Posted by: rcottrill | November 21, 2011

Once to Every Man and Nation

Words: James Russell Lowell (b. Feb. 22, 1819; d. Aug. 12, 1891)
Music: Ebenezer, by Thomas John Williams (b. _____, 1869; d. Apr. 23, 1944)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Originally, this hymn was a 1845 poem, protesting the American war with Mexico. Lowell called it “The Present Crisis.” It was argued by him and others (including Abraham Lincoln) that it would increase the power of the southern states, and enlarge the area in which slavery was accepted. In 1896, W. Garrett Horder selected parts of Lowell’s poem and turned them into a hymn relating more broadly to ethical decisions in political and community life.

The tune Ebenezer was also called, in Welsh, Ton Y Botel (literally “wave the bottle”) because of a story (correct or not) that it was found in a bottle washed up on the coast of Wales. Another tune that works well with this hymn is Hyfrydol.

There is little of Bible truth, or of the fundamentals of the apostolic faith in the hymn– understandable, since Lowell was a Unitarian. However, it does speak eloquently to those occasions when we must make weighty moral decisions that could radically affect the future (if not our future, specifically). Christians can certainly take these words as a challenge to stand for biblical principles in the testing hour.

CH-1) Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

We can discern many such choices in the Scriptures. Adam and Eve’s decision to believe the devil, rather than believe God, has been affecting the human family ever since (cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:4-6). So has Abraham’s decision to heed his wife’s suggestion and father a child by her Egyptian maid, Hagar (Gen. 16:1-2). The Arab nations descending from that child, Ishmael, have been a thorn in the side of Israel for four millennia.

Israel was challenged to obey God–and warned of the consequences if they didn’t–many times. Moses reviewed God’s laws and told them, “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (Deut. 30:15). Joshua urged them, “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve….But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). And Elijah issued a challenge to Israel when he confronted the prophets of Baal, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (I Kgs. 18:21).

The early church faced such major decisions too, in times of persecution. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem commanded the apostles to stop preaching the gospel.

“They called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.”…[And] Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men’” (Acts. 4:18-20; 5:29; cf. Lk. 16:13; Rom. 12:9, 21; I Thess. 5:21-22).

What if they’d caved in? How different history might have been! And we face great choices in our day, as well. James Lowell speaks of “new Calv’ries,” (CH-3). Of course Christ’s sacrifice of the cross to pay the debt of our sin cannot be replicated or repeated. But in the sense that we must at times be ready to lay our very lives on the line for truth and justice, we face our own crosses, and our own sacrifices.

This is a hymn that needs to be studied thoughtfully, as well as sung!

CH-4) Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

1) What great challenges calling for a decisive stand are we facing today, as a nation?

2) What life-changing decisions are you facing in your own life? What principles will you apply to make your choice?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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