Hymn of the Month, February 2019
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
According to blogger Tim Challies, “‘Abide with Me’ is one of the best-loved English hymns of the past 150 years.” Most of us would doubtless agree, and maybe even go so far as to speculate that it might be one the best-loved English hymns of all time.
The words of “Abide with Me” were penned by an Anglican priest named Henry Francis Lyte. Born in Scotland in 1793 and educated in Ireland, he initially intended to study medicine, but instead became a priest. He served three different congregations between 1815 and 1847.
According to his daughter, Lyte wrote “Abide with Me” during the final year of his life, when his health was particularly poor: “The summer was passing away, and the month of September (that month in which he was once more to quit his native land [to convalesce in southern France]) arrived, and each day seemed to have a special value as being one day nearer his departure.
“His family were surprised and almost alarmed at his announcing his intention of preaching once more to his people. His weakness and the possible danger attending the effort, were urged to prevent it, but in vain. ‘It was better,’ as he used to say often playfully, when in comparative health, ‘to wear out than to rust out.’ He felt that he should be enabled to fulfill his wish, and feared not for the result. His expectation was well founded. He did preach, and amid the breathless attention of his hearers, gave them a sermon on the Holy Communion....
“In the evening of the same day he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, with an air of his own composing, adapted to the words.”
A couple months later Lyte died in southern France.
Lyte’s original hymn contained eight verses; few hymnals, even in the 19th century, print all of them. The Trinity Hymnal, like most hymnals, omits verses 3-5:
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come, not to sojourn, but abide with me!
Come not in terrors as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing on Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea;
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me!
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee:
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me!
In 1861 an English organist named William Henry Monk (1823-1889) composed the tune that accompanies Lyte’s hymn almost exclusively today. One common but disputed story has Monk sitting down at a piano and writing the tune in ten minutes during a committee meeting for the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. In any case, William Monk was a skilled musician who not only contributed several tunes for that hymnal, but also served as its musical editor.
Though some people think of “Abide with Me” as a funeral song—and when played too slowly it certainly can feel like one—the hymn’s words make for a rich expression of dependence on God for believers old and young. They flesh out the profession of Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” Built on an awareness of that reality, this hymn is “a sustained call for God’s personal presence in every stage and condition of life.” That’s particularly hard to miss given the plea repeated at the end of each verse: abide with me. In God we hope and rest, and this hymn leads us in acknowledging that to him.
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide:
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The first verse of our hymn gets right to the point; in its opening words we call out to God, Abide with me: fast falls the eventide. In form, this plea is based on Luke 24:29. In that verse we hear the two disciples who had walked with Jesus to Emmaus say, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” In content, however, this plea flows from the likes of Psalm 27:9 and John 14:4. In Psalm 27:9 we hear David plead, “Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!” Expressed positively, David was pleading with God to abide with him. He felt keenly his need for God and said as much. David needed God’s help, care, and presence no less than we do according to Jesus. In John 15:4 we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
Drawing on that reality, we call upon God here, asking him to abide with me when—and because--other helpers fail and comforts flee. This happens especially near death, but also before then, as seen in the life of the apostle Paul. In one of his letters we hear Paul recount a time when all deserted him, all but the Lord (2 Tim 4:16-17). The Lord is the help of the helpless, and so we fittingly close the first verse by repeating its opening plea: abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
This second verse doubtless deserves much of the credit for this hymn’s reputation as a funeral song. It leads us in summarizing the testimony of God’s Word concerning our mortality. Our lives are swiftly ebbing: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10). Our glory passes away: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass” (1 Pet 1:24). Change and decay are all around us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). Thus we ask the God who never changes, whose years have no end, to abide with me (Ps 102:27).
I need thy presence every passing hour;
what but thy grace can foil the tempter's pow'r?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
This third verse continues the theme of the first two verses, but focuses on the trials and temptations we face. To borrow the words of the apostle Paul, we are in danger every hour (1 Cor 15:30), and who but the Shepherd can guide us (Ps 23; Is 40:11; John 10)? Thus we repeat our call: abide with me.
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
We start this new verse with an unmistakable allusion to Psalm 27:1: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” This, we profess, is true even in the face of death. Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory? we ask, in a near quotation of 1 Corinthians 15:55. No, even in death we triumph, if God abides with us. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
heav'n's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee:
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
As we look ahead in this final verse, beyond the neediness, death, temptation, and grief to the glories of God’s heavenly kingdom, we finish our song with a prayer that God keep the cross before our eyes. We desire it to be something like the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through their wilderness wanderings, shining through the gloom and pointing the way to the Promised Land. All we who trust in Jesus Christ are headed for the land where “night will be no more,” where we “will need no light of map or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). In that regard, abide with me is not only our plea, but also our declaration of joyful hope. In life and in death, our God will abide with us.
Is that both your plea and your hope?