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Words: John Greenleaf Whittier (b. Dec. 17, 1807; d. Sept. 7, 1892)
Music: Cooling, by Alonzo Judson Abbey (b. Mar. 1, 1825; d. Mar. 24, 1887)
Note: This 1867 hymn was taken from a longer poem of Mr. Whittier’s called The Eternal Goodness. Author and editor, and for a time a member of the Massachusetts legislature, Whittier was also influential in the anti-slavery movement. Known as the Quaker Poet, nearly a hundred of his poems were turned into hymns.
One time a friend of ours handed my father a postage stamp, saying, “Write everything you know on the back.” It was just a silly joke of course. My father had been to college, and he was, at the time this happened, the foreman in a steel mill. As a Christian layman, he was the choir director at our church, as well as playing the organ. Bottom line: He knew a great deal!
Back in the 1920’s and 30’s it was common in some circles to invent rhyming slang. And there’s an old catch phrase about knowing. In 1939 the Andrews sisters recorded a song with the line, “Hello Joe, what do you know?” Whether that’s the origin of the query, it certainly popularized “Whadya know, Joe? An interesting question. Just how much do we know?
What we learn in school is just the beginning. We gain skills and gather information with regard to our employment, and our hobbies. We get to know many things about family members and friends. And we learn about life in general. But there’s an area of knowledge that far too many are lacking, at least in any depth. I’m speaking of Bible knowledge, but knowledge of a particular kind, what we might call experiential knowledge.
Perhaps that level of knowing can be illustrated by thinking about poverty. It would be possible to study the subject of poverty, to gather copious statistics, to hold discussion groups about it, to propose and plan what must be done to alleviate it, and still not know poverty. It is quite different to live, yourself, day by day, year after year, in grinding poverty, to experience hunger and privation, and maybe, in the extreme, to be homeless.
Similarly, simply knowing Bible facts is quite different from knowing and personally experiencing the truth of God’s Word. Knowing about God is not the same as knowing God. The Scriptures invite us into a relationship with Him, in which He speaks to us through His Word, and we commune with Him in prayer. Christians are “called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (I Cor. 1:9), and He promises to be with us forever (Matt. 28:20).
There are many things about the future that we don’t know. Choices and changes, gains and losses that will checker the days to come. But if we know that a merciful and loving Lord will be with us through it all, giving us grace even to bear “the valley of the shadow” up ahead, that can make a wonderful difference.
The Lord has given us strong assurance. “He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). Even in death, when His children are called into His presence, we have the assuring word, “thus we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thess. 4:17), there to be eternal recipients of “the exceeding riches of His grace” (Eph. 27).
Something of that truth was captured in Whittier’s poem called The Eternal Goodness, part of which became the present hymn. It balances the many things about the future that remain unknown, with the constancy of God’s care. The poet’s contention is, “I may not know that, but I can be sure of this.” (Dora Greenwell’s hymn, I Am Not Skilled to Understand, and Daniel Whittle’s I Know Whom I Have Believed, both make a similar argument.)
CH-1) I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death
God’s mercy underlies.
CH-2) And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.
The author speaks of death and heaven with the poetic imagery of traveling by boat to some as yet unknown shore. The “muffled oar” relates to the practice of wrapping with cloth those parts of the oar and the oar lock that rub together and make a noise. It enabled a virtually silent approach. Whittier is saying that death can come without warning, when we least expect it. But if we are in God’s care, we need not fear.
CH-4) And so beside the silent sea
I wait the muffled oar;
No harm from Him can come to me
On ocean or on shore.
CH-5) I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care.
1) What are some things you do not know that you wish you did know?
2) What are three things you know for certain, based on the promises of God?