Posted by: rcottrill | January 4, 2013

O Thou in Whose Presence

Words: Joseph Swain (b. _____, 1761; d. Apr. 14, 1796)
Music: Beloved, also called Davis, by Freeman Lewis (b. Dec. 30, 1780; d. Sept. 18, 1859)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Freeman Lewis was an American surveyor and school teacher. He also wrote a number of hymn tunes, and published a book called The Beauties of Harmony.

Joseph Swain was christened on May 22nd, 1761, so his birth likely took place shortly before that. Though he died at the age of thirty-five, he was an able servant of God for a number of years. He wrote several books, and published a number of hymns (see the list on the Cyber Hymnal, on the page for Joseph Swain).

Swain wrote nine eight-line stanzas for this hymn. Divided as most hymn books have them now, this would make eighteen four-line stanzas. The Cyber Hymnal contains eleven, but there is another lovely one that I’ll include, calling it CH-3b, because of its original placement.

Checking several hymnals, I see that the usual selection of stanzas includes: CH-1, 2, 3, 10 and 11–with one older book adding CH-3b. CH-11 may not be from Swain’s pen, but was added to later editions along the way. It makes a fitting conclusion to a beautiful song.

The author called his hymn “A Description of Christ by His Graces and Power.” The verses contain many allusions to the Bible book The Song of Solomon, and I have mixed feelings about that.

The Old Testament “Song” song consists of romantic oriental poetry celebrating, the courtship and marriage of King Solomon to a beautiful young peasant woman. Though some of the imagery in the expressions of love between the two sound strange today (e.g. “Your teeth are like a flock of shorn sheep”), I’m sure that many of our phrases would be equally strange to Solomon’s ears!

Over in the New Testament, the relationship between Christ and His church is likened to that between a bridegroom and his bride. In discussing the marriage relationship, the Apostle Paul wrote:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Of those he won to Christ, Paul said: “I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (II Cor. 11:2). And when the saints are gathered to the Lord, in the heavenly kingdom, we read of the coming Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9).

This New Testament use of the husband-wife relationship has caused many to read this back into The Song of Solomon, making virtually everything about the king apply in some spiritualized sense to Christ, and what we are told about the Shulamite peasant girl to the Christian church. However, while the book may provide an interesting illustration of the latter, we must emphasize that it is a secondary application, not the actual interpretation of the text.

A failure to make this distinction may obscure some practical lessons on romance and marriage that God intends us to have. And a further problem is demonstrated by Swain’s hymn. Unless a congregation is familiar with the poetic imagery of Solomon’s song, and understands the literal and historical events the book describes, the application to Christ may be lost. This is one reason why some of Swain’s stanzas are either omitted or altered today. For example:

CH-4) Ye daughters of Zion declare, have ye seen
The star that on Israel shone?
Say, if in your tents my Belovèd has been,
And where, with His flocks, He is gone.

The “daughters of Jerusalem [Zion]” are referred to thirteen times in Solomon’s song (e.g. 5:16). They are the attendants preparing the young woman for her wedding–and likely form the chorus in the performance of this extended piece of music, which is almost like an opera. The young bride-to be tells her attendants how she first met the king, but didn’t recognize him. Solomon was not in his kingly robes, but was out inspecting his flocks. She assumed that he was a shepherd, and when he departed from her she tried to find out where his flocks were feeding, so she could meet him again.

This is all well and good. But how many will understand CH-4 in those terms, and be able, as they sing the words, to apply them readily to Christ? Having said this, there is a warmth of devotion in this hymn, and the usual stanzas selected from the original are more easily understood.

CH-3) O, why should I wander an alien from Thee,
And cry in the desert for bread?
Thy foes will rejoice when my sorrows they see,
And smile at the tears I have shed.

CH-3b) Restore, my dear Saviour, the light of Thy face;
Thy soul-cheering comfort impart;
And let the sweet tokens of pardoning grace
Bring joy to my desolate heart.

1) What does the comparison of the husband-wife relationship teach us about the relationship of Christ and His church?

2) What does your church do with hymns that have more obscure imagery? Simply avoid them? Or explain and use them?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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