Hymn of the Month, November 2016
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.”
We tend to assume that great hymns are born in a flash of inspiration or produced in one herculean rush. That may be the case occasionally, but not with “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Henry Alford (1810-1871), a minister of the Church of England, initially published the text of this hymn in 1844, revised it and published it again in 1865, and further revised it and published it once more in 1867. Some might argue that speaks poorly of Alford’s ability as a poet, but Alford is far from the only person to work at a poem or piece of music for years. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, for instance, premiered his fifth symphony in Helsinki in 1915, revised and reintroduced it in 1916, and in 1919 presented the public with what would be his final revision. In that light, Henry Alford is far from unique. More importantly, however, his labors bear witness to his willingness to work at praising God well and to lead others in doing so, thereby setting an example for us today.
Most people today remember Henry Alford almost solely for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come,” a hymn written for village harvest festivals in England, but Alford was also a prominent scholar. A Cambridge-educated minister from a long line of clergymen, for years he was also known for his four-volume commentary on the Greek New Testament, the fruit of twenty years’ labor. For better or worse, that commentary and his many other poems and hymns have fallen into obscurity—the Trinity Hymnal contains only one other hymn he wrote: “Ten Thousand Times Ten Thousand” (#323).
George Elvey (1816-1893), long-time organist at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England and composer of many hymn tunes, penned the tune of this month’s hymn for the text of another hymn, but within a few years after its publication people began using it to sing “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” It quickly became the standard tune, and remains so.
Sources: Hymnary.org and The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
“Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” may be a well-known song to sing around harvest time, but by it we do more than thank God again for providing for our needs and wants. Alford’s hymn takes us from thanking God for another year’s harvest to reflecting upon and praying about God’s greater harvest to come. No matter how abundantly God provides for our needs and wants here on earth, we who believe in Jesus Christ yearn for the harvest to come, and so we cry with the apostle John, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
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.
The opening words of this hymn, with their call to come and raise the song of harvest home, are familiar to many of us. They conjure images of whole communities breathing a deep, collective sigh of relief and gratitude as the last of the year’s crops have been harvested and stored. Some of us know that feeling, and it’s a good one (as long as the harvest wasn’t disturbingly poor).
Many Christians today no longer farm or even live in predominantly agricultural communities, but it is fitting for us to continue to call one another to come and raise the song of harvest home around this time each year. We may not live as near to the land as many of our ancestors, but for the most part our food ultimately comes from the same place theirs did. Even if that were not so, God’s provision extends far beyond merely the food we eat. Psalm 145:15-16 expresses well our total dependence upon God: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing.” Indeed, in the second half of this opening verse we summarize that profession, acknowledging that it is God who provides for our wants, food and beyond. Thus we close by calling to each other once again to come and raise the song of harvest home.
All the world is 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.
In this second verse we shift our attention from the year’s harvest to the final harvest Jesus spoke of on at least a couple occasions. In Mark 4:26-29 he likened the kingdom of God to a man scattering seed, watching it grow, and eventually putting the sickle to it. In Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 Jesus told a similar parable, but also proceeded to explain it to his disciples. He stated that the field is the world, he was the sower, the harvest is the end of the age, and one day he would send the angels to gather in his crop, carefully separating the wheat from the tares as they did so. The words of this second verse are unmistakably drawn from that explanation. As we sing it, we affirm what Jesus said and ask him to work in us that we might be wholesome and pure grain. For reasons that we will articulate in the next verse, we want to be, and thus we make this our prayer.
For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take his harvest home;
from his field shall in that day
all offenses purge away;
give his angels charge at last
in the fire the tares to cast,
but the fruitful ears to store
in his garner evermore.
This verse continues the thought of the previous one, going on to affirm what Jesus said in Matthew 13 about the coming harvest. In fact, the opening word for tightly links this verse to the previous one. In this verse we express one of our reasons for asking Jesus, the Lord of harvest, to work in us that we might be wholesome and pure grain. Simply put, we believe what he said about the coming harvest, and we want to be one of the fruitful ears stored in his garner (storehouse) evermore.
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.
As a number of us know personally, farmers and whole communities look forward each year to the moment when all the grain is gathered in and all the combines and wagons are put away. No matter how rewarding a year’s labor may be, in the wake of Adam’s rebellion the work is difficult, tiring, and filled with frustrations (including injuries or even death). Needless to say, the curse of Genesis 3:17-19 was and still is real.
Along the same lines, we who trust in Jesus Christ look forward to the day when the Lord of harvest will come to his final harvest home, and here in this final verse we pray that he will do so quickly. Taking the plea of Revelation 22:20 on our lips (“Even so, come, Lord Jesus” in the King James Version), we ask God to come and gather his people to himself, that we may forever abide in his presence, where we will be free from sorrow and free from sin according to Revelation 7:14 and 21:3-4. No matter how rewarding or fulfilling our lives or even mere parts of our lives may be, life in this world is difficult, tiring, and filled with frustrations, for the exact same reason that growing food ultimately is difficult. Consequently, we who trust in Jesus Christ hear what Jesus said in Matthew 13 about the coming harvest not only as a reason to ask Jesus to work in us, but also as a reason to hope.
As you thank God for his provision over the past year, do you hope in the coming harvest as well? As great as this year’s harvest may have been for you—literally or figuratively—there’s a greater harvest to come. To some people, that might be a discouraging thought, something of a wet blanket on an otherwise joyful thanksgiving. Yet, for we who have both felt the curse of sin and caught a glimpse of the glory of Jesus Christ, it’s another reason for thanksgiving. No question about it—the final three verses of this hymn are not dead weight tacked on to a Thanksgiving hymn that began so beautifully and well. No, the final three verses of this hymn are a beautiful reminder of the final harvest home that God has promised to each one of us who repents and trusts in Jesus Christ his Son.