Posted by: rcottrill | December 23, 2011

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Words: Sarah Fuller Flower Adams (b. Feb. 22, 1805; Aug. 14, 1848)
Music: Bethany (or Mason), by Lowell Mason (b. Jan. 8, 1792; d. Aug. 11, 1872)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Sarah Adams was a famous actress in her day, and both she and her sister were accomplished authors. Sarah was also a pious and strongly moral woman. When her sister became ill with tuberculosis, Mrs. Adams lovingly cared for her. The sister died in 1847, and it’s likely Sarah contracted the illness from her. She died about a year later, at the age of 43.

This lovely hymn is a poetic retelling of an incident in the life of Jacob. Fleeing from his brother Esau, who had threatened to kill him, Jacob found himself alone in the wilderness. It will help you to understand the hymn if you take a few moments to read the Bible passage involved–Genesis 28:10-19.

Sarah Adams was a Unitarian, which accounts for the fact that there’s not much in the hymn expressive of Christian doctrine. Notice in the opening stanza that the cross is seen not as the place of Christ’s redeeming work, but as a symbol of human suffering. One change has been made in the original of CH-1. Mrs. Adams’s version read, “Still all may song would be…” That is, it’s my goal and my desire. “Shall” makes a stronger commitment, but it must also be taken as dependent on the daily grace God supplies.

CH-1) Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee!

CH-2 draws on Genesis 28:11. Having a stone for a pillow does not seem very comfortable! Nor does a night in the wilderness! The scene is intended as a symbol of hardship and lonely suffering. That is certainly not contradictory to the Bible’s teaching, though there’s a strong emphasis on identification with Christ in the suffering of the believer (Matt. 16:24).

CH-3 is based on Genesis 28:12. In Jacob’s dramatic dream, the Lord appeared at the top of a towering ladder that reached up to heaven (vs. 13). God promised Jacob He would bring him back to the Promised Land once more, and fulfil the covenant made with Abraham and his descendants, to make of them a great nation, and give them the land of Canaan as their homeland (vs. 13-15).

On waking, Jacob is awed with the thought that where he had lain down had proved to be “the gate of heaven” (vs. 17). In a ceremony of dedication, he named the place “Bethel” (vs. 19–Hebrew for House of God). Sarah Adams delights in the nearness of God, even in the wilderness experiences of life (CH-4). Her phrase, “Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise…” is beautiful indeed. May that be the experience of each one of us.

Her final stanza (CH-5) reflects on the joy of spending eternity in the presence of God in heaven. That thought is strengthened by another stanza (CH-6) added years later by Edward Bickersteth.

CH-5) Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

CH-6) There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Saviour’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee.

Though it began as a Unitarian hymn (the Unitarians deny the deity of Christ), the hymn, as noted earlier, does not contradict the Scriptures. That accounts for the fact that it’s now included in all major Protestant hymnals, and is sung by those who espouse the Trinitarian nature of God.

1) What is there in Jacob’s experience that parallels that of the Christian today?

2) What is the meaning and motivation of one passionately desiring to be “nearer” to God?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

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