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Words: Reginald Heber (b. Apr. 21, 1783; d. Apr. 3, 1826)
Music: Belmont, by William Gardiner (b. Mar. 15, 1770; d. Nov. 16, 1853)
Note: Reginald Heber was a Church of England clergyman who served, briefly, as the bishop of Calcutta. (After three years, he died there of apparent sun stroke.) Though he wrote over fifty hymns, most of them were not published until after his death. He gave us Holy, Holy, Holy, and the missionary hymn From Greenland’s Icy Mountains, as well as the militant song The Son of God Goes for to War. But it is another hymn that gets our attention now.
Published in 1812, this is an interesting song that takes awhile to reveal its main subject and purpose. Is it about brooks and flowers? (No.) About children? (In part. But not completely.) It is an appeal to God’s sustaining grace and keeping power to enable us to live a life pleasing to Him, whatever our age. The rest is by way of analogy and illustration.
As the snows of winter begin to recede, and seed catalogues arrive in the mail, the thoughts of many turn to gardening. What will we plant this year? Some things for food, but perhaps also some flowers that will grace the fertile soil with the unique beauty God has prepared them to share.
The Lord loves gardens. He planted the very first one (Gen. 2:8). The Lord Jesus frequently used planting and harvesting illustrations in His parables (e.g. Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23). And He revealed Himself to Mary Magdelene, after His resurrection, in a garden (Jn. 19:41; 20:11-18). Apparently there will be gardens in heaven too. “Paradise” (Lk. 23:43) is a Persian word meaning a lovely park or garden.
We also have God’s promise of the faithful cycling of the seasons year by year (Gen. 8:22). In some ways the seasonal changes in a garden mirror the passing of our lives. There is a springtime of birth and anticipation, a summer of growth and beauty, an autumn of fruitfulness, and a winter of withering decline. Reginald Heber, one of our outstanding hymn writers, gave us a hymn about that.
It begins with a scene of seductive beauty and fragrant abundance.
CH-1) By cool Siloam’s shady rill
How fair the lily grows!
How sweet the breath, beneath the hill,
Of Sharon’s dewy rose!
Dr. Heber is merely setting a scene before us. His purpose in using it is much different from what we might expect. His own title for the hymn was, “Christ a Pattern for Children, Luke 2:40.” The verse refers to the boy Jesus, setting His example before us: “The Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” With this the hymn makes a comparison:
CH-2) Lo! such the child whose early feet
The paths of peace have trod,
Whose secret heart, with influence sweet,
Is upward drawn to God.
It all sounds lovely. But the writer now draws a stern lesson–so stern, in fact, that modern hymnals often omit the next two stanzas.
CH-3) By cool Siloam’s shady rill
The lily must decay;
The rose that blooms beneath the hill
Must shortly fade away.
CH-4) And soon, too soon, the wintry hour
Of man’s maturer age
Will shake the soul with sorrow’s power
And stormy passion’s rage.
It is a sobering truth, both in gardens and in our lives. “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (Ecc. 3:1-2). What, then, of the time in between? Heber reminds us that, through childhood, and beyond, we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to trust in God and, by His grace, live to please Him, just as the Lord Jesus did.
CH-5) O Thou, whose infant feet were found
Within Thy Father’s shrine,
Whose years with changeless virtue crowned,
Were all alike divine.
CH-6) Dependent on Thy bounteous breath,
We seek Thy grace alone,
In childhood, manhood, age, and death
To keep us still Thine own.
It wasn’t the author’s purpose to carry things beyond that, but we can add a further note. Death is not the end. Through faith in Christ–the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25)–there is a wonderful prospect beyond the valley of the shadow. “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21).
1) Is this a hymn you would use in your church? (Why? Or why not?)
2) What are some of the changing spiritual challenges of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age?