Posted by: rcottrill | September 25, 2013

Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire

Words: James Montgomery (b. Nov. 4, 1771; d. Apr. 30, 1854)
Music: Campmeeting, an early American folk melody, arranged by Robert Guy McCutchan for the Methodist Hymnal, 1935 (b. Sept. 13, 1877; d. May 15, 1958)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Montgomery’s hymn was first published in 1818, for Sunday School use. Of the eight original stanzas, many hymnals now use: CH-1, 2, 3, 4, and 8. It is considered a masterpiece, our greatest hymn on the subject of prayer. Montgomery himself called it, “the most attractive hymn I ever wrote.” Another good option for a hymn tune is St. Agnes, by John Dykes (1823-1876), which is commonly used with Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.

Likely three of the stanzas are omitted simply to conserve space on a hymnal page, or because editors believe most congregations wouldn’t be interested in singing all eight. (Since the stanzas are short, it does make the tune rather repetitious.) With some hymns, such omissions are not a great problem. Pick the best, and leave the rest. But the loss with this hymn is significant. Every line is rich in meaning.

Before looking at the unused stanzas, let me suggest a simple solution: use a tune that treats the hymn as consisting of four eight-line stanzas (technically called Common Metre Doubled). Several familiar ones will work nicely: All Saints New (or Cutler) used with The Son of God Goes Forth to War; Bethlehem (or Seraph) used with Thy Word Is Like a Garden, Lord; and Cleansing Fountain commonly used with There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.

The Lord’s disciples asked, one day, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 1:11). He was the perfect One to appeal to. Not only was Christ the all-wise incarnate Son of God, but the Gospels reveal Him as engaging in prayer repeatedly, both in private and in public (e.g. Mk. 1:35; 6:46; Jn. 11:41-42; 17:1-26).

James Montgomery’s hymn asks an important question that takes the disciples’ query one step further. If we are to follow Christ’s example, and also respond to the numerous exhortations to pray found in Scripture, we need to ask first of all: What is prayer?

Instead of providing a technical or theological answer, this hymn gives us a series of poetic metaphors and descriptive phrases that explore the subject in a profound way. Prayer often involves: a hidden fire, a sigh, a falling tear, an upward glance, our vital breath as believers. “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,” sometimes spoken aloud, other times silently arising from the heart.

CH-1) Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

CH-2) Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

Finally, look at what it gives us, to combine CH-5 and 6, and with the combining of CH-7 and 8, using a longer tune. In CH-5 and 6 there is the prayer of a sinner repenting, and the prayer of a saint in fellowship with God the Father and God the Son (cf. I Jn. 1:3).

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold, he prays!”
The saints in prayer appear as one
In word, in deed, and mind,
While with the Father and the Son
Sweet fellowship they find.

In CH-7 we’re reminded of the vital roll of the Holy Spirit in prayer (Rom. 8:26-27), connecting us with the One who is “the life, the truth, the way” (Jn. 14:6), our heavenly Intercessor, the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:25). Then CH-8 naturally addresses Christ Himself, renewing the request of the disciples of old that He teach us how to pray.

No prayer is made by man alone
The Holy Spirit pleads,
And Jesus, on th’eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.
O Thou by whom we come to God,
The life, the truth, the way,
The path of prayer Thyself hast trod:
Lord, teach us how to pray.

One evening, when in his nineties, Mr. Montgomery led his family in devotions, then retired for the night, passing away in His sleep. His prayer that evening constituted the last words he uttered on earth, “His watchword at the gates of death; / He enter[ed] heav’n with prayer” (CH-4).

1) The hymn makes over a dozen (two-line) statements about prayer. With which one(s) do you especially identify?

2) This hymn, combined with appropriate Scripture texts, would provide a wonderful outline for a discussion on prayer. Is there a group with which you could try this?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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