Hymn of the Month, February 2017
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
The story is told of an old pioneer traveling westward across the American frontier over a century ago. After more than a month on horseback, he came to an abrupt halt at the edge of the Grand Canyon. As one writer tells the story, “He gawked at the sight before him: a vast chasm one mile down, eighteen miles across, and more than a hundred miles long! He then burst out, ‘Something musta happened here!’”
Like the Grand Canyon, many of the hymns we sing today bear unmistakable witness that “something musta happened” in this world, specifically that God was and still is at work. “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is a great example of that. It has been translated into more than 70 languages and included in not only countless worship services, but even events such as the 1997 funeral of Princess Diana, the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, and present-day matches of the Wales national rugby team. Many people today may not understand or appreciate this hymn’s meaning, but its spread and endurance bear witness to the power of the gospel.
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” or, in Welsh, “Arglwydd, arwain trwy'r anialwch,” was born in Wales in the first half of the 18th century. It was first published in a book of poems in 1745, under the title, “A prayer for strength to go through the wilderness of the world.” This prayer drew on the biblical metaphor of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, drawing especially on images from the Exodus of the Israelites in the Old Testament.
William Williams, the writer of this prayer for strength, was born in Wales in 1717. He originally intended to become a doctor, but abandoned medicine to study theology. He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England in 1740, but, after being denied priesthood because of his evangelical convictions, in 1744 he joined the Calvinistic Methodists. From then until his death in 1791 he served as an itinerant evangelist, preaching the gospel throughout Wales and playing a leading role in the Welsh revival movement. That noted, troughout his lifetime he also wrote many popular poems/hymns, earning him the title “the [Isaac] Watts of Wales.”
Peter Williams (1722-1796) published an English translation of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” in 1771. He and William Williams, though not related, had much in common. Both were itinerant preachers in Wales. Peter Williams was converted under the ministry of the famous preacher George Whitefield and later, like William Williams, was ordained in the Church of England before joining the Calvinist Methodists in 1746 (and for the same reason). Of Peter Williams’ translation of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” only verse 1 remains in use—William Williams produced an English translation of his own a year later, and his translation of verses 2-3 won out.
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” has been sung to a number of tunes over the years, but since 1907 it has become inseparable from a tune composed by another Welshman. John Hughes (1873-1932) was not a musician by training—in fact, he had little formal education at all—but he composed what would become the standard tune for Williams’ prayer for strength. Hughes, a dedicated deacon and song-leader, composed it for a song festival at a chapel in the Rhondda River Valley, hence the tune name CWM Rhondda. Apart from that, Hughes was by all accounts a typical, blue-collar Welshman, who began working as a doorkeeper for a mining company when he was twelve and eventually worked his way up to a position as an official in the traffic department of the Great Western Railway.
Sources: UMCDiscipleship.org, Hymnary.org, Wikipedia.org, BBC.com, Youtube.com, Dictionary of Welsh Biography, and Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
As already noted, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is a prayer that draws on the Biblical metaphor of the Christian life as a pilgrimage, drawing especially images from the Exodus. As we sing it, we plead with God to lead us, feed us, cleanse us from sin, and deliver us from death.
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy pow'rful hand;
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
feed me till I want no more,
feed me till I want no more.
We begin verse 1 with a petition straight out of the psalms, a cry for God to guide us. In Psalm 25:5, for instance, we hear David pray, “Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” We likewise hear him plead with God in Psalm 139:24, “See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Many years later, we begin this hymn by asking God to do the same for us: Guide Me, O thou great Jehovah. We then go on to acknowledge why we need him to do that: I am weak, but thou art mighty; hold me with thy pow’rful hand. Each of us is a pilgrim in a barren land, and we need God to guide us, indeed hold us, much as he did the Israelites of old during their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Our hope and joy as pilgrims in this world is that God is with us and that he will guide us with his counsel and afterward receive us into glory (Psalm 73:23-24).
The remainder of the first verse flows from that hope and joy and gives birth to even greater hope and joy. Here we sing together to the Bread of heaven and ask him to feed me till I want no more. At first glance, this plea is strange, even if we understand that it is drawing upon the story in Exodus 16 of God sending manna from heaven to feed his people. Since God sent his people bread from heaven, why would we seemingly call upon him as the Bread of heaven instead of asking him for Bread from heaven? The answer is clear later in the New Testament, specifically in Jesus’ words in John 6. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus announced that he was “the bread of life,” “the true bread from heaven.” In that light, there’s no need for us to ask God for Bread from heaven because God has given it to us. Consequently, here in the final strains of verse 1 we acknowledge that and pray accordingly. Jesus is the Christ, sent by the Father to shepherd us all the way into glory. In that light, we close this verse by asking Jesus specifically to continue leading and feeding us until his gracious and mighty work with us is complete.
Open now the crystal fountain,
whence the healing stream doth flow;
let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through;
strong Deliv'rer, strong Deliv'rer,
be thou still my strength and shield,
be thou still my strength and shield.
In this second verse we continue our plea, drawing on more images from the Exodus that foreshadowed the person and work of Jesus Christ. The first of these is the story of God giving his people water from the rock. In Exodus 17 the Israelites grumbled against Moses and demanded that he give them water to drink. Moses cried out to God, and God commanded him to strike a certain rock with his staff. In the sight of the elders of Israel, Moses did as God commanded, and water flowed out for the people to drink. Drawing upon that story, we ask God to open now the crystal fountain, not because we too want to see and drink water coming from a rock, but because that rock foreshadowed the person and work of Jesus Christ, as the apostle Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 10:4. That is the fountain we ask God to open for us today and every day of our lives—the fountain whence the healing stream doth flow. Since we know that “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” we ask God to open now—whether for the first time or yet again--the crystal fountain whence the healing stream doth flow.
The rest of the verse draws upon the images of the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night and the common biblical theme that God is the strength and shield of his people (see, for instance, Psalm 144:2). This is not surprising, but it is a good reminder that we need God to guide and protect us all our days, every step of our journey. Do you believe that? How does your life, your attitude demonstrate it?
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell's Destruction,
land me safe on Canaan's side;
songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee,
I will ever give to thee.
We conclude our song with a look ahead to the end of our journey, namely our deaths. In this third and final verse we look ahead to the time to come when we, like the Israelites, approach the glorious land God has promised to us, separated from it only by death. We know not when that time will come, but here and now we ask God to bid our anxious fears subside and land us safe on Canaan’s side when that time does come. Being confident that he will deliver us from death, we finish our hymn rejoicing that we will ever (forever) give to him songs of praises. How can we be so confident of this? Simple: the Bible tells us so. In the vision God showed the apostle John, we hear of “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10). That multitude, as John later heard, is the multitude of those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” To put it differently, it’s the multitude of those whom God washed in the healing stream and led all their journey through. Do you fit that description? Why or why not? Whatever the case, may each of us make this hymn our prayer as we sing it this month!