Posted by: rcottrill | June 11, 2014

Watchman, Tell Us of the Night

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Words: John Bowring (b. Oct. 17, 1792; d. Nov. 23, 1872)
Music: Watchman, by Lowell Mason (b. Jan. 8, 1792; d. Aug. 11, 1872)

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Bowring (a Britisher) and Mason (an American) were true contemporaries. Each was born in 1792, and each died in 1872. Bowring wrote this beautiful, evocative hymn in 1825, and the tune was written for the hymn.

The song lends itself well to antiphonal singing, with two lines, each time, representing the call of the traveler, and the following two the response of the watchman. I can recall, many years ago, being invited to take part in the Christmas program of a local church of another denomination. The pastor and I sang this carol as a duet.

The inspiration for the hymn is taken from a somewhat obscure prophecy in the book of Isaiah. The prophet speaks of:

“The burden against Dumah [Idumea, the nation of Edom]. He calls to me out of Seir [another name for Edom], ‘Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?’ The watchman said, ‘The morning comes, and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; Return [repent]! Come back!’” (Isa. 21:11-12).

In the context, a man from the nation of Edom, southeast of Israel, is calling to a “watchman” (a prophet) asking what he sees coming for his people. The answer is enigmatic. “The morning comes, and also the night.” It seems to mean that their present distress from the Assyrians will end, but they’ll be facing another “night” from the Babylonians. Their only hope is to repent of their sins and turn to God.

That is the historic significance of the prophecy. But Sir John Bowring uses it in a symbolic or figurative sense of something entirely different. Lowell Mason referred to the finished song as “A Missionary or Christmas Hymn.” As to missions, it could be a picture of the dawning of a new day, through the proclamation of the gospel (“See, it bursts o’er all the earth”).

But the application that is more familiar to us today is seen in Matthew’s account of the “glory beaming star” that guided the wise men to the newborn King (Matt. 2:1-12), who is described in the hymn (and in Scripture) as “the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), and “the Son of God” (Heb. 4:14).

CH-1) Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes–it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

“The promised day of Israel” was the day of the Messiah’s coming. But He was rejected and crucified, and they missed their “day” (cf. Lk. 19:41-44). The restoration of Israel’s national glory awaits the return of Christ to set up His earthly kingdom (Isa. 60:1-3).

CH-2) Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Was the star only intended to light the way to King Jesus? No. It pointed to the light of Christ’s second coming which, in a broader sense, will illuminate the whole earth. As Malachi puts it, “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings [or beams]” (Mal. 4:2]. And the glorified Christ describes Himself as “the Bright and Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16).

CH-3) Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler! Lo, the Prince of Peace,
Lo, the Son of God is come!

No need for the watchman to stay at his post, since Christ has come, and His return is promised in the faithful Word of God. The future is secure. “Hie thee [hasten] to thy quiet home. The future is in the hands of the Prince of Peace, who is the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. We may rest fully in that.

Questions:
1) What is there about the present that causes particular worry and anxiety?

2) What is there about the return of Christ that should reassure the saints, and give them peace?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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