illustration. Very often his rejoicing was in spite of considerable suffering and persecution; but in this he simply followed the example of Christ who said, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you."(Matthew 5:12)

I think two things are at work here. First, there is a joy in knowing that you have done the right thing, and often the surest proof of that is the criticism and even persecution it brings from those who resent righteousness. Not that we are self-righteously pleased with ourselves; rather, we rejoice that by God's grace we have passed another test. But Jesus points to an even greater joy as well--our reward in heaven. He taught the disciples this lesson in sharp relief when they were feeling a bit smug about having the ability to cast out demons: "Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."(Luke 10:20) All joys of this life, and all its sorrows too, fade in comparison to the joy of knowing that we will find that "Sabbath rest for the people of God."(Hebrews 4:9)

And contrary to the opinions of some who misrepresent the Christian's hope of heaven, it is not all about mansions and golden streets. Listen to the thrill of joy in John's voice, reaching across the centuries: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is." It is a joyous hope of fulfillment, of revelation, of perfection of all good things. No wonder Christianity is a singing religion!

Whitefield's reduced version of this hymn included two more stanzas here, omitted in Praise for the Lord:

We are traveling home to God,
In the way the fathers trod;
They are happy now, and we
Soon their happiness shall see.

The "sojourner," a foreigner living temporarily in another land, has often been viewed unkindly. The societies in which they live often say, "They are different from us. They speak differently, and they have different ways. They are not committed to our society--they do not have the same stake in it as do we." All of this is true of the Christian living in this world!

Abraham is our great example of a godly sojourner:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.(Hebrews 11:8-10)
As time has passed, archaeology has learned much about the ancient city of Ur, and we have a better idea now of what Abraham sacrificed. This was one of the great cities of ancient times; Abraham's move was equivalent to leaving an apartment in New York City to live in a mobile home on the Great Plains (not that there is anything wrong with the latter, which is where I spent much of my early adult life). Perhaps this explains Lot's weakness for the high life, seen in his fatal decision to move into Sodom. But Abraham gave up all the world had to offer, because he was focused on something far higher: obedience to his God. He could give up a permanent home, becaue he knew that he had no home apart from God. There is something here, too, of relinquishing too close ties with this world and its affairs.

Cennick's stanza reminds us of the examples of those who have gone before us: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."(Romans 15:4) We can take courage from the examples of those great sojourners written of in Scripture, and we can also take courage from examples we have known in our own lives, who kept their focus on that heavenly city to the very end.

Another of the "lost stanzas" of Cennick's hymn is the following:

O, ye banished seed, be glad!
Christ our advocate is made;
Us to save, our flesh assumes--
Brother to our souls becomes.

This contains several noble thoughts, but is a bit of a failure in wording. John Julian said of Cennick's writing that "some of the stanzas of his hymns are very fine, but the hymns taken as a whole are most unequal."(Julian, 216) "Banished seed" jumps from the page, demanding explanation. Now, there is a sense in which an odd turn of phrase may take us by surprise, but then we see its point and say, "Aha!", and its message becomes all the more memorable. There is another kind of odd turn of phrase, however, that is simply awkward, and I have to place "banished seed" in that category. I suppose it refers to the Gentile world apart from Christ, "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world."(Ephesians 2:12) But I am not really sure.

The other factor that runs to excess here is the reordering of sentence structure. In a more normal order, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th lines would run something like this: "Christ is made our Advocate, assumes our flesh to save us, [and] becomes Brother to our souls." These are fine, Scriptural thoughts, but the hymn's bumptious word order all but obscures them, especially in the 3rd line where not only is word order inverted within the clauses, but the normal order of the clauses themselves is reversed.

Stanza 2:
Shout, ye ransomed ones and blest!
You on Jesus' throne shall rest;
There your seat is now prepared,
There your glory and reward.

This stanza has undergone revision over the years, and not necessarily for the better. The first line was originally, "Shout, ye little flock, and blest;" the last line was, "There your kingdom and reward."(Cyberhymnal, "Children") Where does the expression "little flock" derive? Is it just another example of Cennick's sometimes peculiar imagination? The answer is found in Luke 12:32, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."

The context of this stanza, then, is Jesus' discourse in Luke 12:13-34 on the proper way of thinking about material possessions. This is very similar to Matthew 6:19-34 from the Sermon on the Mount, even to the repetition of exact phrases (like most speakers, Jesus had catchphrases that appear in more than one speech). The Luke 12 passage begins with someone in the crowd demanding Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute, which He makes an opportunity for warning against covetousness and materialism (v. 13-15). The parable of the rich fool follows (v. 16-21), then verses 22-31 are a close restatement of Matthew 6:25-33, with the same images of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Luke 12:31, "Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you," is an obvious parallel to the better known Matthew 6:33; this is the introduction to Luke 12:32, "Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."

We might quibble with Cennick as to whether it is appropriate to speak of receiving the kingdom when we reach heaven, for Jesus also said, "The kingdom of God is within you,"(Luke 17:21) and clearly taught that the kingdom would come into real existence in that generation. But the one certain thing is that the alterations to this stanza totally obscured his sources and his meaning. In context of the Lord's teaching in Luke 12, this is not just a generic stanza about the glories to come, but is a call for Christians to rejoice in their choice to seek first the kingdom of God, forsaking covetousness and greed. And if we cannot rejoice in that, let us look again at what Jesus taught here about materialism!
And He said to them, "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."(Luke 12:15)

"Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
God help us, in this land of plenty, to take Jesus at His word and obey Him. We are without excuse to do otherwise.

Stanza 3:
Lift your eyes, ye sons of light!
Zion's city is in sight:
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord we soon shall see.

This stanza suggests the ancient Hebrew practice of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so beautifully illustrated in the "Psalms of Ascents" (Psalms 120-134), at least according to one common interpretation. One cannot help but think of Psalm 121, verses 1-2,
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
The meaning of the first verse is debated--does help come from the hills, or are the hills a place of danger where one needs help? But regardless of the interpretation, two facts are clear: the ancient pilgrim faced dangers on the journey up into the hills where Jerusalem was, and yet the joy of arriving in that city was worth any risk. We see that jubilant arrival in the very next Psalm, where the writer says in a tone almost of disbelief, "Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!"(Psalm 122:2) The Mishna claims that this Psalm was sung by pilgrims coming to the Feast of Firstfruits, upon their arrival at the city gates.(Cheyne, 329) One can only imagine the joy of the Hebrew pilgrims, when they made that last turn in the road, or topped the last hill, and the holy city came into view. It might be some time yet before they arrived, but I doubt if anyone wanted to stop to rest; no doubt even the oldest and tiredest among the group would quicken the pace, anxious to reach the goal.

We cannot physically see the City of God to which we are journeying, any more than could Abraham.(Hebrews 11:10) But like Abraham, we know that "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come."(Hebrews 13:14) And if the ancient Hebrew pilgrims excitedly anticipated reaching the earthly Jerusalem, we surely need to remember that,
You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect.(Hebrews 12:22-23)
We have not reached that last turn in the road yet, but by faith we anticipate the sight and keep to the road that leads us home.

Stanza 4:
Fear not, brethren, joyful stand
On the borders of your land;
Jesus Christ, your Father's Son,
Bids you undismayed go on.

No matter how prepared we are for a change, there is often a sense of apprehension when we finally cross that border from the familiar to the unfamiliar. When I moved to Texas for graduate school, there was something vaguely unsettling about crossing that bridge over the Red River separating Oklahoma from the state that was to be my home for the next several years. I wondered if I would ever move "back home" again--and with good reason, because so far I have not.

The final crossing of a border has significance in the Bible as well. The signature event in God's deliverance of Israel from Egypt was crossing the seemingly impossible barrier of the Red Sea, which separated Egypt proper from the Sinai. A generation later Israel would stand at the edge of the Jordan, and God's miracle would be repeated as the waters receded from the feet of the advancing priests. It is a moving scene to read, as a group of people who had grown to maturity in the years of desert wandering see the fulfillment of God's plans laid centuries before their birth.

Most poignant of all, of course, is the thought of Moses standing on Mount Nebo (Deuteronomy 32), able to finally see the land toward which he had faithfully led God's people for so many years, yet unable to enter. No one had desired more earnestly to see it; no one had worked harder and sacrificed more to bring the people there; but God's will was otherwise. And though we understand that God's will was just and right, we cannot help but hurt for Moses as he sees, but cannot reach, the promised land.

There is a greater crossing than all, however, that Moses has already achieved. Denied though he was in his desire to cross the Jordan, we have no doubt that ever since he crossed over the dividing line between this life and the next, he has been and is now safe in the paradise of God. Whatever regrets he felt on Mount Nebo were long ago forgotten in that place where he is "at Abraham's side."(Luke 16:22)

We cannot help having apprehension about death; it is an unknown, perhaps the last great unknown of human existence. But a Christian can face it with even greater assurance than Moses had, because we follow Jesus who blazed the trail for us, through death to everlasting life: "Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dies no more; death has no more dominion over Him."(Romans 6:9) Realizing this, we can say with Paul, "O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?"(1 Corinthians 15:55) In this stanza, Cennick pictures Jesus as standing on the other side, beckoning us on, just as parents encourage their toddlers to take those first faltering steps unsupported. We have not crossed that divide yet, but we can and will make it, through the grace and help of our Savior.

Stanza 5:
Lord, obediently we go,
Gladly leaving all below:
Only, Lord, our Leader be,
That we still may follow Thee.

Jesus said "My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."(Matthew 11:30) But in fact the greatest challenge He presented many of His disciples was not the burdens they were called to bear, but those they were told to give up. The final stanza in this version of Cennick's hymn reminds us that we will have to leave many things of this world behind to follow Jesus. Ultimately, of course, we will leave it all behind.

It is fascinating to look at the reactions of those to whom the Lord gave the simple command, "Follow Me." He said this to Peter and Andrew, and Matthew says of those faithful men, "Immediately they left their nets and followed Him."(Matthew 4:20) He gave the same challenge to James and John, and, "Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him."(Matthew 4:22) We should not assume that it was just a case of the fishing being poor that day! They were small business owners, with nets and boats to care for, and at least in Peter's case, with mouths to feed at home. When they walked away from their jobs for the next few years (or at the very least worked only on an intermittent basis), it was a decision with real consequences.

But not all were ready to give up so much to follow Him. An unnamed disciple responded to the call, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."(Matthew 8:21) We are not certain, but might suppose, that he meant to delay his discipleship until his elderly father had passed away. Jesus knew his heart and said sternly, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead."(Matthew 8:22) Luke tells us that another said, "I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."(Luke 9:61-62) Probably the saddest of such occasions was that involving the rich young ruler:
And as He was setting out on His journey, a man ran up and knelt before Him and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.'" And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth."

And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.(Mark 10:17-22)

We often think of the Christian's struggle against "worldliness" as a struggle against overt and obvious carnality, but these examples prove that the lure of the world is often more subtle. In the parable of the sower, Jesus interpreted the meaning of the seed that grew up in thorny ground as follows: "but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful."(Mark 4:19) There certainly is the possibility of being captivated by "desires" ("lusts," KJV), but the "deceitfulness of riches" will probably bring as many to eternal loss as the lust of the flesh! This was the sad case of the rich young ruler, a conscientious and upright young man to whom Jesus immediately took a liking. There is no question the man loved God and desired to be pleasing to Him; but he loved his possessions just a little more.

The "cares of the world" are even more tricky snares, because they can come disguised as virtues. The Greek word used here, merimna, comes from a verb meaning "to draw in two different directions,"("Merimna") and in this case both directions may be virtuous in themselves. Jesus told the two would-be disciples in Luke chapter 9 that following Him must come before family and friends. Not that Jesus excused anyone from the legitimate obligations to care for one's own; He sharply criticized the Pharisees' practice of Corban, by which the financial support owed to one's elderly parents was instead given to the temple. Paul declares this general principle in 1 Timothy 5:8, "If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever."

But Jesus comes first, before our obligations to parents, relatives, friends, or even to spouse and children. The secret is, of course, that when we do put Jesus first and truly follow His teachings, we will be even better to our spouses, parents, children, and friends than before. "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."(Matthew 6:33) Then we will put these "cares of the world" into their proper relationship to our Christian walk, and will draw these relationships and their obligations into a heavenly realm.

About the music:

This is from Pleyel's String Quartet B.349, the fourth quartet from a set of six that was first published in Paris in 1788 (I believe the 1791 date usually given for this hymn is incorrect, and probably refers to his next set of quartets). The set was dedicated to the Prince of Wales, and is also known through its London publication as op. 20.(IMSLP) I have not found a recording of this quartet, but I have provided a score of this movement.

Ignaz Pleyel (1757-1831), from Ruppersthal, Austria, was a contemporary of Mozart and a student of Joseph Haydn. After a period of apprenticeship, he served the court of the Count Erdödy (to whom Haydn would dedicate a famous set of quartets), and eventually settled in Strasbourg, France. His writing is well-crafted, very much in the character of the earlier works Mozart or Haydn. By the late 1780s when this quartet appeared, however, Haydn had driven the genre well past such light pleasantries, giving the quartet genre the artistic depth and seriousness of a symphony. In 1785 Mozart had published his "Haydn quartets," dedicated to his friend and mentor, showing what a first-rate composer of great melodic felicity could do with the expanded form.

Pleyel had the misfortune, in a sense, of living in an era of giants. He even managed to schedule a concert series in London at the same time Haydn was there premiering his "London symphonies," with the result that Pleyel's music was thoroughly overshadowed by these monumental works. His biggest impact was instead as a manufacturer of pianos. His instruments were considered among the very finest in the world, and the Pleyel company was an industry leader by the late 1800s. It is still in existence in spirit today, though the name itself has been absorbed through corporate mergers in the 20th century.(Cranmer, 6-8)

The hymn setting is taken with very little change from the theme used in the second movement of the quartet, where it becomes the subject of a set of variations in which the different instruments take turns in elaborating on its ideas. I have not discovered when this tune was made into a hymn, but it has another association that highlights an interesting feature of the Classical music world of the late 18th century: Pleyel, like Mozart and Haydn, was a Freemason, and this hymn tune has been used in Masonic ceremonial music for many years.(Music of Freemasonry)

Coincidentally, another famous hymn tune was also the subject of a theme-and-variations movement in a Classical string quartet. The "AUSTRIAN HYMN" by Joseph Haydn was the basis of the second movement of his "Kaiser Quartet," op. 76, no. 3. This tune, however, was already in existence, since Haydn originally wrote it as the Austrian anthem "God save Emperor Franz." (The same tune is used today for the national anthem of Germany.) This hymn is perhaps best known to English-speakers with the text "Glorious things of thee are spoken" (PFTL #165).


Julian, John. A Dictionary of Hymnology. New York: Scribner, 1892. http://books.google.com/books?id=aBDpAAAAIAAJ

Hutton, J. E. A History of the Moravian Church, second edition. 1909. Online edition by the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/hutton/moravian.toc.html

"Children of the Heavenly King." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/c/o/f/cofthehk.htm

Cheyne, T.K. Book of Psalms. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, 1888.

"Merimna." Strong's Concordance & Thayer's Lexicon. Blueletterbible. http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3308

"6 String Quartets, B.346-351 (Pleyel, Ignaz)." International Music Score Library Project. http://imslp.org/wiki/6_String_Quartets,_B.346-351_(Pleyel,_Ignaz)

Cranmer, Margaret. "Pleyel." The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 volumes. London: Macmillan, 1980, v.15, pp. 6-12.

"Pleyel's Hymn." Music of Freemasonry. http://www.masonmusic.org/pleyel.html

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