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Words: John Newton (b. July 24, 1725; d. Dec. 21, 1807)
Music: Green Fields, by Johann Sebastian Bach (b. Mar. 21, 1685; d. July 28, 1750), a melody taken from The Pleasant Cantata
Note: The Cyber Hymnal gives us Bach’s Green Fields, a tune frequently used with this hymn. The timing is rendered correctly there, by I do find the emphasis on the first beat odd. It simply does not suit the text. Take a look at the first stanza and you’ll see what I mean. (I’ve capitalized the first word to show the odd emphasis of the tune.)
CH-1) HOW tedious and tasteless the hours
WHEN Jesus no longer I see;
SWEET prospects, sweet birds and sweet flowers,
HAVE all lost their sweetness to me;
THE midsummer sun shines but dim,
THE fields strive in vain to look gay.
BUT when I am happy in Him,
DE-cember’s as pleasant as May.
If the timing is smoothed out, instead, it allows for a much more natural reading of the word–TE-dious, JE-sus, PROS-pects, De-CEM-ber, and so on.
In the Canadian West, we call people who escape the winter’s blast by flying down to the southern States for some weeks or months “snowbirds.” I now understand them better. As a senior citizen, there’s much about winter that I find difficult. Yes, the winter scenery can be beautiful, a fairyland of billowing snow and glittering ice. And for those hardy souls that enjoy winter sports, there are many opportunities for fun. But there is a downside to winter too.
Shakespeare realized it. A character in one of his plays says, “After summer evermore succeeds barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold.” We also get King Richard speaking of “the winter of our discontent.” Hymn writer Christina Rossetti, in a Christmas carol, refers to a “bleak midwinter,” when “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.”
For seniors, in our climate, the ice and snow make driving stressful, and walking often a peril to fragile bones. Then, there’s the prolonged darkness. Where my wife and I live, we go from about seventeen hours of daylight in June to a mere seven and a half in December. Some of us can hardly wait for that December day when the declining hours of daylight take the first minute step toward the hours of summer sunshine. Yes, I understand why those who can afford it head to warmer climes for the coldest months of the year.
Winters in the Holy Land are not as severe as those we face, so the Bible does not speak of them in the same way. But there’s relief in the words of Solomon’s betrothed, at the turning of the seasons. She exults joyfully, “Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land” (S.S. 2:11-12).
English hymn writer John Newton thought of the contrasting seasons as a metaphor for our spiritual condition. Pastor Newton is best known today for his hymn, Amazing Grace. But he wrote many more. In 1779 he published a hymn book in which 280 songs were of his own creation. One of these he headed with the words of Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.” Against such an urgency for him to be aware of the presence of the Lord, he finds His apparent absence to be an agony of soul.
CH-2) His name yields the richest perfume,
And sweeter than music His voice;
His presence disperses my gloom,
And makes all within me rejoice.
I should, were He always thus nigh,
Have nothing to wish or to fear;
No mortal as happy as I,
My summer would last all the year.
Of course the Lord is always present with His children. His promise is, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). As Christ put it, just before His ascension, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). As believers, it isn’t God’s presence we lack, but a perception of that presence. Our sensitivity to it, and the warmth of His fellowship in a “soul cheering” revelation of Himself. Whether because of sin and worldliness, or simply human weakness, there are times when He seems distant.
When that happens, like the snow birds, we need to go where the warmth is–the warmth of His loving fellowship. In Newton’s words:
CH-4) Dear Lord, if indeed I am Thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say, why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
O drive these dark clouds from the sky,
Thy soul cheering presence restore;
Or take me to Thee up on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more.
1) When was the last time you felt a painful lack of the fellowship of the Lord?
2) What did you do about it?