Posted by: rcottrill | March 4, 2011

Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

Words: William Williams (b. Feb. 11, 1717; d. Jan. 11, 1791
             English translation: Peter Williams (b. Jan. 15, 1723; d. Aug. 8, 1796)
Music: Cwm Rhondda, by John Hughes (b. Nov. 22, 1873; d. May 14, 1932)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Cwm Rhondda (pronounced coom rontha) is Welsh for Rhondda Valley, a coal mining community in Wales. The 1941 Oscar-winning film How Green Was My Valley, and the book of the same name, concern incidents in the valley around the turn of the twentieth century. Originally, 20th Century Fox wanted to film the story on location, but the war made that impossible. Instead, they replicated the row of houses with the colliery at the top of the hill in amazing detail, in Malibu, California. The choir that sings wonderfully in the film is made up of actual coal miners from the Rhondda Valley. And a personal note: I had an acquaintance named Elwyn Davies (now with the Lord), who told me he had preached in the actual village church, in Wales.

It’s a good day to take a look at this great hymn. Today’s date is the only one in the whole year that’s a command–March 4th, or March forth!–which is what the Lord told the Israelites to do. They were to “march forth” from Egypt, under the leadership of Moses.

The five original stanzas of the hymn deal with the nation during their years in the wilderness. They recount how the Lord, who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, provided for the people in amazing ways, leading them at last across the Jordan and into the Promised Land. Williams uses this as a picture of the salvation of sinners, and God’s provision for them in their Christian walk. (Another hymn that does similarly is Fanny Crosby’s All the Way My Saviour Leads Me.)

CH-1. Christians are traveling through the wilderness of this world, a spiritually “barren land.” We are weak–too weak to handle the burdens and trials of the journey in our own strength. Too weak on our own to defend ourselves against Satan, the enemy of our souls. But we have with us One who will guide us, and uphold us with His “powerful hand.” He will feed us with the “bread of heaven.” For Israel, this was the manna God provided for them to eat in the wilderness. Our Bread, our spiritual food, is found in fellowship with the person of the Lord Jesus Christ (Jn. 6:31, 38).

CH-2. The opening of “the crystal fountain” provided water for the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod. 17:1-6), and God revealed His presence to the camp of Israel in a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exod. 13:21-22). Again, these both point to Christ, who is “the Light,” and the One who provides the water of life, by His Spirit (Jn. 4:14; 7:37-39; 8:12; cf. Rev. 22:17).

Typical of a number of our hymns, this one equates crossing over the Jordan River with physical death, and uses the land of Canaan as a picture of our heavenly home. However, the analogy breaks down at several points. Canaan was occupied by wicked, idol-worshiping heathen. Even after the Israelites entered Canaan there were many battles to be fought with the enemy. That is nothing like heaven! But it is like the Christian life.

The Jordan better symbolizes our break with the past at conversion, and Canaan would represent the abundant blessings of the Christian life the Lord wants us to have (cf. Jn. 10:10). We are delivered from spiritual bondage, through faith in Christ, and brought into a life of spiritual power and fruitfulness, through the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit. That is typified by Israel’s experience, “He brought us out…that He might bring us in” (Deut. 6:23). However, that doesn’t mean the battle’s done for us! The Christian life is one in which we labour and fight.

Having said these things, even if we except the limitations of the imagery as applied to eternity, I have no serious quibble with Canaan foreshadowing, in part, the blessings yet to come for the saints in heaven. Here is the last stanza of the hymn (CH-5) which makes that application, alluding to the words of the Apostle John–a response to the promise of the Lord Jesus to come quickly (Rev. 22:20). (Unfortunately, this stanza is often omitted from hymnals today.)

Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!
Lord, I long to be with Thee!

1) What was the frequent attitude of the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod. 16:2-3; 17:2-3; Num. 14:1-4)?

2) How can we guard against the above attitude in our Christian lives?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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