Posted by: rcottrill | January 28, 2013

Let the Lower Lights Be Burning

Words: Philip Paul Bliss (b. July 9, 1838; d. Dec. 29, 1876)
Music: Ithica, by Philip Paul Bliss

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The Wordwise Hymns link describes the tragic incident behind the writing of this hymn, and the Civil War heroism that led to the writing of another of Bliss’s songs, Hold the Fort.

As noted above, the historical incident behind this hymn is described in the Wordwise Hymns link (as well as the Cyber Hymnal link). It will be helpful if you go to one of them and read the story. But we need to understand the basic set-up, in order to fully appreciate the hymn.

On Lake Erie, there was a harbour near Cleveland, with a large lighthouse on the shore, then a series of lesser lights marking out the safe channel into the harbour. Bliss likens the main lighthouse to the mercy of God or, we might say, the Lord’s gracious provision for the salvation of sinners. And he uses the channel lights to picture our witness to what Christ has done. If we do not shine with the light of the gospel, who knows how many will fail to make the safe harbour of God’s salvation?

There are a number of Scriptures that speak of spiritual light, and of believers as lights in the world.

“God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I Jn. 1:5-7)

“You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14-16).

“You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light” (Eph. 5:8). “Become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast [or holding up for all to see] the word of life” (Phil. 2:15-16).

As you study these passages, you’ll see that they deal with two particular areas–familiar to any who regularly read this blog. First, there is the light of godly character and a godly walk. It can be summarized as Christ-likeness, or what Galatians calls the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Second, there is the light of service for the Lord, or Christian witness, as we shine for Jesus.

These cannot be separated of course. That is, to be truly Christ-like is also to be a light for Him. And to try to be a light without seeking to grow in our likeness to Him is hypocrisy and utter folly. But the focus of this particular song is on the need to be witnesses (I Pet. 3:15) and “ambassadors” (II Cor. 5:20) for Christ.

Philip Bliss was in the audience when Dwight Moody preached a gospel message, using a tragic incident as an illustration. Mr. Moody concluded by saying, “Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning.” Bliss later commented:

“I had read the newspaper account and I must admit I was shaken by the fact that one man’s negligence could be so costly, But it was when I heard Mr. Moody use it as an illustration in his message that night I cried out in my heart, ‘Bliss, you are just as guilty as the man in the story. As a Christian, you are to be one of the lower lights, shining brightly, so that some poor soul tossed about on the sea of life may find safety and everlasting life in the haven God has prepared.’…The very next week I wrote the song Lower Lights.”

CH-1) Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From His lighthouse evermore,
But to us He gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore.

Let the lower lights be burning!
Send a gleam across the wave!
Some poor fainting, struggling seaman
You may rescue, you may save.

CH-3) Trim your feeble lamp, my brother,
Some poor sailor tempest tossed,
Trying now to make the harbour,
In the darkness may be lost.

1) How would you respond to a person who says something like this: “I don’t know the Bible that well, and I’m sure no preacher, so I’m not able to be a witness?”

2) Can you think of three specific ways you can be a witness for Christ in the next week?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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