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Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826; Frederick Lucian Hosmer (b. Oct. 16, 1840; d. June 7, 1929); William Mercer (b. _____, 1811; d. Aug. 21, 1873; Richard Whately (b. Feb. 1, 1787; d. Oct. 6, 1863)
Music: Ar Hyd Y Nos (meaning Through the Night), a traditional Welsh melody
Note: The remarkable thing about this hymn is that it took four men to write the words, as described below. The Welsh melody has been found in print dating 1784, and it was used by John Gay in The Beggar’s Opera (1728).
There can be a cooperative effort in relation to producing the hymns we sing. Sometimes the same person has given us both the words and the music. But often the author of the text, and the composer of the tune, are two different people. If the original song was written in another language, the work of a translator is involved too. Then comes the hymn book editor, who selects the song, and may alter it (or abbreviate it) to suit his need.
Nor does the cooperative process end there. How does the song become known and loved? Sometimes, popular musicians will sing it and record it, or a well-known evangelist will use it in his meetings, or on television. That may bring it to the attention of a local congregation, and they begin to use it, to the blessing of many.
However, the present hymn is somewhat unique, in that it involved a cooperative effort to write the text, the words being provided by four different people, separated by many years. I’ll give them here in the order they were added to the hymn, noting also their present order in it, as posted by the Cyber Hymnal.
CH-1. In 1827, the first stanza, by Reginald Heber, was published posthumously. It’s a beautiful prayer that our Creator would protect and care for us through the night. If the Almighty had wisdom and power enough to call worlds into being at the dawn of creation, then surely He is able to do that. Even in a time of distress, King David said, “I lay down and slept; I awoke, for the Lord sustained me” (Ps. 3:5). Another psalm says, “He shall give His angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways” (Ps. 91:11).
CH-1) God, that madest earth and heaven, darkness and light;
Who the day for toil hast given, for rest the night;
May Thine angel guards defend us,
Slumber sweet Thy mercy send us;
Holy dreams and hopes attend us, all through the night.
In 1838, Richard Whately made his contribution (CH-4), asking that the God who faithfully keeps His own through each night, continue to keep us through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4).
CH-4) Guard us waking, guard us sleeping, and when we die,
May we in Thy mighty keeping all peaceful lie;
When the last dread call shall wake us,
Do not Thou, our God, forsake us,
But to reign in glory take us with Thee on high.
That sounds like a good ending for the hymn, and it is. But there actually were two more additions to come in between. In 1864 we get CH-3, by William Mercer, providing a prayer for help and guidance each day, as we waken from sleep.
CH-3) And when morn again shall call us, to run life’s way,
May we still, whatever befall us, Thy will obey.
From the power of evil hide us,
In the narrow pathway guide us,
Nor Thy smile be e’er denied us all through the day.
CH-2 is by Frederick Hosmer, written in 1914. Hosmer was an American, and a Unitarian. He was also a recognized expert on the hymns of the church and taught the subject at Harvard.
CH-2) When the constant sun returning unseals our eyes,
May we, born anew like morning, to labour rise;
Gird us for the task that calls us,
Let not ease and self enthrall us,
Strong through Thee whate’er befall us, O God most wise!
Doesn’t that make a fine prayer for each day of our lives? “When I am awake, I am still with You” (Ps. 139:18). Lord, help me to do Your will, and protect me from Satan and his wiles. There are echoes there of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven….Deliver us from the evil one (Matt. 6:10, 13). Guide us in the narrow way the Lord Jesus spoke of (Matt. 7:13-14), and may we enjoy rich fellowship with You (I Jn. 1:7).
1) When you pray each morning–as I hope you do–what petitions do you make relating to the coming day?
2) What other prayer hymns provide inspiration for our prayers?