The following is an examination of the eighth of McGarvey's Chapel Talks, delivered at the College of the Bible (today the Lexington Theological Seminary) during the 1910-1911 school year, the last year of McGarvey's life. Fortunately someone took these down, and the manuscripts were rediscovered some years later by an attentive librarian at Lexington.
THE STUDY AND SELECTION OF HYMNS
I have said a few words to you on a number of occasions, about the importance of studying hymns and the proper selection of hymns to suit occasions. Sometimes an improper selection of a hymn leads to very deplorable results. I was informed of one instance in which, on a funeral occasion, the selection of the hymns was left to the young man who led the singing. He selected one that started right, but just as the pallbearers started off with the corpse they sang, "Believing we rejoice to see the curse removed." That service ended with more tittering than tears.
That hymn is no. 142 from the second book of Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs of 1707, with the opening line "Not all the blood of beasts". It is a better hymn than it sounds from the title; Watts takes up the great theme of the 9th and 10th chapters of the letter to the Hebrews, declaring the superiority of Christ's sacrifice to the limited sacrificial economy of the Hebrew Testament. But the inappropriateness of that theme at the particular moment McGarvey mentioned could certainly cause distraction! Whether the incident described actually happened is open to question, but the point is well taken. I have personally experienced, as described in the very funny but most likely apocryphal story of the battle of the preacher and the songleader, a Sunday morning worship service at which the preacher made a plea for unbelievers to come obey the gospel, and the songleader stood up and led "O why not tonight?" In the real-life case it was accidental, not deliberate sabotage, but the effect was the same.
Of course those who select and lead hymns need to think through them carefully, well in advance. The process deserves enough time for prayer and a thoughtful consideration of the options. I cannot deny that I have picked out songs at the last minute on some occasions (often by necessity), but it is no way to operate on a regular basis. It is a disservice to treat the musical portion of our worship with the attitude that seems to say, "Any old song will do." Few congregations would tolerate a preacher who put so little thought into his lessons!
In order that you may make appropriate selections you must know your hymn book--not only the first stanza of every hymn that is worth singing, but the whole of it. You must know all those that are worth singing if you would make your selections wisely.
In the pursuit of excellence in any skill, we should learn from the experiences of others as well as from our own. A professional athlete, or a professional musician, spends a lot of time in solitary practice; but he or she will also take time to observe the performance of others, with the intent to imitate the good and avoid the bad. If you encounter a person who is this deeply involved in a skill, and it is not an interest you share, you are likely to be bored to tears by their discussion of it. What is the value of that knowledge, you may wonder? It is from that breadth and depth of knowledge that the skilled practitioner teases out the underlying principles that lead to success. Larry McWilliams, a beloved brother in Christ and former pitcher in the major leagues, once told me of the "eephus," an obscure pitch used by a handful of National League pitchers. It is a slow, high-arcing pitch that should be easy to hit, but almost always catches the batter off guard because it is so different from the normal fast pitches he is trained to expect. In his 446 at-bats over 13 years, Larry never once faced the fabled eephus--but like any National Leaguer, he knew very well which pitchers used it, and had practiced against it in preparation for that possibility.
There is an equivalent activity for the songleader--get to know all the hymns in your hymnal (or PowerPoint files, or whatever you use), so that you are able to make the best use of every resource at your disposal. If you cannot read music, listen to recordings; better yet, take piano lessons so that you will learn to read music, and will be able to pick out a tune at a keyboard for your own learning. The web site http://www.musictheory.net also has graded lessons in the fundamentals of music reading. When you find an unfamiliar hymnal at a bookstore, or if one is offered you, learn from it as well. There are so many resources available on the Internet, of course, that it would be impossible to list even the major ones; but at least be familiar with the Cyberhymnal (the real one, at http://www.hymntime.com/tch/index.htm--the old cyberhymnal.org domain was hijacked for profit a few years ago) and Hymnary.org. There are many others, but these seem to be the most extensive and useful.
In addition to knowing hymns, learn how to use them well. Pay attention to other songleaders, and cultivate the acquaintance of those who take their work seriously. Talk with them about hymns, worship, and leading worship. Sift through the advice you receive, and learn from the examples of others. I have been blessed to know many good songleaders through the years, a few of whom have had a profound impact on my own thinking about this role of service. One, of course, was the man who taught me to lead singing as a young teen; but another is a man with whom I worked for just a few months, not that long ago, when I was already into my 40s. Never think that you have learned everything you need to know! If you do, you have closed yourself off from the blessings that may yet lie in store for the diligent student.
The elements of a good hymn may be stated thus: First, and most important of all, its sentiments must be scriptural. There is a hymn in one of our church hymnals which has been sung a great deal, the second stanza of which confidently looks forward to the time when that old boatman familiar in Greek mythology who used to row people across the river Styx, will safely row the Christian across the river of death. Now that is heathenish, but it is in a Christian hymn book. First, then, let me say again, and emphasize it, see to it that the sentiments of every hymn you select to sing in the church are scriptural.
McGarvey is probably referring to Johnson Oatmans "We'll all meet at home", the second stanza of which reads:
There death cannot enter to spread his alarms,This was not even the most glaring example from Oatman's oeuvre; in his "Crossing one by one", we are told to look forward to being assisted across the "mystic river" (presumably not the one in Boston) by the "boatman grim and pale." Of course we use the river metaphor in many other songs, but usually we make it clear that we are referring to Jordan, and that we expect to cross it by the help of God. (In Pilgrim's Progress, that masterpiece of Christian metaphors, the only person who takes a boat across the river of death is the lad named Ignorance, who gets on a boat piloted by a gentleman named Vain Hope--to predictable results.) I have to agree with McGarvey that this language is jarringly inappropriate. It is a good example of how a text can be true in a sense--the inevitable and impersonal nature of death is duly noted--but still ring false in its associations and suggestions. I am reminded of a brother's statement regarding poetic license: "Some poets' licenses should be revoked."
Our dear ones of earth are not torn from our arms;
No more the pale boatman will sail o’er the foam
To bear us away, when we all meet at home.
Second, a good hymn is good poetry. Those of you who have gone pretty well along in the course of English, ought to know what good poetry is. You have been taught what it is. But it will require on your part a good deal of thought and study in addition to what you get from your professor, in order to give you that fine taste which will enable you to see the fine elements of poetry in a hymn.
Here is an example of why I love J.W. McGarvey. You can find a number of brethren who will make the first point, and I am glad to join them in it. If a hymn is not Scriptural, it is not fit for the worship of God, and there is no need to pursue the question further. But the mere fact that it is Scriptural does not make it a good hymn! McGarvey wanted more, and I wish more of us would dare, like Oliver Twist, to ask for more. I wish more of us even knew that there is more for which to ask! McGarvey was a well-educated man, but he was not necessarily considered a great orator or writer by all his peers. J. T. Moore said of him, in fact, "He has very little imagination, relying exclusively on facts for effect." (This is probably why he is still so readable, compared to many other scholars of his era.) But even an average education in those days included a study of poetry and rhetoric that is sadly lacking in most schools. If you are a person with what is humorously called a "higher education" today, and need a thoroughgoing humiliation, read a few of the older Christian scholars and note how often you become completely lost in their historical and literary references, not to mention the occasional sprinkling of Latin, Greek, German, and French.
The answer to this, I believe, is to commit some of that time spent watching television, or on Facebook, or doing whatever else, to reading some challenging literature that will stretch our abilities. This goes along with the earlier point about becoming familiar with a broader range of hymns. Get some older hymnals, or look up some older hymns on the Internet, and read them carefully. Notice the time period and nationality of the author. Isaac Watts is not the same as Fanny Crosby, just because they are both old. Isaac Watts is not even the same as Charles Wesley, or John Newton, or William Cowper, who wrote in the same century and were of the same nationality. Read through several hymns from a single author, to see what the person's range of expression is like. And it wouldn't even hurt to get a beginning book on poetry, to learn some of the technical aspects. Remember, no one can give you a grade on it now, or a final exam! If you get partway in and don't want to read any further, put it aside and move on to something else, but keep on learning.
I do not think that there is one of the hymns that have become permanently popular that is not good poetry. Not only is good poetry essential, but there is a sentiment among uncultivated people that demands it. Some hymns acquire popularity and usefulness for a short time by means of the fine music set to them, even though they are only a jingle of rhymes: but they soon pass away.
McGarvey's reasoning here is interesting. It is not for the sake of appealing to those who are refined and cultured that he would put a premium on good poetry, but for the sake of those who are not. The "sentiment among uncultivated people" is not always an accurate barometer, but over time it will generally filter out the merely faddish of both the popular and cultivated traditions. There are plenty of hymns with lousy poetry that have become popular for a season, both from the current crop of contemporary worship songs and from the hymns and gospel songs of generations past. But the "permanently popular," as McGarvey puts it, have something that transcends the style and taste of their generation--a Scriptural message that matters, and, typically, poetry that conveys the ideas effectively without letting technique (or lack of it) distract from the message.
I firmly believe that many more people would appreciate the great old hymns if they were given more of a chance to hear them. Likewise, I believe that there are great hymns from our own time that many more people would appreciate if they would give them a fair hearing. And in both cases, if we think more critically about what we sing--what it is saying and why it appeals to us--we will be more likely to find the "treasures new and old," if I may borrow the Lord's phrase from Matthew 13:52.
When, then a hymn is found to contain scripture sentiment and good poetry, in order to be effective as a hymn it must be sung to appropriate music, music that expresses finely the sentiments of the hymn.
An example of ignoring this principle--though the songs has been very popular in spite of it--is the Stamps-Baxter collaboration "He bore it all." Read the lyrics without thinking of the music, if you can:
My precious Savior suffered pain and agony;Like many hymns, it isn't Shakespeare, or Milton, but it will do. The thoughts are Scriptural and worthy of the mind's attention during Christian worship. If you had never heard the music that goes with it, you might have a very different concept of what kind of gospel hymn it might be. But I cannot read the words without hearing Virgil Stamps's music, especially that barrelhouse bass lead in the last line. The fault is not in the text, or the music, but in this text coupled with this music.
He bore it all that I might live.
He broke the bonds of sin and set the captive free;
He bore it all that I might live.
A more positive example, at least in its end result, is Henry Francis Lyte's "Abide with me". There is another text on a similar theme, "Abide with me; 'tis eventide", written by Martin Lowrie Hofford in the 1880s, that has never achieved the popularity of the former. It is a nice hymn, though not so well known; but it does not have the power of Lyte's lyrics. But what if Lyte's "Abide with me" had never found the right tune? Lyte himself wrote a tune for his own text, with which it was originally published, and the kindest thing I can say is that he was a far better poet than composer. If it had ended there we might never have known this hymn; but enter William Monk, with the familiar tune we know today, and a classic is born. The worldwide popularity of this hymn, and its use in popular culture, are proof that the right words and the right music are necessary to achieve that "permanently popular" status of which McGarvey speaks.
Now no man can be successful in the selection of hymns to suit occasions from day to day and from week to week, who does not devote a great deal of attention and careful study to hymns. There are hymns which, instead of being good poetry, are nothing but lines of prose with a rhyme at the end of them, and not always good rhyme at that. I will read you a couple of instances of this kind. Number 526 in our hymnal: the second stanza: "Thrice blest is he to whom is given the instinct that can tell / That God is on the field, when He is most invisi-" --bell, it ought to be.
The hymn to which McGarvey refers seems to be "Workman of God, O lose not heart". (Despite having the hymn number given, I am unable to identify the hymnal, but this does have the same second stanza to which McGarvey refers.) It is excerpted from Frederick Faber's longer poem "The right must win". Now, Faber was a fine hymn poet--remember "Faith of our Fathers"--but we all have bad days. I have sounded out those lines in every accent I can imagine, and I can't get these words to rhyme.
There are other hymns, of course, that have varying shades of this problem. One that comes to mind is Edwin Hatch's "Breathe on me, Breath of God," in the final stanza:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,In this case, there may be (or may have been) some accent of English that could make "never die" and "eternity" work together. Hatch at least had the approval of John Donne, who ended his famous "Death be not proud" with the same rhyme. But such a jarring hitch in the rhyme or rhythm of a hymn is almost the kiss of death; it will immediately distract the mind from what is being sung. Unless the hymn is really of such a quality that it is worth forgiving a few such quirks, it will probably fall by the wayside.
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.
If it be true as was said a long time ago by some wise man and repeated again and again by others, that, if you will allow a man of good judgement to select the songs of a people, he may care very little who makes their laws, then it can not be a matter of minor importance to select wisely the songs of the church. There are a great many people, and especially children, who obtain their religious sentiments more from the hymns they are taught to sing than from the Scripture which they read or hear from the pulpit. And when sentiments are thus formed, whether just right or just wrong, it is almost impossible in later years to eradicate them. This is another indication of the importance of the careful study of hymns.
Book 3 of Plato's Republic is a classic text on the influence of music on the development of habits and character; and though it is rather extreme in its views, it shows the high view the ancients had of music's power. Reflecting the Greeks' belief that specific types of scales corresponded to certain emotions, he judged that only a few were appropriate to the education of the guardians of the state:
Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, to sound the note or accent which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, . . . and another to be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, . . . which represents him when by prudent conduct he has attained his end, not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely under the circumstances, and acquiescing in the event.
These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.(I cannot read that passage without noting that Plato--like some others I have met--is almost proud of his ignorance of music, yet perfectly willing to tell others how it should be done.)
These ideas were stated in a more positive fashion by the 4th-century Christian writer Basil of Caesarea, in his commentary on the 1st Psalm:
When, indeed the Holy Spirit saw that the human race was guided only with difficulty toward virtue, and that, because of our inclination toward pleasure, we were neglectful of an upright life, what did He do? The delight of melody He mingled with the doctrines so that by the pleasantness and softness of the sound heard we might receive without perceiving it the benefit of the words, just as wise physicians who, when giving the fastidious rather bitter drugs to drink, frequently smear the cup with honey. Therefore, He devised for us these harmonious melodies of the psalms, that they who are children in age or even those who are youthful in disposition might to all appearances chant but, in reality, become trained in soul.We can see the same from our own experiences today. Children learn the alphabet set to music, and many of us adults still use a certain little jingle to remember the order of the books of the New Testament. Music seems to engage an additional part of the mind in connection to that which handles the words, helping us remember them; but it is more than that. The emotional content of music--though its effects vary somewhat from person to person--adds a layer of meaning to the words that is beyond the verbal. I have the privilege of singing hymns with the residents of some of our local nursing homes a couple of times a month, and can vouch for the lasting influence of hymns. It never fails that someone who seems to be completely disengaged from his or her surroundings, suddenly joins at the singing of a certain hymn. Something in that hymn stuck in the individual's mind years ago, and is still there to be recalled by the stimulus of music.
That being the case, those who have charge of choosing the hymns for worship owe it to the church to help fill their heads and hearts with good hymns. From the earliest days of the church there has been a concern for hymns to be Scriptural; even Gnosticism, the first of the major departures from New Testament Christianity, had its hymns pushing its particular doctrine. In the era of the Reformation, leaders such as Calvin and Knox went to the extreme of limiting church music to the texts of Scripture itself, to avoid the risk of unscriptural ideas being transmitted through song. Though there are doctrinal problems with some popular religious songs today, I suggest that the greatest risk in our time is feeding a congregation only a pablum of bland feel-good songs. To paraphrase Plato, we need hymns for times of peace and joy, but we need hymns as well for "the hour of danger and stern resolve." We need hymns that will "comfort the afflicted," but we also need hymns that will, as the old saw goes, "afflict the comfortable." At least, I know I need all of those things. A hymn is not a substitute for Scripture and sound doctrinal teaching, but at its best it can become a shorthand for doctrine, a rule of thumb that comes quickly to mind.
I have said that those hymns which have been long popular, and have had strong hold upon the minds and hearts of the people, have, all of them, been characterized by those qualities of a good hymn which I have mentioned. For example, that one which Matthew Arnold pronounces the finest hymn in the English language:
When I survey the wondrous crossI do not know that Matthew Arnold was correct in thinking that the finest hymn in the English language, but certainly it has in it all the elements of a good hymn.
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
Save in the death of Christ, my Lord;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
For Matthew Arnold to make such a statement about a hymn of Isaac Watts shows the power of truth garbed in simple language. Arnold was a titan of literary criticism, well able to point out the technical shortcomings of the amateur Watts; but Arnold could see the point of Watts's effort. "When I survey the wondrous cross" was not meant to be a great work of literature. It was meant to convey in memorable words the gist of Paul's message to the Philippians--compared to the Christ on the cross, nothing else matters.
Take as another example that old hymn that should have made the name of its author immortal. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe, who died a few days ago, made her name famous by the composition of one song that has attained the name of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. We have a battle hymn.
Am I a soldier of the cross,You all know the rest of it.
A follower of the Lamb,
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?
I am not sure what McGarvey meant about making "the name of its author immortal" because this is a Watts text--and Isaac Watts has easily had far more impact than Howe! This hymn is "shorthand" for all the military metaphors used by Paul. My favorite stanza of this hymn, though, is the one that ends, "Is this vile world a friend to grace / To help me on to God?" It jogs my memory of James 4:4, "friendship with the world is enmity with God," and helps me to remember what that does and does not mean.
Then there is another hymn, not sung so often, but equally fine, which might be called the Christian's call to arms.
Soldiers of Christ arise,Such hymns as these two arouse all the energy and courage that is in the soul of a man who loves the Lord.
And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies,
Through His eternal Son.
Strong in the Lord of Hosts,
And in His mighty power,
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts,
Is more than conqueror.
Stand, then, in His great might,
With all His strength endued,
And take to arm you for the fight,
The panoply of God.
Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul,
Take every virtue, every grace,
And fortify the whole.
That having all things done,
And all your conflicts past,
You may o'ercome through Christ alone
And stand entire at last.
Here is the music for the "hour of danger and stern resolve!" Charles Wesley took up the theme of the Christian armor from Ephesians chapter 6, where Paul made the familiar figure of the Roman legionary a metaphor for the fully equipped Christian soldier. The strength of the Roman army was its discipline, organization and preparation, and Paul methodically goes through the tried-and-true battle kit of the soldiers that had conquered much of the ancient world. Wesley does not go through the individual elements--he assumes we are familiar with them--but instead remarks on the Christian soldier's true source of strength. We are called to be attentive to our duty, but we are also to remember that our trust is "in the strength that God supplies." We stand "with all His strength endued," and in case we did not get the point already, the final stanza tells us that we will overcome "through Christ alone." In a simple, rousing text, Wesley not only reminds us of Paul's foreground theme of spiritual readiness ("take every virtue, every grace") but also our absolute dependence on God for success in the fight.
Then, we have our marching hymns; not one, but many; especially that one which we sing so often in this chapel:
Come we that love the Lord,That hymn is a fine piece of poetry and it is sung to the music of a very fine march. I wonder that some composer has not taken it in hand and made of it a grand march for a brass band. I think it would be a good thing right now for us to rise and sing it.
And let our joys be known,
Join in the song with sweet accord,
And thus surround the throne.
Let those refuse to sing,
Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly king,
May speak their joys abroad.
The hill of Zion yields,
A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavenly fields,
Or walk the golden streets.
Then let our songs abound,
And every tear be dry:
We're marching through Immanuel's ground,
To fairer worlds on high.
From McGarvey's description of "a grand march for a brass band," I believe he must be referring to Lowry's setting, which in America at least was rapidly overtaking the older tunes to which Watts's text was sung. The nature of a march is to keep a group of soldiers in step, and to encourage their esprit de corps. Watts's text is bright and sunny, with a bit of swagger; Lowry's march-style music suits it well, at least for Americans, whose school band tradition has kept this style in the cultural memory.
But there are times that come over the disciples of Christ quite different from these indicated in these exulting stanzas. They are times of gloom and tears, when we need the tenderest words of divine sympathy. Our hymn writers have not left us without comfort in times like these. What is more consoling than the lines in which we sing our Lord's own invitation to the weary and heavy laden, beginning with the stanza,
Come unto me when shadows darkly gather,"Come unto me" is a once-popular hymn by Catherine Waterman Esling (1812-1897), which faded from general use a generation or so ago. Esling's text is not speaking of some petty discontent; in later stanzas it becomes clear that it is a song speaking to those grieving the loss of loved ones. In this context, her quote of Jesus' words from Matthew 11:28 is especially poignant: "Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest." There are depths of grief from which even the brief respite of a night's sleep is a treasured blessing.
When the sad heart is weary and distressed
Seeking for comfort from your heavenly Father,
Come unto me, and I will give you rest.
Job's friends did better when they simply sat with him in silence than when they tried to address his grief, and it is possible that the constant cheerfulness and bravado of the majority of hymns used in worship may strike the grieving just as false as the words of Job's comforters. There is more to the Christian life than joy and praise; grief and mourning have their place as well. We mourn over losses and heartaches, of course; we should also mourn our sins, and the state of the sinful world, far more than is typical today. Jesus, Peter, and Paul did not always send their listeners away with happy thoughts.
Our hymn language was not always so one-sided; at one time many hymnals included Charles Wesley's hymn that begins with the simple question,
And am I born to die?The hymn disappeared during the 20th century. The question, of course, did not--unless one subscribes to the toddler's logic of closing one's eyes in order to make something go away.
We love to sing of our final triumph over death and the grave, and some of our best hymns are devoted to this inspiring theme. I wish we could bring back into general use that inimitable composition in which the resurrection of our Lord and our own resurrection are so beautifully and triumphantly set forth that it should hold a place, as it once did, in every hymn book:
The angels that watched round the tomb(Is there anything more beautiful than this?)
Where low the Redeemer was laid,
When deep in mortality's gloom,
He hid for a season his head,
That veiled their fair face while he slept,
And ceased their harps to employ.
Have witnessed His rising and swept"The angels that watched round the tomb" is from an 1812 publication by William Bengo Collyer. Based on the number of instances at Hymnary.org, this was not one of Collyer's more popular hymns, but it was included in Alexander Campbell's early hymnal, Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, and appeared more frequently in hymnals of the Restoration Movement groups than anywhere else. McGarvey quotes the older, longer version of the text, as it had been sung in his youth.
Their chords with the triumphs of joy.
...Though dreary the empire of night,
I soon shall emerge from its gloom,
And see immortality's light
Arise on the shades of the tomb.
Then welcome the last rending sighs,
When these aching heart-strings shall break,
When death shall extinguish these eyes,
And moisten with dew the pale cheek.
No terror the prospect begets,
I am not mortality's slave;
The sunbeam of life, as it sets,
Leaves a halo of peace on the grave.
This is not likely to be argued as the "finest hymn in the English language," but it is Scripturally sound. It embodies the ideas of Paul's famous passage in 1 Corinthians 15,
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom He did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a Man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (1Cr 15:17-26 ESV)Where Paul addresses the issue through logical argumentation from the greater to the lesser, Collyer tells a story through a series of mental pictures. Angels witnessed the agony, death, and burial of Christ. Angels also witnessed His Resurrection. We know that story, and however we may (rightly) grieve over its tragedy, we cannot conceal the ending from ourselves. We know that we need only turn the page, and our Friend will be there again, spreading joy (and fear), turning the world upside down in His wonderful way. Now, with that in mind, Collyer shows us our own approaching appointment with death and the grave. Sobering? Certainly it is. But we know the end of our story as well, and can look with anticipation to the turn of another page, when Jesus returns.
It is worth remembering that when Brother McGarvey spoke the words above, and ended his chapel talk by quoting that hymn, he was less than a year away from his own death. He lies today in a quiet spot in the Lexington National Cemetery in Kentucky, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise taught by Paul, and embodied in Collyer's hymn. Let us be thankful for those hymns that can strengthen and comfort us in that last hour--those are the ones that matter. And let us encourage the learning of good hymns, old and new, that will deepen our relationship with our God, and encourage and sustain the Christian life that we all wish to lead.
Photo from Scott Harp's Restoration Movement site.