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Words: John Stanhope Arkwright (b. July 10, 1872; d. Sept. 19, 1954)
Music: The Supreme Sacrifice, by Charles Harris (b. July 20, 1865; d. July 30, 1936)
Note: This is such a gorgeous song, both as to its text and the tune, that I hesitate to criticize it. And I know it’s dear to many servicemen and veterans, and others who sing it at times of memorial for the dead. I risk awakening their ire. But I must. This is not a true hymn, though it does address the Lord in its final stanza. It is closer to a gospel song, in its promise of eternal life to those who died serving their country in wartime. However, it is a false gospel that is preached, and that cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed–in fact, merits a curse (Gal. 1:6-9).
Valiant. It’s a word used, in various forms, many times in the Bible. The writer of Hebrews speaks of heroes of the faith who “became valiant in battle” (Heb. 11:34). And Gideon is called a “mighty man of valour!” (Jud. 6:12).
The Hebrew and Greek words translated valiant and valour express especially the quality of strength. In English, the definition adds the concept of courage, boldness in facing great danger–especially in battle. Valour describes a heroic stand that renders one worthy of special respect. With reference Israel, this quality was often related to the nation’s conquest and defense of the land God had given them.
In the spiritual realm, the Bible speaks of courage and boldness in our stand for the truths of God’s Word. When persecution arose against the early church, the believers prayed, “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word” (Acts 4:29), and God answered their prayer (vs. 31). This recalls a character who appears in John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress. He writes:
“There stood a man with his sword drawn, and his face all bloody. Then said Mr Great-heart, ‘What art thou?’ The man made answer, saying, ‘I am one whose name is Valiant-for-Truth. I am a pilgrim, and am going to the Celestial City.’”
Valiant for Truth–in a sense, that title should fit every Christian. The Bible exhorts us to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might…[and] take up the whole armour of God, that [we] may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand” (Eph. 6:10, 13). And one of the essential pieces of our equipment is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (vs. 17). The Apostle Peter writes to persecuted Christians and says, “Always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (I Pet. 3:14-15). That is much needed in our day.
But we are looking here at a song about temporal warfare. And there have also been times when we’ve been called, as citizens of Canada (or the country where you live), to display valour on the field of battle, and many have done so bravely. They deserve our gratitude. To honour those who died in the First World War, John Arkwright wrote the song O Valiant Hearts, a song often used at Remembrance Day services.
CH-1) O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
It’s stirring poetry, wedded to a superb tune, praising noble and sacrificial acts. However, I do have a problem with it, as stated above. We must not suggest or imply, as the song seems to do, that any good works of ours, however great, are rewarded with a place in heaven.
Yes, it is true that “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). As Arkwright puts it, “To save mankind yourselves you scorned to save” (CH-2). But no Scripture says that such a sacrifice is rewarded with eternal life in heaven. On the contrary, the Bible says it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His [God’s] mercy He saved us” (Tit. 3:5), “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:9).
Eternal salvation is God’s gift to those who trust in Christ as Saviour. “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12; cf. Jn. 1:12-13; 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24; Rom. 6:23; Gal. 3:26; I Jn. 5:11-12). And more passages than these could be referenced. Dying for one’s country does not earn eternal salvation.
Yet Arkwright boldly declares:
CH-3) Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
Then there is the author’s strange comparison of the death of Christ with the soldiers’ deaths in combat (“our lesser Calvaries”).
CH-5) Still stands His cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
CH-6) These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.
Though there may well be a common thread of self-sacrifice between the two, this tends to rob the saving work of Christ of its uniqueness. Or, alternately, to exalt the heroic labours of soldiers to the status of the saving work of the glorified Lamb of God. Soldiers fight to preserve our temporal freedoms, or rescue the temporally oppressed, but they cannot die for our sins, and provide for our eternal salvation–or even their own. Only Christ could do that, and did so (I Cor. 15:3). Moving as this song is, it sends a message that is not true.
1) Do you agree or disagree with my comments on this song?
2) What are some appropriate hymns that would fit a time of memorial for the military?