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Words: Henry Kirke White (b. Mar. 21, 1785; d. Oct. 19, 1806); found after the author’s death and revised by Frances Sara Fuller-Maitland Colquhoun when she was fourteen years old (b. June 20, 1809; May 27, 1877)
Music: Eighmey, by William Henry Pontius (b. Mar. 3, 1844; d. June 11, 1908)
Note: Henry Kirke White was an English poet. Following his conversion to Christ, he enrolled in pastoral studies, but didn’t complete them. He took ill, and died at the age of twenty-one. He has left us the present hymn that alludes to the sacrifices required if we are to be victorious in the spiritual battle all Christians face.
Warfare should never be glamorized. It’s a terrible thing. But, over the centuries, elevated prose and glowing lines of verse too often have been employed to glorify human conflict. It’s described as a heroic enterprise, a grand adventure, and a noble calling.
While there may be elements of truth in this, wars are lived out in scenes of grim death and unparalleled human suffering. New engines of war and more devastating explosives, developed to insure victory, also have served up more death and destruction on both sides.
For Americans, it was the Civil War that brought people face to face with reality. General Sherman put it bluntly: “War is hell!” For many in Europe, and in Canada too, it was the First World War that drove home the shock of the endless brutality and human carnage involved. That we’re justified in fighting to preserve our freedom, or to end human tyranny and oppression, should never blind us to the painful sacrifices needed to do so.
But we must turn to the Bible to learn about another war that’s been going on, invisible to human eyes, since before time began. It’s a conflict in the spirit realm, encompassing the earth, a war in which dark powers are allied against a holy God and all His works. It began when a powerful angel named Lucifer coveted the throne of God, saying to himself:
“I will exalt my throne above the stars of God…I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-15).
Cast out of heaven, he carried some other angels with him. Together they became a demon army prosecuting Satan’s long war against God. As the Scriptures put it:
“We are not wrestling with flesh and blood [contending only with physical opponents], but against the despotisms, against the powers, against [the master spirits who are] the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spirit forces of wickedness in the heavenly (supernatural) sphere” (Eph. 6:12, Amplified Bible).
Though we find the devil at work in the Old Testament, early on, in Eden and in other places, it’s with the coming of Christ that he and his dark powers seem to become especially active. His temptation of the Lord Jesus is described in Matthew 4:1-11, as well as in Mark and Luke. And, failing to keep the Saviour from fulfilling His mission back then, He continues his assault on the people of God to this day.
We are warned, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (I Pet. 5:8). We face a powerful foe, but we are also armed by the Lord for the battle. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armour of God [described in vs. 14-17], that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph. 6:10-11).
Though we are assured of final victory (Rev. 20:10), we’re counseled about the need for all out commitment to the struggle. “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (II Tim. 2:3-4). It is to this struggle that White’s hymn alludes. Though the language is simple, it makes the point well.
CH-1) Oft in sorrow, oft in woe,
Onward, Christian, onward go:
Fight the fight, maintain the strife
Strengthened with the Bread of Life.
CH-2) Onward Christians, onward go,
Join the war, and face the foe;
Faint not: Much does yet remain,
Dreary is the long campaign.
CH-3) Shrink not, Christians will ye yield?
Will ye quit the painful field?
Will ye flee in danger’s hour?
Know ye not your Captain’s power?
CH-4) Let your drooping hearts be glad:
March in heavenly armour clad:
Fight, nor think the battle long,
Victory soon shall be your song.
CH-6) Onward then in battle move,
More than conquerors ye shall prove;
Though opposed by many a foe,
Christian soldiers onward go.
1) What aspect of the spiritual conflict has touched your life most recently?
2) How has the Lord helped and sustained you in this?