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Words: James Lewis Milligan (b. Feb. 1, 1876; d. May 1, 1961)
Music: Hereford, by Francis Donaldson Heins (b. Feb. 19, 1878; d. Jan. 1, 1949)
Note: Mr. Milligan emigrated to Canada from England in 1911. He served as a war correspondent for the Globe and Mail, during the First World War. Later he was a speech writer for Prime Minister McKenzie King. But it was his involvement in promoting the 1925 merger of some Presbyterian, Congregational, and Methodist congregations to form the United Church of Canada, that inspired the writing of his hymn.
Many people who don’t actually believe the message of the Bible have read and studied it. After all, as well as being the Word of God, and the spiritual Guidebook we need, it’s also great literature, and it has been praised as such by many.
Peruse any well-written novel, even ones coming from those who have made no claim to being Christians, and you’re almost sure to find allusions to the Scriptures. People quote the Bible quite a bit, sometimes without even knowing it. Many of the proverbial sayings that have entered our everyday vocabulary come from the Bible.
Sayings such as “by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20), “a drop in the bucket” (Isa. 40:15), and the use of the term “scapegoat” (Lev. 16:8), all came from the Scriptures. Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, takes its title from Ecclesiastes 1:5. And in his 1858 nomination speech, Abraham Lincoln’s use of the phrase, “a house divided against itself” to describe the troubling conflict between the northern and southern States, came from the words of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 12:25).
Another common phrase describes someone presenting an unpopular opinion–perhaps a plea that is being ignored, but one to which others need to give their attention. The spokesman is called “a voice in the wilderness.” That too comes from Scripture. In the latter part of the book of Isaiah, the prophet issues a message of comfort, and of the coming of peace for Israel (Isa. 40:1-2). It will happen when One he earlier calls “the Prince of Peace” comes to reign (Isa. 9:6).
Prior to His coming, there was to be a herald to announce it. This was common in ancient times when a ruler was approaching. A man was sent ahead to tell people to get ready. In this case, he would be, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3).
The New Testament declares that this herald was John the Baptist. The preparation involved was spiritual and behavioral. He called upon the Jews to repent of their sins, to get ready for the coming of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 3:1-3). And though he appears in the New Testament, in the sense John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Greatest, because he was privileged to actually see the long-promised Messiah, and introduce Him to the people (Jn. 1:29).
John was asked if he was “the Prophet” (a term used of the coming Messiah), but he answered no (Jn. 1:21). Instead, he declared, “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (Jn. 1:23). With fiery rhetoric, he spoke of the sins of the people, and called them to change their lives (Lk. 3:7-9).
Whether the author of the present hymn realized it or not, the ultimate and final application of the words of Isaiah awaits the return of Christ. A look at the context of Isaiah’s reference to the forerunner indicates that (cf. Isa. 40:1-5, 9-11). But Milligan apparently made a symbolic application of the Scripture to the call for a merger of the churches mentioned. It was not received with universal favour, but it did happen in 1925. However, members of my own family felt that what was done required too much doctrinal compromise, and as a result they left the United Church and began attending elsewhere.
In any event, as a poetic representation of the Bible text prophesying the herald of Christ’s coming, it works well. Here is Milligan’s hymn.
CH-1) There’s a voice in the wilderness crying,
A call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway,
A highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted,
The lofty hills brought low;
Make straight all the crooked places,
Where the Lord our God may go!
CH-2) O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
Get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people
The coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish,
The works of men decay,
The power and pomp of nations
Shall pass like a dream away.
CH-3) But word of our God endureth,
The arm of the Lord is strong;
He stands in the midst of nations,
And He will right the wrong.
He shall feed His flock like a shepherd,
And fold the lambs to His breast;
In pastures of peace He’ll lead them,
And give to the weary rest.
1) What changes would you make in your life, if you knew the Lord would return tomorrow?
2) What are your favourite hymns about the second coming of Christ?