Posted by: rcottrill | September 29, 2014

We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder

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Words: African American Spiritual, author unknown
Music: Jacob’s Ladder, unknown origin

Wordwise Hymns
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Note: This folk song has become a standard, and has been recorded by secular artists who make no pretense of Christian faith. Many who sing it likely have no idea of its meaning or its origin. Even so, I was rather surprised to see hymn historian Kenneth Osbeck refer to it as a “delightful children’s song” (Amazing Grace, p. 97, italics mine)! Really? It may be called a number of things, but it’s certainly not that.

The song grew out of the American slave culture of about two centuries ago. Songs with the “ladder” motif have been traced back as far as 1824. It pictures an upward struggle to reach a better place and a better life.

No specific creator of either the words or the tune is known. Since songs were passed on orally, and not written down, it’s not surprising that many variations developed. Researcher John Wesley Work, in his book Folk Song of American Negro Spirituals (1915), comments humorously on the free-wheeling style of the black singer:

“He can run up and down the scale, make side trips and go off on furloughs, all in time and in such perfectly dazzling ways as to bewilder the uninitiated.”

The origin of the imagery in the present song is found in the book of Genesis. There we are told how scheming Jacob cheated his brother Esau, not once but twice! When Esau spoke of murdering Jacob (Gen. 27:41), the latter fled, planning to live for a time with his uncle Laban. All alone in the wilderness, he lay down to sleep with a stone for his pillow. And in the night God gave him a dream to encourage him.

“He dreamed, and behold, a ladder was set up on the earth, and its top reached to heaven; and there the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And behold, the LORD stood above it and said: ‘I am the LORD God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and your descendants. Also your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread abroad to the west and the east, to the north and the south; and in you and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you’” (Gen. 28:12-15).

In passing, let’s take note that Sarah Flower Adams also made use of this story (in much more detail) in her 1841 hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee. The nearness, and loving care of God in the wilderness of this world, is both a truth to be gleaned from the passage, and a theme of the two songs. It is also, applied in an extended allegory, John Bunyan’s classic work, The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).

The providence of God is visualized by the ladder in the dream that connects earth and heaven. It shows also that there is constant correspondence between the two. Providence works in the circumstances of our lives gradually, and by steps. God, in His wisdom, is above, directing all that happens, bringing the blessing of His people, and His greater glory, a work in which the angels carry out His bidding (Heb. 1:14).

Notice the four great promises of vs. 15. In the context they apply to Jacob in his exile. But it is not difficult to support their secondary application to the Christian today.

1) God promises to be present with Jacob, wherever he goes. (This, in contrast to the common belief in ancient times, that the idol gods of the heathen were restricted to a particular territory.) For the Christian, see: Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5-6.

2) God promises to guide and protect him in his pilgrimage. For the Christian, see: Lk. 1:79; Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18.

3) God promises to bring him back again to the Promised Land of Canaan. There is no precise parallel to this for the church, since we have not been assigned an earthly territory. We are, however, called citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20), and can be assured of the successful completion of our pilgrimage there. For the Christian, see: II Cor. 5:1; II Pet. 1:11; Rev. 3:21.

4) God promises to fulfil His word to Jacob–expressed in the Abrahamic Covenant, restated to both Isaac and Jacob (vs. 13-14), including both blessings for the nation of Israel and, through them, blessings for the whole human family. Similarly, all of God’s promises to us, in Christ, are certain to be fulfilled. For the Christian, see: II Cor. 1:20; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:13-14; Heb. 6:18-19.

CH-1) We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
We are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
Soldiers of the cross.

CH-3) Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Sinner, do you love my Jesus?
Soldiers of the cross.

CH-4) If you love Him, why not serve Him?
If you love Him, why not serve Him?
If you love Him, why not serve Him?
Soldiers of the cross.

1) What do you believe the American slaves got out of the dream of Jacob?

2) What lessons are we to draw from the Genesis passage today?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

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