Posted by: rcottrill | March 22, 2013

Lead On, O King Eternal

Words: Ernest Warburton Shurtleff (b. Apr. 4, 1862; d. Aug. 24, 1917)
Music: Lancashire, by Henry Thomas Smart (b. Oct. 26, 1813; d. July 6, 1879)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The Cyber Hymnal currently has a date of 1888 for this hymn, but many other sources state it was written by young Ernest Shurtleff for the all-male graduating class of Andover Theological Seminary (in Massachusetts) in 1887. It’s themes of “days of preparation” leading to “the day of march” and “fields of conquest” (CH-1) fit the occasion.

Mr. Shurtleff was already a poet, with two books of poems published, at the time he wrote the hymn. The only actual hymn he created, its high quality may make us wish he’d produced more. He went on to serve as a pastor, and he and his wife did relief work in Europe during World War One. He died in France at the age of fifty-five. It was said that his whole life was the embodiment of his hymn.

Henry Smart was a church organist, and an authority on the design and building of organs. He was also editor of the hymn book of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The tune Lancashire was originally written for the missionary hymn From Greenland’s Icy Mountains–which it fits well.

CH-1) Lead on, O King eternal,
The day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest
Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King eternal,
We lift our battle song.

Though it was written for a specific occasion, this hymn has become a standard, not just with graduating classes in Christian institutions, but with all Christians everywhere. We are all in the process of moving from schooling to struggle, education to engagement. In fact, throughout our lives, the two continue simultaneously. Our training in the things of God is (or should be) ongoing, and we face spiritual battles every day in “sin’s fierce war” (CH-2; cf. Eph. 6:10-17).

There is a hint of the social gospel, or postmillennialism, in the beautifully written second stanza, but that is a matter of interpretation. It is with the return of Christ to reign that the His messianic kingdom will finally be set up on earth (Isa. 9:6-7; Dan. 7:13-14; Rev. 19:11-16).

Further, seeing others united to the spiritual kingdom of God today (Col. 1:13) requires more than “deeds of love and mercy.” It is a work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the gospel and individuals putting their faith in the Saviour (Gal. 3:26; I Thess. 1:9-10; 2:10-12). However, it’s true that, broadly speaking, kingdom work is done by servants of Christ in love and mercy, not by the conventional weapons of military might.

CH-2) Lead on, O King eternal,
Till sin’s fierce war shall cease,
And holiness shall whisper
The sweet amen of peace.
For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heav’nly kingdom comes.

“We must all [i.e. all Christians] appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (II Cor. 5:10). The “judgment seat” (bema in Greek) is a judge’s stand, where victors are awarded–such as they have had in the Olympic Games. It is not the same as God’s “great white throne,” where sinners are judged and delivered to eternal punishment (Rev. 20:11-15).

At the judgment seat of Christ, each believer’s works will be assessed, and crowns (laurel wreathes) will be awarded as symbols of success and victory. In a discussion Bible Study called The Church in Glory, I deal with the believer’s crowns, along with other matters. “The crown awaits the conquest” (CH-3).

CH-3) Lead on, O King eternal,
We follow, not with fears,
For gladness breaks like morning
Where’er Thy face appears.
Thy cross is lifted over us,
We journey in its light;
The crown awaits the conquest;
Lead on, O God of might.

1) What particular aspects of the spiritual battle have you faced this week?

2) What other hymns relating to the believer’s spiritual conflict do you know and use?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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