Issue 86 Winter 2008
greetings in the precious name of our Lord & Saviour &
soon-coming King. We have just celebrated the season when we
reflect on the first coming of our Lord. Those alive at the time
knew the ‘how’ and ‘where’ of His coming.
So with the second coming, we know the ‘how’ and the
‘where’. As with the first coming, we do not know the
‘when’. We are told not to speculate, as ‘of that day
and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but
only the Father.’ [Mark 13:32]
We are however given a number of clues which do not leave us in darkness that the day should overtake us like a thief. All passages tell the same story of increasing violence, turmoil and spiritual darkness. The Lord compares the time of the end to the days of Noah & Lot [Luke 17:26-37], periods of violence, sexual depravity and spiritual indifference. In Luke 21:25-26 we learn that nature itself will be moved & shaken: there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; Men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken.
Two passages present a very bleak picture of the human condition, Paul’s 23 evils in Rom 1:28-32 and the Saviour’s list of 13 in Mark 7:21-23.
But in 2 Tim 3:1-4 we have a particularly sobering picture of the end times: ‘But know this, that in the last days perilous times [= times of stress] will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.’ [Note the three items in italics that encapsulate life in Britain in 2008!!].
Despite the outward signs of increasing darkness - social disintegration, violence & disorder on our streets, moral degradation of our nation, corruption in high places –
we can offer to a needy world a Saviour who is the Light of the World, whose light shines on in the darkness AND THE DARKNESS HAS NEVER PUT IT OUT.
In this issue Philip writes prophetically about the Last Trumpet, and offers some thoughts on sabbatical cycles. We also include an article on Newton, Cowper & the Olney Hymns by Prof David Crout, a former colleague of mine from Coventry
The Last Trumpet [PW]
There are three verses in scripture that combine an end time gathering of God’s people with the sounding of a trumpet; one is in the Old Testament and two in the New. In this study we look into the question of whether they are describing the same or separate events.
The first of these verses is found in Isaiah. “And it will come about in that day, that the LORD will start His threshing from the flowing stream of the Euphrates to the brook of Egypt; and you will be gathered up one by one, O sons of Israel. It will come about also in that day that a great trumpet will be blown; and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship the LORD in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.” Isaiah 27:12,13
The preceding chapters 24 to 27 describe the day when the Lord will act in judgement on the earth. This series of prophecies begin with the words; Behold, the LORD lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface, and scatters its inhabitants. Isaiah 24:1. There is coming a time when the earth will be devastated. When, to use the words of verse 20; “The earth reels to and fro like a drunkard, and it totters like a shack, for its transgression is heavy upon it.” Revelation 16:18 describes this shaking, “as a great earthquake such as there had not been since man came to be on this earth”. And yet in the midst of this destruction there are those who “shout for joy” and “give glory to the righteous one” (Isaiah 24:14,16).
The prophecy flows on in the next chapter to speak of how God has been, “a defence to the helpless” and “a refuge in the storm”. The passage continues: “And the LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; a banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, and refined, aged wine. And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples, even the veil which is stretched over all nations. He will swallow up death for all time, And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces, and He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth; For the LORD has spoken. And it will be said in that day,
"Behold, this is our God for whom we have waited that He might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; Let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation." Isaiah 25:6-9. There can be no doubt about the Second Coming context of these words. The banquet, the swallowing up of death and the wiping away of tears all speak of the time when the “Lord for whom we have waited”, returns.
The next chapter is a song of praise to “the everlasting Rock”, who is their security. It recognises the necessity of the judgement that has taken place, “For when the earth experiences Thy judgments the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.” Isaiah 26:9, and accepts that the judgement had also to come on the people of God, “O LORD, they sought Thee in distress; they could only whisper a prayer, Thy chastening was upon them. As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth, she writhes and cries out in her labor pains, thus were we before Thee, O LORD. Isaiah 26: 16,17
God warns his people that a time will come when He will punish the inhabitants of the earth and tells them to hide for a while; “Come, my people, enter into your rooms, and close your doors behind you; hide for a little while, until indignation runs its course. For behold, the LORD is about to come out from His place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth will reveal her bloodshed, and will no longer cover her slain.” Isaiah 26: 20-21.
Chapter 27 moves on to say that this is the day when Satan will be punished and Israel will blossom and be fruitful. At long last Jacob’s iniquity will be forgiven and their sins finally pardoned. But pardon will come after a period of great suffering. The prophecies culminate with the words with which we started this study. At the sounding of a great trumpet the sons of Israel will be gathered and come to worship the Lord in the Holy Mountain in Jerusalem.
The Jews understand that there are two occasions when God will sound a trumpet blast. The first occasion was at Sinai when God made the covenant with Israel, Exod 19:16,19 (also Heb 12:19. The second time is when God will rescue Israel and gather them to Jerusalem. Isaiah 27:13 and Zech 9:14. The Jews refer to these as the first and last trumpets. The first trumpet is remembered at Pentecost when the law was given to Moses. The last is to be blown at Rosh Hashanah, the Feast of Trumpets, to announce the coming of the Messiah to rescue Israel at her time of greatest need. The reading for Rosh Hashanah is taken from Genesis 22 where Abraham is called on to sacrifice Isaac. The Jews regard this passage as Messianic but not in the same way as Christians do. They see the horns of the ram caught in the thicket as symbolic of the first and last trumpets.
The next time we read of the blowing of a great trumpet and the gathering of the elect is to be found in our Lord’s final sermon. "But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. "And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” Matthew 24: 29,30
The timing of this gathering is after the tribulation and the darkening of the sun. Following these events the sign of the Son of Man will appear and the trumpet will sound. It is widely accepted that Jesus is referring back to the Isaiah passage we have just looked at. He is describing the time when He is coming in judgement on the earth. Similar thoughts are to be found in the book of Joel. “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon grow dark, and the stars lose their brightness. And the LORD roars from Zion and utters His voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth tremble. But the LORD is a refuge for His people and a stronghold to the sons of Israel. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, dwelling in Zion My holy mountain. So Jerusalem will be holy, and strangers will pass through it no more.” Joel 3:14-17
As we study these and similar passages the pattern of events becomes clear: devastation and destruction with a violent shaking of the earth; the sun will no longer give light and the stars will disappear. And yet in all this the people who know their God are singing songs of Joy. Out of the chaos their Lord will gather them.
We now face the question of whether the next passage that brings together the sounding of a trumpet and the gathering of the elect is also describing the same event. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-18
This is part of a passage in which Paul is encouraging those who mourn those that have died. There is no need to mourn for when Jesus comes again for He will bring with Him those who have passed away. At His coming we will be caught up to be with them. In common with the passages we have already looked at, the time when Jesus returns is marked by the sounding of a trumpet. This is added to in Corinthians where the transformation that takes at this time when the trumpet is sounded is described.
“Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.” 1Corinthians 15: 51-53
The transformation is described as a mystery for it had not been revealed in the Old Testament scriptures. Paul, a Jew, sets this transformation at the last trumpet, the meaning of which the Jews readily understood.
For some the placing of the return of Christ for His saints so late in the unfolding of prophesied events causes problems. If the series of events from the tribulation through to the shaking of the earth have to be fulfilled before Christ returns, how can His return be imminent, in the sense of being at any moment? Another problem which arises is that, if we are gathered at the time when Jesus physically returns, we will still be on the earth during the time when God pours out His wrath. 1 Thessalonians 5: 9, says, “for God has not destined us for wrath, but for the obtaining of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Both these problems are answered if we read through the passage. The promise that we are not destined for wrath follows the assurance that at the sound of the trumpet we will be caught up to be with Jesus. Paul has in mind that many of his readers will know the Old Testament and the connection in time between the wrath of God and the coming of the Lord. They are now alarmed. If we are to be gathered up at the time of the last trumpet and the coming of the Lord what about the judgements that will fall on the earth. How will they escape? The world will be taken by surprise as judgement overtakes it like a thief in the night. But because we are vigilant the judgement will not catch us out. We will not escape the wrath by being in heaven, but by being, “sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. We are not to look to the Lord for escape, but as a shelter during the time of trouble.
Jesus taught that there would be an element of surprise in the timing of His return. We will never be able to predict the exact time even up to the very end. That is not to say that His return can be at any moment. Jesus placed his return very firmly after the tribulation and the shaking of the heavens and the earth. These must come first. If it is argued that Matthew 24:31 is not His return for the Church I would say that it is very strange that Jesus repeatedly encourages us to be vigilant for an event which he says nothing whatever about. This is the only return that He ever speaks of.
The Sabbatical Cycles [PW]
“And you shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.” Exodus 23:10-11
An important part of the Law of Moses was the Sabbath year when the land was allowed to rest. It was intended as a year when the land could recover and also to be blessing to the poor. Every seventh year the Israelites were to let the land keep a "sabbath of rest" by not sowing their crops (Lev. 25:2-7). This sabbatical year was called "the year of shemitah" or "release", since all debts were remitted that year (Deut. 15:9; 31:10). The Sabbatical year begins in the autumn on the first of Tishri, the seventh month. This is the Jewish calendar new year called Rosh Hashanah or to us the Feast of Trumpets.
The importance of the Sabbath year as part of the Law is emphasised at the end of 2 Chronicles. Failure to observe the sabbatical years is given as a reason for Judah being taken into exile by Babylon.
“And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete.” 2 Chronicles 36: 20-21
The present day celebration of the Sabbatical Year
With the return of the Jews to Israel in the late 1800’s the question of letting the fields lie fallow for a year became a burning issue. The early settlers requested that the rabbinate issue a ‘hetter’ (permit) to allow them to continue working the land during the sabbatical year of 1889. In response three respected Rabbis came up with the formula called ‘hetter machirah’. This allowed the Jew to temporarily sell the land to a non-Jew for the sabbatical year so that the young and fragile agricultural settlements would not collapse. The practice of ‘hetter machirah’, continues to this day. It has always been controversial as it was seen as more about observing the letter rather than the spirit of the Law. Some of the ultra-orthodox Jews are fiercely opposed to it.
We are at present in the middle of a Sabbatical year. The current Shemita year began on Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5768, and extends until 29 Elul 5768 (September 13, 2007-September 29, 2008). The dating of the Sabbath years conforms to a table published by Benedict Zuckermann in 1856, which lists the sabbatical years in ancient times. His table is generally accepted as the standard position.
The Final Years
In the Winter 2007 edition of Trumpet Sounds, I set out my belief that Daniel 9:25 sets out two distinct periods one of 434 years and one of 49 years which should not be added together to make 483 years as is done with many interpretations. I also believe that the whole prophecy is clearly based on Sabbatical cycles of seven years and that all the very clever interpretations based on prophetic years, etc. are a red herring. In that edition of Trumpet Sounds I indicated that I thought the final period of 49 years started in 1967 with the Jews capturing the old city of Jerusalem. I have now reconsidered that position.
1967 was very significant and could be the start date of the final period, but there is another possible date. It is a date that seems most notable by its lack of apparent significance. Although Israel took Jerusalem in 1967, they did not declare the city to be the capital of Israel for another 13 years. When it did happen it came in as an afterthought through a private members bill introduced into the Knesset. The Act when it was passed declared “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” In many ways this Act did nothing to change anything. Most legal experts considered that the Act did not change the effective legal status of the city. It would be an easy date to pass over but for three reasons.
First is the coincidence that the declaration of the Jerusalem as the Capital followed 13 years after the return. I believe that the start date for the first period of 434 years was when Nehemiah returned in 444 BC. This was 13 years after Ezra’s return to Jerusalem in 457 BC. This is an interesting coincidence but not over persuasive.
The second reason is of more importance. My initial conviction that the 49 years represented a separate period leading up to the Second Coming came from studying the work of Sir Isaac Newton. But he also stipulated that the 49 years represented a Jubilee. The period of the Jubilee always starts with a Sabbatical year. Added to this, those who advocate an interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy of 70 weeks based on the normal Sabbath cycle also understand that greater credibility is given to an interpretation of the prophecy if it should fit the cycle of sabbatical years. According to Zuckerman’s table 1967 was not a sabbatical year but 1979 – 1980 was. Therefore this decree by the Israeli parliament came during a sabbatical year. If this period began with the Sabbatical year 1979-1980 it will end on Rosh Hashanah 2029 when the 50th year will begin.
A third reason for taking an interest in this date is the affect it had on the rest of the world. Following the passing of the Act there was a resounding rebuff from the United Nations. Under resolution 478 they declared that the Act was null and void. As a response every member state was asked to remove their embassies from Jerusalem, which they promptly did. This global response was prophetic of the final rallying of every nation against Israel. It is the response of all the nations of the world that most strongly points to the significance of 1980.
I am not predicting that Jesus will return in either 2016 or 2029. The Bible states that God has not revealed the time just as He did not reveal in advance the exact time of His Son’s birth. If this interpretation of the significance of the seven times seven years is correct it confirms that the return of Jesus is very close.
A Seven Year Cycle?
Contemplating the final 49 years caused me to consider the recent history of Israel within a framework of the Sabbath years. Were there clear seven-year cycles to which could be identified? I share my thought for your consideration. I have used the Jewish calendar years as this is clearer.
5733 (1972/3) Peace
The Yom Kippor War of the autumn 1972 gave Israel a brief period of peace and security. Following their rapid defeat the Arabs for a time considered the IDF invincible.
5740 (1979/80) Isolation
In July 1980 Israel declares, “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.” This begins a process in which Israel experiences increasing isolation by the international community.
5747 (1986/7) Intifada
First Intifada begins in October 1987 lasting through to 1993. The catalyst for the uprising was the ambush by the Israeli Defence force of seven members of Islamic Jihad in Gaza on 1st October 1980 and the shooting of a Palestinian schoolgirl by an Israeli settler. The Intifada was brought to an end by the Oslo Accords.
5754 (1993/4) Dividing the Land
The Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. They collapsed in July 2000 with the rejection by Yasser Arafat of the terms offered by Ehud Barak. The accords centred on the agreement to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states.
5761 (2000/1) Second Inifada
The second intifada began in September 2000. The uprising became global with the September 11th 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre. This attack began the war on terror. Towards the end of this period the West has started to realise that it has entered into a war it can never win.
We have since the Autumn of last year entered the next seven year cycle. If so what will the next seven years bring?
5768 - 5775 (2007/8 – 2014/5) Collapse of the USA
I believe that the next seven year period will see the collapse of the USA as a major world power. The new sabbatical year has already seen a marked change in approach by the USA to Israel, particularly by President Bush, who is pushing hard for a Middle East peace settlement before he leaves office. Both in Annapolis and more recently in Israel a desire to appease the Arabs has become evident. When the USA rejects Israel she will cease to be a significant military and economic power in this world. In consequence Israel will loose the major prop on which she has relied for her continuing existence. Pray that she will come to rely on God for her protection instead of the USA.
The next seven years will also see the relentless rise of Islam towards becoming the dominant power in the world.
Hezbollah's Billion Petrodollars [Dr. Walid Phares IAN 11th January]
A few weeks ago, articles published around the world reported that Hezbollah is undergoing two major changes. Both portend greater violence from the Iranian-sponsored global terrorist network.
The first change is a shift in leadership responsibilities. A report published initially in the Saudi owned Sharq al Awsat said the office of Ayatollah Khamenei appointed deputy secretary general Sheikh Naim Qassim as the new supreme commander of Hezbollah forces and the personal representative of the Ayatollah in Lebanon. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, according to this report remains as secretary general of the organization. Sources said this change in control and command is because of "differences in opinions" between Narsrallah and Qassim.
The Hezbollah media arm rushed to deny the veracity of this shift. But observers with direct knowledge of the organization's inside structure said Khamenei indeed ordered changes in Hezbollah's structures, but not because of differences between its leaders. They said it was in preparation for a potential massive move by Hezbollah to seize more power in Lebanon and before a possible clash with the Lebanese Government and the United Nations over the disarmament process. ……
The second major change, according to these reports Hezbollah is a huge increase in annual budget funded by Tehran. Hezbollah’s funding was elevated from $400 million US to $1 billion. This ballistic leap would enable the organization to crush any opponent inside Lebanon and engage in worldwide operations against Western Democracies and Arab moderates. According to experts in Lebanon, the $400 millions figure was enough to pay for hundreds of social centers and thousands of salaries enough to insure a full control over the Shia community, its representatives in Parliament and buy significant influence inside the Sunni, Druze and particularly Christiancommunity. ….. But if $400 million can buy Hezbollah a magic place under Lebanon's sun, what would a $1 billion do? Observers in Lebanon say: "anything anywhere." Indeed the Moguls of the so-called "resistance" have been able to create alternative TV and radio stations, launch multiple dailies, pay for a nonstop sit-in across Downtown Beirut, and more importantly leap to hyper international power. (The full article can be read on the website http://www.analyst-network.com/article.php?art_id=1577)
John Newton, William Cowper and the Olney Hymns [DHGC]
Near the end of his life John Newton said to a visitor “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things – that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.”
These few words encapsulate Newton’s deepest beliefs as a Christian. They are a distillation of the experiences of an extraordinary life.
The popular picture of Newton is of a Captain of a slave ship who, in the terror of an intense storm, gave his life to the Lord, became a vicar and wrote “Amazing Grace.”
The true story is far more complex and revealing of Newton’s long and dramatic road to the convictions expressed in the opening sentence.
Newton was born in 1725 of a merchant captain, and a devout mother who died when he was seven. Newton abandoned formal education at the age of eleven to go to sea with his father. At nineteen he was press-ganged on to a Royal Navy ship but changed to a slaver trading off the west coast of Africa. He took a post ashore with a trader but came under the domination of his African wife, the daughter of a local chief, who, in the trader’s absence, treated Newton abominably, forcing him into a position lower than her own slaves (hence the line “A servant of slaves in Africa” on Newton’s epitaph). He was rescued by a ship, the Greyhound, sailed to America and then back across the Atlantic to England.
By his own account, Newton was a well of depravity during this period. He was profane, indulged in all kinds of wickedness and delighted in destroying the faith of others.
It was during the Atlantic crossing that the Greyhound was caught in the famous storm. Newton feared for his life. While manning the pumps, he said to himself “If this will not do, the Lord have mercy on us.” Struck by his own words he thought “What mercy can there be for me?”
He was also frightened when he asked himself “What if the scriptures were true?” He felt that if they were true he could not be forgiven.
He remembered the verses: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened,………… if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss, they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace” (Hebrews 6: 4-6).
Then, he remembered other verses that gave him some comfort: “Which of you fathers, if his son asks for fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in Heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11: 11-13).
Newton decided that “….though I could not say in my heart that I believed the Gospel, yet I would, for the present, take it for granted”
He concluded that he “…stood in need of an Almighty Saviour, and such an one as I found described in the New Testament.”
The Greyhound finally limped into port in Ireland.
Newton took a position as mate on a slaver but soon slipped back and became worse than he was before “profaneness excepted.”
“The enemy prepared a train of temptations, and I became his easy prey: for about a month he lulled me asleep in a course of evil, of which, only a few months before, I could not have supposed myself any longer capable.”
He fell very ill. He remembered his promises to God and how he had failed to keep them. He concluded that “the door of hope was quite shut.” On an island off the coast of West Africa he found a quiet place where he felt a renewed liberty to pray. He made no more resolutions “…but cast myself before the Lord to do with me as He should please.”
He returned to the ship, and “though subject to the effects and conflicts of sin dwelling in him, yet he was ever after delivered from its power and dominion.”
He was “enabled to hope and believe in a crucified Saviour.”
Newton had come to faith at a critical moment when he realised that he could do nothing in his own strength but was totally dependent on the Lord to raise him up. This realisation explains the powerful effect on Newton of the revelation that came to him through a Christian friend, Alex Clunie, when they were together in Antigua during one of the three voyages that Newton made as captain of a slave ship. It was Clunie who introduced to Newton the concept of grace as the “free and unmerited favour of God.”
Newton suffered a seizure after his third voyage which prevented him from again going to sea. He took a post as Tide Surveyor at Liverpool, but then took holy orders. He was accepted for ordination by the Bishop of Lincoln after two rejections by York. His lack of a university education had been the stumbling block, but, as John Wesley, a strong supporter of Newton, said:
“His case is very peculiar; our Church requires that clergymen should be men of learning, and to this end have a university education; but how many men have a university education and yet no learning at all?”
Newton accepted a curacy at Olney, Buckinghamshire. He took under his wing the poet William Cowper, who was in a continuing fragile mental state. Partly to encourage Cowper and partly to minister to his parishioners, Newton, together with Cowper, wrote the hymns, over three hundred in number, that constitute the Olney Hymns.
In the preface to the Olney Hymns Newton says: “A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.”
Before long, Cowper became so ill that he could no more contribute. Thus Newton: “My grief and disappointment were great; I hung my harp upon the willows,* and for some time thought myself determined to proceed no farther without him.”
*Psalm 137: 2
However, Newton was eventually persuaded to publish. The first edition of the Olney Hymns appeared in 1779. It contained over three hundred hymns, most by Newton but with a good representation from Cowper. The most familiar are probably:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
Come my soul thy suit prepare,
Jesus loves to answer prayer
Glorious things of thee are spoken
Zion, city of our God
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
Hark my soul! It is the Lord
‘Tis thy Saviour, hear his word
Jesus, where’ere thy people meet,
There they behold thy mercy seat
Oh! For a closer walk with God,
A calm and heav’nly frame
Newton’s approach to the writing of hymns is instructive. He says:
“There is a stile and manner suited to the composition of hymns, which may be more successfully, or at least more easily attained by a versifier, than by a poet. They should be hymns not odes, if designed for public worship, and for the use of plain people. Perspicuity, simplicity and ease, should be chiefly attended to; and the imagery and coloring of poetry, if admitted at all, should be indulged very sparingly and with great judgement.
He goes on:
“But although I would not offend readers of taste by a wilful coarseness, and negligence, I do not write professedly for them.”
Newton, having admitted to what amounts to class consciousness, then goes on to a statement which explains better than this author might, why his hymns and Cowper’s have such a universally powerful effect, devoid though they might be of poetic embellishment.
“As the workings of the heart of man, and of the Spirit of God, are in general the same, in all who are the subjects of grace, I hope most of these hymns, being the fruit and expression of my own experience, will coincide with the views of real christians of all denominations.”
The extraordinary popularity of Amazing Grace, which comes high in, or at the top of, most polls of popular hymns, is certainly in large part because it is indeed the “fruit and expression” of his own, powerful and dramatic, experience. However, its effect can also be attributed to a large extent to its marriage to the tune to which it is nowadays sung. Given Newton’s views about “imagery and coloring”, one wonders what he might have made of this; we have no information on the tunes to which Newton’s parishioners sang his hymns, but presumably they would have been simple and familiar.
It is characteristic of Newton that he should end his introduction the the Olney Hymns with a warm dedication to his parishioners which at the same time speaks to us:
This publication, which, with my humble prayer to the Lord for his blessing upon it, I offer to the service and acceptance of all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, of every name and in every place, into whose hands it might come; I more particularly dedicate to my dear friends in the parish and neighbourhood of Olney, for whose use the hymns were originally composed; as a testimony of the sincere love I bear them, and as a token of my gratitude to the Lord, and to them, for the comfort and satisfaction with which the discharge of my ministry among them has been attended.”
In spite of Newton’s protestations, his hymns make an impact that shows how poetry comes into being through a combination of efficient “versification” allied to a powerful and deeply felt message, even though “imagery and coloring” might be eschewed. Perhaps this can be illustrated and this piece brought to a close, by the last three verses of “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds.”:
Jesus! My Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see thee as thou art,
I’ll praise thee as I ought.
‘Till then I would thy love proclaim
With ev’ry fleeting breath;
And may the music of thy name
Refresh my soul in death.
A statement about what knowing Jesus means to a Christian, namely everything; a declaration that final union with Christ will remove every last barrier to the offering of the praise that is his due; a declaration of the willingness, through faith, to proclaim the love of God; a final inward look to the hope that the writer has for the consummation of his belief in the new life into which his soul will be released at the end; these are a fitting expression of the life and work of a great Christian.