Saturday, June 9, 2012

Come, Ye Thankful People, Come

Praise for the Lord #114

Words: Henry Alford, 1844
Music: George J. Elvey, 1858, ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR

Henry Alford (1810-1871) was a man of a strong literary bent, who found the best use of this talent in the service of Christ. Coming from a long line of Anglican vicars, it was virtually a given that he would follow the family calling; but during his studies at Cambridge he also cultivated the friendships of the leading literary men of the day. His very first publication, in fact, was a book of poetry, which earned favorable comment from Wordsworth. Later in life he published a blank verse translation of the Odyssey.(DNB 1:282ff.)

But Alford's gift with languages reached its peak in the sacred, not in the secular sphere--and not necessarily in his hymns. The masterwork of his career was his edition of the Greek New Testament, published in four volumes between 1849 and 1861. Its painstaking critical apparatus and copious notes reflected the best textual scholarship of the day, and Alford attempted to present the evidence on textual variants fairly, while leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.(DNB 1:283) Though it has been superseded in part by more recent works, reflecting the wonderful boom in manuscript discoveries of the 20th century, it is still a valuable resource.

This hymn first appeared in Alford's 1844 compilation Psalms and hymns, adapted to the Sundays and holydays throughout the year, to which are added some occasional hymns. Of the two dozen or so hymns that Alford wrote or adapted himself and introduced in this book, "Come, ye thankful people, come" is by far the most widely known. It is provided in the supplementary section at the end of the book, among the hymns for various occasions of life, under the heading, "After harvest."

The term "harvest-home" is likely to be familiar to us in the U.S. only through its use in this hymn; it refers in particular to getting the "harvest" safely "home," and the work completed. Probably every culture under the sun has had its harvest traditions, from the time that Adam was first ordered to earn his way "by the sweat of his brow."(Genesis 3:19) Exodus 23:16 established the "Feast of Ingathering" as a religious rite, and the book of Ruth as well shows the secular feasting and celebration connected with the completion of the harvest. Even the modern farmer still takes great pleasure at that season of being (hopefully!) caught up with the bills for another year.

The harvest-home celebrations that lie behind Alford's hymn, like many harvest celebrations around the world, included a community gathering for a harvest supper with singing and celebration. During the 1800s the Church of England increasingly adopted the observation of harvest festivals on an independent, local basis, which involved bringing produce to the church for distribution to the poor.(Wikipedia) Alford's hymn was among the first to be written specifically for such celebrations.

Stanza 1:
Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest-home!
All is safely gathered in
Ere the winter storms begin:
God, our Maker doth provide
For our wants to be supplied:
Come to God's own temple, come,
Raise the song of harvest-home!

In the first stanza, Alford emphasizes the gratitude we all should feel in receiving our "daily bread."(Matthew 6:11) I live in a land where we are so blessed with abundance of food, that far more of us are concerned about eating too much than are concerned about having enough. I have tried to emphasize to my children that if we have a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, and food on the table, we should rejoice at our blessings--because many people do not.

From the very beginning, God made us dependent on the produce of the earth. Even before sin entered the world, He planted a garden,(Genesis 2:8) and appointed Adam to "work it and keep it."(Genesis 2:15) Generation upon generation has done the same, or we would not be here to tell of it! But it is God's sustaining hand that provided this food, and provides those conditions necessary to its continuance. As the Lord told Noah after the flood, "While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."(Genesis 8:22) Are we just colossally lucky that nothing has happened to disrupt these cycles, so essential to our survival? Or is it because "He upholds the universe by the word of His power?"(Hebrews 1:3)

This thought was essential to the ancient Hebrews, and is often expressed in the Psalms in the phrase, "the LORD, who created heaven and earth." His creative power is not something that happened at one fixed point in the past, but continues every day as our needs are supplied. This was the assumption Jesus drew upon in Matthew 6, when He pointed to the birds and said, "Yet your Heavenly Father feeds them." In a similar fashion, God's discourse with Job in chapters 38-41 of that book reveals the Father's intimate knowledge of, and ongoing concern for, all of His creation. Jesus' conclusion, of course, was, "Are you not of much more value than they?" But we can equally say, Are we not just as dependent on God as they?

It is always appropriate to be mindful of the physical needs of others, but especially at times when we celebrate our own plenty. One of the traditions of the British "Harvest Festival" is bringing food to the church for distribution to the poor; the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving has increasingly focused on this need as well. Ancient Israel was commanded to make a provision for the poor at harvest, in the form of leaving the gleanings and the corners of the fields as a sort of "work-fare" program.(Leviticus 23:22, and the book of Ruth) But the poor are hungry more than once a year in the fall, and it does not speak well of us that we need a yearly occasion to remind us of it. Job, in his defense of his character, said,
If I have withheld anything that the poor desired, or have caused the eyes of the widow to fail, or have eaten my morsel alone, and the fatherless has not eaten of it . . . let my shoulder blade fall from my shoulder, and let my arm be broken from its socket.(Job 31:16-17,22)
How much more should the followers of Christ "remember the poor?"(Galatians 2:10)

Stanza 2:
We ourselves are God's own field,
Fruit unto His praise to yield,
Wheat and tares together sown,
Unto joy or sorrow grown:
First the blade, and then the ear,
Then the full corn shall appear:
Lord of Harvest, grant that we
Wholesome grain and pure may be!

After the first stanza's joyous thanksgiving, Alford turns to Scripture's spiritual applications of the image of  the harvest, and the hymn becomes much more probing. The underlying text, of course, is Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares:
File:Lolium temulentum — Flora Batava — Volume v11.jpg
Lolium temulentum,
or Darnel. Photo from
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.'

So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'(Matthew 13:24-30)
It is laughable that some skeptics have questioned whether such an incident really happened. In the first place, they obviously do not know the lengths to which some people I have known would go for a simple prank--not to mention for revenge! In the second place, the great Digest of Roman law compiled under Justinian, in discussing the laws of property damage, cites just such an incident from the writings of the 2nd-century jurist Celsus.(Book 9, section 2, chapter 27, paragraph 14)

This parable has been subject to a certain amount of confusion, particularly over the relationship of the wheat and tares to the church and the world. Is the church the wheat, and the tares those outside the church? Or are both wheat and tares in the church? It shouldn't be so hard when we have Jesus' own explanation recorded just a few verses later:
The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the close of the age, and the reapers are angels.

Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. The Son of Man will send His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.(Matthew 13:37-43)
To begin with, the statement, "The kingdom of heaven is like . . ." is not a mathematical argument, "KINGDOM = X," but rather is the beginning of a story that will explain something about the subject. Some parables (such as the parable of the mustard seed, or of the pearl of great price), do tell us attributes of the kingdom; but in this case, I believe Jesus is telling us about the situation in which the kingdom exists in this world rather than about its nature and character.

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man," He begins in Matthew 13:24, but "the man who sowed good seed in his field" is the "Son of Man."(Matthew 13:37) Neither is the field the kingdom in the sense of Christ's body, the church, because "the field is the world," in which "the good seed is the sons of the kingdom."(Matthew 13:38) But the one phrase that complicates this parable is Matthew 13:41, when Jesus says that the angels will "gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers."

This shift in definition from "kingdom=body/church" can be explained in one of two ways. First, as Jesus has "all authority . . . in heaven and on earth,"(Matthew 28:18) the field (this world) is His kingdom in the sense that it is under His ultimate rule. The "sons of the kingdom" in verse 38 are clearly the saved, those in His body, the church; but there is no reason Jesus could not use the word in a different sense. Another explanation, not necessarily contradictory to the foregoing, is this: When the events described unfold at the end of time, and the wicked are removed from the field, what remains will be the "sons of the kingdom;" the field will then be the kingdom, as it was originally intended to be. This fits as well with Revelation 11:15, "The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ; and He shall reign forever and ever."

Misapplications of this parable have gone in at least two different directions. One line of thought is that verse 38 applies strictly to the "kingdom" in the sense of the church, and thus prohibits any human exercise of church discipline, leaving all such judgment to the end of time. Another argument tries to argue predestination from the concept of "good seed" and "bad seed." Both err by going far beyond the obvious thrust of the parable--that two domains, the "sons of the kingdom" and the "sons of the evil one," will continue mixed together in this world until the day the Lord has appointed for Judgment, when they will be forever separated to their respective rewards. Both theories likewise contradict other passages in Scripture; and if a doctrine built on an interpretation of a parable contradicts straightforward teaching elsewhere, it is obvious where the error has occurred. Marshaling this parable to the cause of religious freedom (as was done by William Rogers, the founder of Providence, Rhode Island) is also a stretch, though in this case there is no contradiction to the New Testament's teaching on the separate spheres of the spiritual kingdom of Christ and the civil governments of this world.

So how did Alford proceed in representing this parable? In saying, "We ourselves are God's own field," does he mean "we the residents of this earth," or "we the church?" Saying this in a hymn to be sung at a worship service might seem to indicate the latter; and in that case, the "Wheat and tares together sown / Unto joys or sorrows grown" takes on a Calvinist tone of predestination. But Alford, in the commentary in his Greek New Testament, is quite clearly opposed to such an interpretation of the parable:
We are not to suppose that the wheat can never become tares, or the tares wheat: this would be to contradict the purpose of Him who willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live . . . the line of demarcation between wheat and tares, so fixed and impassable at last, is during the probation time, the time of συναύξησις ["common growth"--DRH] not yet determined by Him who will have all to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth. . . . The parable is delivered by the Lord as knowing all things, and describing by the final result; and gives no countenance whatever to predestinarian error.(Alford, v. 1, Matthew, p. 142
So Dr. Alford is quite clear on the subject himself, but his hymn text might be open to misinterpretation. Some versions of this hymn read in the first line, "All the world is God's own field," which is certainly in keeping with Alford's expressed views, and more importantly, with the intent of Jesus in the first place.

Followers of Christ, of course, want to be counted among the wheat! In the second half of the stanza, Alford references one of Jesus' lesser-known agricultural parables recorded by Mark, which deals with the happier story of the growth of the good grain. It comes in the same position where Matthew records the Wheat and Tares, in between the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, but it is a different (though related) story:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.(Mark 4:26-29) [N.B. "Corn" in the KJV and in Alford's hymn is British usage as a generic term for grain.]
Some of my favorite memories of childhood involved working in our vegetable garden. Like the man in the parable, I have scattered seed on the ground. I have watched every day for signs of sprouting, and seen that magical morning when green shoots of life appear where before there was nothing. I have checked the plants day by day to see if they had fruit, and then to see if the fruit was ripe. I understood then as now that there were known biological processes at work, which have been studied out and explained to the satisfaction of the intellect. But I am still amazed at the fact that sunshine, water, dirt, and a seed can turn into turn into a plate of food!

In the same way, the good seed of the gospel brings out changes that are at first unseen, but end up making a remarkable difference by the power of the invisible God. Jesus tried to explain to Nicodemus that the new birth is spiritual and inward, not physical and outward,(John 3:8) and told the Pharisees that, "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, 'Look, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you."(Luke 17:20-21) In the first century a relatively small group of people with little education, money, or connections, "turned the world upside down."(Acts 17:6) What might a group of Christians today, equally committed to the cause and with the same faith in the power of God, be able to accomplish? "He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness."(2 Corinthians 9:10)

Stanza 3:
For the Lord our God shall come,
And shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall purge away
All that doth offend that day.
Give His angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast,
But the fruitful ears to store--
In His garner evermore.

We are not foreordained in our status as "wheat" or "tares" in this parable, but there is one element here to which we are certainly predestined: there will be a harvest, and we will be in one group or the other. The metaphor of a harvest had a long history in Scripture before Jesus spoke His parable, both as a promise of good and a warning of punishment. Hosea 6:11 says sweetly, "For you also, O Judah, a harvest is appointed, when I restore the fortunes of My people." But Isaiah 17:5 describes the destruction about to be unleashed on the nation as a very different kind of harvest: "And it shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain and his arm harvests the ears, and as when one gleans the ears of grain in the Valley of Rephaim." The harvest to come at the end of time will be both, depending on one's relationship to God.

It is not pleasant to consider, but there it is; Alford pulls no punches, using Jesus' own words about casting the tares into the fire. It does cast a pall over what began as a very cheerful hymn, but it is a valid point to make--in fact, it would be dishonest to gloss over that aspect of the parable. The harvest of God's wrath is perhaps most bluntly expressed in the Revelation. Whether it refers to a temporal punishment of God's enemies at that time, or to the spiritual harvest at the end of time, it is a thing of profound dread:
And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, "Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe."
. . . So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God.(Revelation 14:15,19)
Thankfully there is another harvest metaphor that is still in effect while that greatest and most dreadful of harvests is waiting. When Jesus saw the Samaritans coming out to Jacob's Well to see Him, He commented to the disciples, "Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest?' Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest."(John 4:35) There was a harvest of souls ready to be gathered into Christ's kingdom on this earth, and thankfully there is still time and opportunity to do so today. We ought still to keep in mind Jesus' words, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest."(Luke 10:2)

Stanza 4:
Even so, Lord, quickly come
To Thy final harvest-home!
Gather Thou Thy people in,
Free from sorrow, free from sin;
There, forever purified,
In Thy presence to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels, come,
Raise the glorious harvest-home!

Most of the text in Praise for the Lord is the same as Alford's original, with only minor alterations that do not affect the sense, but the original first line of this stanza was "Then, thou Church triumphant, come." I believe Alford meant to emphasize a contrast with the preceding stanza about the harvest of wrath reserved for the tares by turning to the joyful end awaiting the good grain. But following the original first line, the third line, "Gather Thou Thy people in," seems to say that the church, not the Lord, will gather its people in. The substitution of this new first line clarifies that the Lord is the subject of the third line, which is probably what Alford intended.

"Even so, Lord, quickly come" is a close quotation of Revelation 22:20, and it takes a faithful, mature Christian to say that sincerely. The sinner, of course, would really rather He never came at all. The lukewarm Christian, the Christian still too much caught up in sin, and the Christian too tied down to the affairs of this life, know He will come but wish He would wait a while. But whether He comes soon or late, we ought to remember that we will be seeing Him, one way or another, before many more years have passed! Proverbs 27:1 solemnly reminds us, "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." We need to be ready to meet the Lord at any time, and then we can share John's sentiment--"Even so, come, Lord Jesus." If God waits in His patience to give sinners more time to repent,(2 Peter 3:9) let us rejoice in His mercy; but we who are Christians should never presume upon that patience!

The rest of the stanza is devoted to a contemplation of the ingathering of Christians to their eternal home. We all have our conceptions of heaven, I suppose, and they all must be imperfect to varying degrees. We cannot even fully grasp the wonders of God's glory revealed to us in this existence! David said, "You have multiplied, O LORD my God, Your wondrous deeds and Your thoughts toward us; none can compare with You! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told."(Psalm 40:5) Our songs about heaven emphasize various aspects that we understand and can grasp. Some songs, especially those coming from the cultural setting of the Great Depression, emphasize the riches of heaven described by John. Many songs talk about reunion with loved ones, and some speak particularly of the joy of knowing Christ face to face.

Henry Alford emphasizes an aspect of heaven in this final stanza that has come to mean more to me all the time: "Free from sorrow, free from sin; / There forever purified." It is so sweet to know God's forgiveness, and such a joy to walk in holiness before Him; but how often I stray from that path! How frustrating to find myself beginning over again, having to remind myself of the basics of spiritual living, recommitting to the way I know I should walk and never should have left. As Paul said, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"(Romans 7:24) We may not all express it with such high passion as the apostle, but we all probably recognize that dissatisfaction with where we are, that sense of reaching toward yet not quite grasping the goal. In heaven there is perfect holiness and purity; in heaven we will be, finally, all that God meant us to be.

File:Woman harvesting wheat, Raisen district, Madhya Pradesh, India.jpg
Gathering the wheat harvest by hand in Madhya Pradesh, India.
Photo by permission from

About the music:

George Job Elvey was born in Canterbury in 1816, and was appointed to the cathedral choir at a young age. His precocious talent won him the position of both organist and choir director at St. George's Chapel at Windsor at the age of 19, even in competition with far more experienced candidates such as Samuel Wesley. Elvey remained with St. George's Chapel until his retirement in 1882, though he was also appointed private organist to Queen Victoria as well. He composed a large number of works for royal ceremonies, including one for which he was knighted, and was noted for his choir's performances of Handel's oratorios.(Roe) A search of reveals that Elvey wrote a wide variety of works, including an oratorio on the Resurrection, a birthday cantata for Victoria, a large number or sacred and patriotic anthems, and miscellaneous keyboard works.

His attention was also given, however to more practical, small-scale church music, as seen in his harmonizations for A Collection of Psalm-Tunes (1843) and his Thirty Cathedral Chants (1883). Among his relatively small number of hymn tunes, the best known generally (besides the one at hand) is DIADEMATA, most associated with the text "Crown Him with many crowns." James T. Lightwood said, "Elvey did not write many hymn-tunes, but those that he has given to the Church are models of what a tune should be, combining dignity, strength, and melody."(Lightwood, 315)

ST. GEORGE'S WINDSOR is named of course for the chapel where Elvey spent his career. It first appeared in A Selection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes, edited by Edward Henry Thorne (London: Gardner, 1858), with the text "Hark! The song of jubilee." Its pairing with Alford's harvest hymn occurred in the original 1861 edition of the venerable Hymns Ancient and Modern, the unofficial hymnal of the Church of England and one of the most influential hymnals in the English language.(Lightwood, 315)

The structure of the melody is remarkably simple; there is one basic motif, declared in the first two bars and repeated in the next two, making up the first of four phrases. This same motif, transposed, is the basis of the third phrase, and the second and final phrases each begin with a variation on the same idea. Only once is there a leap larger than a 3rd. But within this simplicity there is a good sense of forward progress; after the repetitious first phrase, the second phrase breaks away at the end and walks down the scale to a 4th (SOL) below the tonic (DO), the first indication that the melody will venture into this range. The third phrase is spent climbing back up, and ends on the 6th step of the scale (LA) above the tonic. The final phrase works its way back down from this peak, hinting at an inversion of the initial motif.

Elvey's harmony is interesting and occasionally surprising. The Phrygian cadence (half-step motion down in the bass) at the end of the 1st phrase does much to counter the repetitiveness and simplicity of the melody; we hardly expected to end up on a B major chord after such an innocuous G major beginning! After this indulgence in Romantic-era chromatic harmony, Elvey works back around the circle of 5ths to the tonic by the middle of the 2nd phrase (Bmaj > Emin > Amin > Dmaj > Gmaj). The 2nd phrase ends with a brief emphasis of the dominant chord (not really long enough to call a modulation), bringing us to the halfway point in the double-period structure of the tune.

The 3rd phrase works from the dominant (Dmaj) down to the tonic again, with the harmony controlled by a stepwise bass (basses love those walking lines!); then in the second half of the phrase, the whole idea is sequenced up a 4th, so that the bass walks down to the subdominant chord (Cmaj). From this unexpected yet logical turn of events, Elvey leaps into an E major chord, a chromatic third relationship that echoes the B major chord at the end of the 1st phrase. It's a neat trick, though the leap from C up to G-sharp in the bass is not my favorite moment when singing this hymn! After fetching us up in this remote region, Elvey works back around the circle of 5ths again (as in the beginning of the 2nd phrase) so that the second half of the final phrase can end nicely in G major.


"Alford, Henry." Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Macmillan, 1885, 1:282-284.

"Harvest Festival." Wikipedia.

Roe, Kelda. "Sir George Job Elvey." Chapel Archives & Chapter Library, College of St. George, Windsor Castle.

Lightwood, James T. Hymn-Tunes and their Story. London: Charles H. Kelly, 1905.

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