LORD OF LIFE LUTHERAN CHURCH
2 August, 2015
“Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah.” This hymn was written by William Williams (1717-1791), a Welshman and writer of 800 Welsh hymns as well as 100 English hymns. As a wee lad, Williams received a good education and almost studied medicine. However, after hearing a particularly moving sermon one day, he decided to enter the ministry. He was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1741, but was refused full ordination as a priest because of his evangelical fervency! Williams spend the next 50 years traveling through Wales with his wife singing the Christian faith and evangelizing. He became greatly influenced by Methodism and Calvinism. This hymn we sing today was written in Welsh but translated into English by Peter Williams (no relation to William Williams) and William Williams’ son, John Williams and published in his Hymns on Various Subjects, 1771.
This text is based upon Ex. 13: 21: “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.” Obviously, this verse relates the visible and tangible leadership God gave His people during the wanderings of the Exodus.
In setting an Old Testament theme in a hymn, Williams demonstrates his unconventional means of theologizing (as might be expected from a missionary.) Most better hymns, either modern or ancient, are based upon the themes the New Testament and on the life and teachings of Jesus. Many more are more loosely based upon New Testament themes such as love, the Church, fellowship, etc, which often tend to stray rather far from what the New Testament actually said. Then, of course, there are numerous hymns based on the psalms. Yet, we would have difficulty finding many hymns taken from Kings, or Judges, or Numbers, or Leviticus, or even Genesis. Somehow, the writers of our hymns through the ages have gravitated toward the seemingly more comprehensible themes of the New Covenant.
Yet, Williams is not afraid to exegete upon this Exodus text. The first phrase uses the word “Jehovah,” which immediately places the singer in the mindset of the Old Testament, for that address to God was traditionally used by the Hebrew people. He relates the wanderings of the Hebrews to the wandering of the Christian in the midst of unbelievers, “Guide me, o thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.” How descriptive also of the life of a wandering missionary! Williams does not finish the first stanza before he introduces a sacramental concept: “Bread of heaven, Feed me till I want no more.” Whilst literally referring to the manna provided by God to the Hebrews, this also refers to the eucharist. Similarly, the second stanza observes the “crystal fountain whence the healing stream doth flow.” Whilst directly referring to the numerous instances of water being provided the Hebrews throughout the Exodus (particularly Moses’ drawing of water from the rock), this also echoes baptism, which is often characterized as a “healing stream.” I cannot also help but think of the water and blood which poured from Jesus’ side after his death and which provides healing from sin. From a eucharistic viewpoint, this is a vivid realization of Jesus’ words in the Last Supper, “This is my blood, shed for you.”
As with any good Methodist hymn, the last stanza “personalizes” the preceding stanzas. Williams prays, “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canann’s side. Songs of praises I will ever give to Thee.” Interestingly, the River Jordan symbolizes not only the Hebrews’ destination, it was also the river in which Jesus was baptized, the account of which was read earlier in the service. Whilst this is not primarily a baptismal hymn, its use in the service today reminds us of God’s promises fullfilled not only through the exodus, but also through the gift of His Son, whose baptism we specifically recall today. More about Welsh hymnody can be found on my hew blog, www.lutheranorganist.blogspot.com