Saturday, April 28, 2012

Come We That Love the Lord

Praise for the Lord #111

Words: Isaac Watts, 1707; chorus, Robert Lowry, 1867
Music: Robert Lowry, 1867

Sometimes a hymn can become a favorite on the strength of associations alone, but I think more often it is a really great hymn to begin with that, in combination with those associations, makes an impression that lasts a lifetime. I have loved this hymn since I was a little boy, just for its happy, upbeat tone. But in my teen years, I would remember it as the last hymn I led at the last worship service of the old Northside Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I grew up. And it was one of the songs I chose for my first time leading a worship service at the Brown Trail Church of Christ in Bedford, Texas, on a Sunday when one of the preaching students was delivering what may have been his first sermon there. Little did we know that we would someday be brothers-in-law, and would be blessed to fill those same roles in the same pulpit on many more Sundays!

This hymn originally appeared as hymn #30 in Book II of Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707), the section titled "Composed on Divine Subjects." As usual with Watts's hymns, there were many more stanzas in the original--no fewer than 10 in this case--and later hymnals have culled these into various versions. Click here to see the full original text. Our four-stanza version here includes the stanzas most commonly known, and has only one change from Watts's original wording--"children of the heavenly King," instead of "favorites of the heavenly King," in the second stanza.

Watts gave the superscription, "Heavenly joy on earth," as the theme of his hymn, and it certainly is a hymn of pure joy, though admitting there are challenges in life. Yes, there will be scoffers "who never knew our God," and there are "tears to be dried;" but these are momentary, and our goal is eternal. The joy our God gives us, especially when we gather to sing His praises, swallows these up and overwhelms them.

Stanza 1:
Come we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.

The teachings of Jesus contain "hard sayings"(John 6:60), and these very often come in the form of a paradox. The Teacher who said, "Blessed are those who mourn,"(Matthew 5:4) is the same Teacher who said, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."(John 15:11) But a good definition of a paradox, as the old saying goes, is "truth standing on its head to get our attention." It is well worth our time to investigate what a Christian's joy really is.

First, it is closely associated with the new birth by the Holy Spirit; Paul in fact called it the "joy of the Spirit."(1 Thessalonians 1:6) It is a characteristic of the Spirit-born citizens of Christ's kingdom, exhibiting "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."(Romans 14:17) In Paul's list of the fruits of the Spirit, it is second only to love, the greatest Christian virtue.(Galatians 5:22) Peter called it "inexpressible and filled with glory."(1 Peter 1:8)

But this joy of the Spirit is not a light, giddy euphoria; it is a joy that exists alongside real problems and suffering. Paul said to the Corinthians, "In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy."(2 Corinthians 7:4) He also reported that the churches in Macedonia "in a severe test of affliction" and "extreme poverty" still had an "abundance of joy."(2 Corinthians 8:2) It is a joy that seems instead to thrive in adversity; James made the outlandish statement, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.(James 1:2-3) Perhaps this association is seen most clearly in Paul's blessing to the church in Colossae, "May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy."(Colossians 1:11)

So this is not a giddy, euphoric joy such as we might feel at a sporting event. It is a joy that exists in spite of sorrows, and in full recognition of them, not in their denial. It is a deep, solemn joy, somewhat like we might feel in connection with a graduation, or a marriage, or the birth of a child--full of cheer, yet not unmixed with serious contemplation. But it is also a joy that should be known! The Psalms call on us again and again to sing and shout for joy, and Psalm 107:2 says pithily, "Let the redeemed of the LORD say so." As Isaac Watts expressed so well in another hymn (Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Book 1, Hymn #39), unfortunately not so common in modern hymnals but familiar to Sacred Harp singers:
Now let my inward joys arise,
And burst into a song;
Almighty love inspires my heart,
And pleasure tunes my tongue.
It seems no accident that in the the parallel passages on Christian song found in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, the prerequisite for praise is to "be filled with the Spirit,"(Ephesians 5:18) and to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly."(Colossians 3:16) When this true, abiding Christian joy fills our hearts, it overflows in our outward words and deeds.

We're marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We're marching upward to Zion,
The beautiful city of God.

The chorus, of course, is an addition of the composer, Robert Lowry. Though it is not of a piece with the style of Watts, it is not so jarringly different as is the chorus tacked onto "Alas! And did my Savior bleed?" Lowry took the "marching" image from Watts's final stanza and spread that active, restless metaphor across the entire hymn. He also focused the singer's attention on the Christian's goal, the "city of God," which Watts introduced only in the next-to-last stanza. So if Lowry altered the presentation of Watts's ideas somewhat by adding this chorus, at least it was a sensible interpretation!

Lowry's phrase "marching to Zion" has become an ingrained part of the religious vocabulary of the United States, and a lightning rod in some worthwhile discussions on the role of the church in this world. It is a metaphor that tells the simple truth: "My kingdom is not of this world."(John 18:36) The people of Jesus Christ are " strangers and exiles on the earth."(Hebrews 11:13) But if the body of Christ is sojourning here, with citizenship in another kingdom, does that mean we are (in the words of the secularist) promising "pie in the sky in the sweet by and by" instead of working to make the world better here and now? Some put it even more bluntly: "the beneficiaries of the social system appealed to a future world to encourage their subjects to remain docile."(Yoder, 241)

No one denies that this has been done, just as people have always "twisted" the Scriptures (2 Peter 3:16) to suit their own ends. But when we look at the first-century vision of the kingdom, as John Howard Yoder points out,
In the worldview of that time the gap between the present and the promised was not fundamental. What we are now doing is what leads to where we are going. Since the "this-worldly" and the "otherworldly" were not percieved in radical dichotomy, to be "marching through Immanuel's ground" today is to be on the way to Zion.(Yoder, 241)
Jesus set up a kingdom "not of this world," but He also calls on the citizens of that kingdom to be salt and light in this world while we are here.(Matthew 5:13-16) These "good works"(v.16) are not what save us, but they are what obedient saved people do--they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners.(Matthew 25:35-36) As Runyon points out, "there is no dichotomy between 'Marching to Zion' and marching from Selma to Montgomery."(Runyon, 52) There is a danger, of course, that the church can become mired in politics (as it can on any issue of this world). There is a danger as well that accommodation to the world can tempt the church to emphasize an earthly mission of good works at the expense of the far less popular mission of preaching of the gospel. The church is about saving first, then about serving. But there is a danger just as perilous, that this becomes an excuse to ignore the crying needs of a hurting world. We can stand to do a lot more of both, and saving and serving work best hand in hand.

Stanza 2:
Let those refuse to sing
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heav'nly King
May speak their joys abroad.


When Watts speaks of those "who never knew our God," who did he mean? He certainly faced atheists in his day. (His hymn "Shall atheists dare insult the cross?" puts forward his point of view firmly!) But there is a wide chasm between a mere assent that God exists, and the Scriptural concept of "knowing God." As James pointed out, "Even the demons believe, and tremble."(James 2:19) The Pharaoh of the Exodus scoffed, "Who is the LORD, that I should obey His voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go." He came to know better, but it could hardly be said that Pharaoh knew God except that he assented to the Lord's reality and sovereignty.

"Knowing God" in the Scriptural sense begins at that point, but does not end there. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight."(Proverbs 9:10) It begins with understanding the unique sovereignty of God over our universe, and our total dependence on Him for all things, spiritual and physical. "I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides Me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know Me, that people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides Me; I am the LORD, and there is no other."(Isaiah 45:5-6)

The proper response to this understanding is a desire to know more. As David so beautifully said, "Make me to know Your ways, O LORD; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; for You I wait all the day long."(Psalm 25:4-5) This desire is based in loving trust in God's goodness: "Those who know Your name put their trust in You, for You, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek You."(Psalm 9:10)

But those who choose this path must do so seriously, with a commitment of the head and the heart. Lack of consistency was a perennial issue with the ancient Israelites, for which the prophets frequently admonished them. The Lord said through Jeremiah, "I will give them a heart to know that I am the LORD, and they shall be My people and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart."(Jeremiah 24:7) A whole-hearted commitment to knowing God was the ideal, but they often fell short--as do we all. Paul, by contrast, had found this driving desire to know his God: "Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."(Philippians 3:8) He was in prison at the time, under threat of execution; but the only thing he cared about was the one thing his enemies couldn't take away.

If we truly come to "know God" in this way, it will affect not only our minds and hearts, but our actions. It is all too easy to fall short here, becoming like those whom Paul said "profess to know God, but deny Him by their works."(Titus 1:16) John likewise warned that, "Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love."(1 John 4:8) There is an interesting application of this principle in Jeremiah's prophecy against Shallum (Jehoahaz), one of the last kings of Judah:
For thus says the LORD concerning Shallum the son of Josiah, king of Judah, who reigned instead of Josiah his father, and who went away from this place: "He shall return here no more, but in the place where they have carried him captive, there shall he die, and he shall never see this land again. 
"Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages, who says, 'I will build myself a great house with spacious upper rooms,' who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar and painting it with vermilion.  
"Do you think you are a king because you compete in cedar? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know Me?"declares the LORD.(Jeremiah 22:11-16, emphasis added)
This passage illustrates another concern we must have about knowing God--the absolute necessity of passing on this knowledge to the next generation. Shallum, an abysmal failure as a spiritual leader, was the son of Josiah, one of the great reformers! But this kind of "failure to launch" happened early and often in the history of Israel: "And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that He had done for Israel."(Judges 2:10) We do well to teach our children to know about God--would that all parents would do that much!--but we need to lead them, as they mature spiritually, to "know God" in the greater sense. If we do not, the leadership of the church falls quickly into the situation of Jeremiah's day: "The priests did not say, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who handle the law did not know Me; the shepherds transgressed against Me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit."(Jeremiah 2:8) King David had this concern on his heart in his final charge to Solomon.
And you, Solomon my son, know the God of your father and serve Him with a whole heart and with a willing mind, for the LORD searches all hearts and understands every plan and thought. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever.(1 Chronicles 28:9)
It is a tragedy not to know the Lord; but for those who do (better perhaps to say, who aspire to do so), we can rejoice in that knowledge!
Thus says the LORD: "Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD."(Jeremiah 9:23-24)
Stanza 3:
The hill of Zion yields
A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavn'ly fields
Or walk the golden streets.


King David was a man who knew a rough, difficult life, whether as a shepherd in the field, an unintentional revolutionary on the run, or a king defending his throne. But his simple faith served him well (as long as he followed it), and he found a joy in life despite these things. In comparison to those who lived at ease, he could say to his God, "You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound."(Psalm 4:7) The Christian likewise gives up certain things, and takes on others, that the worldly person would rather not; but there are joys in abundance, even in this life.

One of those joys is common to every person upon this earth, if we will just learn to see it: "Every blade of grass is a study," said Abraham Lincoln, and there is not a place on this earth where the vibrant life of God's natural world does not show itself in some fashion. Even away from this earth! I recently read that one of the experiments on the International Space Station is a zucchini plant, which is so beloved by the crew that it has its own blog. The 92nd Psalm says, "For you, O LORD, have made me glad by Your work; at the works of Your hands I sing for joy."(Psalm 92:4)

There is even greater joy in God's work of salvation, extending His forgiveness to us. David said, "May we shout for joy over Your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners!"(Psalm 20:5) The 71st Psalm expands this theme: "My lips will shout for joy, when I sing praises to You; my soul also, which You have redeemed."(Psalm 71:23) This joy leads to other joys, in personal devotions and public worship. The 119th Psalm, that great hymn of praise for the written Word, says, "Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart."(Psalm 119:111) David says, again, "I will offer in His tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD."(Psalm 27:6) Worship here is a foretaste of that heavenly worship we long to reach someday, and we can always find joy in the presence of the Lord. Even when we do not feel joy coming in to the assembly, we can find it once we are there if we obediently seek Him. May we learn to say with the Sons of Korah, "My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God."(Psalm 84:2)

One "this-world" joy mentioned often in the New Testament is the joy found in fellowship in the body of Christ. Of course we cannot imagine that they always got along, even in the apostolic age. We see personal conflicts even among the apostles themselves--Paul once disagreed sharply with Barnabas over John Mark,(Acts 15:39) and withstood Peter "to his face, because he stood condemned" by his relapse into discrimination against Gentiles.(Galatians 2:11) But these Christians also rose above these things for the sake of the cause of Christ. Paul spoke later of John Mark as a man "profitable to me for the ministry."(2 Timothy 4:11) Peter called the man who had publicly called him out, "our beloved brother Paul."(2 Peter 3:15) If we will devote ourselves to the cause of Christ, and to the building up of our fellow Christians, we will know that joy of which Paul so frequently wrote, and which John summed up so well: "I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth."(3 John 1:4)

Stanza 4:
Then let our songs abound,
And ev'ry tear be dry;
We're marching through Immanuel's ground
To fairer worlds on high.


John records that in the hours before Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane He gave the disciples a series of discourses to strengthen and encourage them for what was to come. In the last of these, He referred to the emotional tumult they would soon experience:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.(John 16:20-23)
If our hope is in Christ, then regardless of what this life brings us, we know our sorrows will give way to joy. The promise is that "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away."(Revelation 21:4) I do not pretend to understand how God will heal all the hurts received in this world, but I trust that He knows more about joy than we have ever imagined, and it is a problem safely left with Him. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."(Psalm 30:5)

In the meantime, we can press on joyfully, knowing that even here in this world, we are on a march to ultimate victory. If we are Christians, we are on "Immanuel's ground" already--inside the territory of His kingdom, where His authority and protection are unassailable. And as Jesus said later in the same passage from John, "I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world."(John 16:33) John remembered these words, no doubt, when he wrote, "For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world--our faith."(1 John 5:4) By faith we can see up ahead the end of our long march, and we can savor a foretaste of the joys to come.
About the music:

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was a professor of literature at what is today Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and also served as a minister in Baptist churches. He was a music editor for Biglow & Main, frequently teamed with William Doane. Among the songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics are such fine examples of the gospel style as "Nothing but the blood," "Low in the grave He lay," "Shall we gather at the river?" and the lovely "How can I keep from singing?"(Cyberhymnal) His very best musical setting, in my opinion, is that for Fanny Crosby's "All the way my Savior leads me."
I have been unable to determine the first publication of "Marching to Zion," though it appears with the copyright date 1867 in several early hymnals. The earliest instance of the song that I have found is in The Victory, published in 1870 by Biglow & Main, the New York music house for whom Lowry did most of his music editing. "Marching to Zion" was picked up by Ira Sankey's Sacred Songs and Solos and Gospel Hymns series, which assured its quick and wide dissemination.

The practice of adding a chorus to an existing hymn goes back (at least) to the large camp-meetings of the early 19th century, such as the famous Cane Ridge Revival. This event was one of those "only in America" situations; despite the racist system of slavery and segregation that was in place, many African American slaves participated in this massive outdoor event. What followed was inevitable; though segregation was maintained formally, musical ingenuity is stubbornly indifferent to color and custom. Isaac Watts could hardly have imagined, a century earlier, that his hymns would be blended with the shout choruses of the descendants of African slaves, or that it would work so well! But the stern language of Isaac Watts suited the apocalyptic message of the preachers, and the fervent singing of repeated choruses suited the spirit of the crowds.(Music & Richardson, 307) Robert Lowry's addition of a chorus to Watts's "Come we that love the Lord" was a successful repeat of that process; though this song was not actually a camp-meeting revival song, it certainly could have been.

Lowry's setting is a military march in 6/8 time, in the American style--somewhat swaggering and boisterous compared to the European origins of that genre. Wind band music had grown hugely during the Civil War, and the decades immediately following saw the rise of the great early bandmasters such as Patrick Gilmore ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home") and Claudio Grafulla ("Washington Grays"). Though John Philip Sousa was still a boy when Lowry wrote "Marching to Zion," the characteristic style was well established.

Of course Watts's original hymn was sung for a century and a half before Lowry's gospel song adaptation, and it was and is associated with a number of other tunes. Chief among these is ST. THOMAS by Aaron Williams, better known among Churches of Christ, at least in the U.S., with the text "Awake and sing the song," or as the older tune for "Rise up, O men of God." The Cyberhymnal page on "Marching to Zion" lists several alternate tunes.


Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972.

Runyon, Theodore H. "Aging and a meaningful future." Gerontology in Theological Education, ed. Barbara Payne and Earl Brewer. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Press, 1989.

Lincoln, Abraham. Address to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society (30 September 1859). Abraham Lincoln Online

"Robert Lowry." Cyberhymnal.

Music, David W., and Paul A. Richardson. "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story": A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2008.

1 comment:

  1. I recently read Bunyan's "Pilgrim's Progress" for the first time, and I suspect that some of Watts's imagery is from that work. The reference to being in "Immanuel's ground" now, before we have passed through death into the heavenly realm, is especially similar to the latter part of that work.