Posted by: rcottrill | December 12, 2016

I Left the God of Truth and Light

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Words: James Montgomery (b. Nov. 4, 1771; d. Apr. 30, 1854)
Music: Waltham (or Doane), by John Baptiste Calkin (b. Mar. 16, 1827; d. May 15, 1905)

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (James Montgomery born, died)
The Cyber Hymnal (James Montgomery)
Hymnary.org

Note: To my knowledge this hymn poem has never been set to music and used as a congregational hymn. Its dramatic change from confession to consolation makes it difficult to find a hymn tune to suit both. I was drawn to Waltham because I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day seems to make that kind of transition–from “And in despair I bowed my head: ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,” to the joy of, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.’”

It’s a way of apologizing. When we accidentally bump into someone exiting a building as we’re entering, we may say, “Excuse me.” We are asking them to overlook an unintended blunder. But there’s another use of the word that’s not simply a matter of common courtesy.

At a much more serious level, when wrongdoers make excuses for themselves, they’re contriving reasons for their conduct that are designed to evade responsibility for their actions. Often this is done by attempting to shift the blame to someone else.

In the 2016 election campaign in the United States, a candidate was revealed on tape boasting in grossly vulgar terms about his abusive and predatory conduct toward women. When confronted, his excuse was, “That’s just locker room talk.” In other words, all the guys talk like that–which, of course, is not true.

Evangelist Billy Sunday famously said, “An excuse is the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.” The above politician put himself forward as a strong leader. But shouldn’t leaders lead? Shouldn’t they set the example, not willingly descend to copying the conduct of the worst among us.

In the parable of the Great Supper (Lk. 14:15-24), the Lord tells of a man who arranged a splendid banquet, and invited many to come. They readily agreed. But, when a servant came to notify the invited guests that the feast was ready, “They all with one accord began to make excuses” as to why they couldn’t make it (vs. 18).

One said, “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it.” (So, he bought the property without going to see it first?) Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them.” (Again, purchased without testing them first?) Yet another said, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” (Then why not ask if she could come too?) Weak excuses all.

The banquet pictures God’s kingdom, which one of the Lord’s hearers thought was a wonderful thing to be part of (vs. 15). But many who think heaven is a great idea in theory, regularly put possessions, personal relationships, and the affairs of this life, ahead of kingdom values. Captivated by the world’s ways, they ignore or deny God’s truth.

One man who did that, surprisingly, is hymn writer James Montgomery (1771-1854), the man who gave us Angels from the Realms of Glory, one of our finest Christmas carols. He wrote many other good hymns too. But at some point in his life there was a period of spiritual backsliding.

A newspaper editor, Montgomery wrote a series of articles, under the pen name Gabriel Silvertongue. These contained irreverent and mocking references to Bible. The articles were also published in book form. But Montgomery, later convicted of his sinful rebellion, destroyed every copy of the book he could find, and expressed his grieving repentance in a hymn poem.

There are no lame excuses here, no blaming someone else. This is strong medicine. In its use of powerful imagery it reminds me of Francis Thompson’s 1893 poem The Hound of Heaven, in which he speaks of running away from God. Montgomery’s words also echo those of David in their directness.

“When I kept silent [about my sin], my bones grew old through my groaning all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my vitality was turned into the drought of summer. Selah [Think of that!] I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah [Think of that!] (Ps. 32:3-5).

1) I left the God of truth and light,
I left the God who gave me breath,
To wander in the wilds of night,
And perish in the snares of death.

2) Sweet was His service, and His yoke
Was light and easy to be borne;
Through all His bands of love I broke,
I cast away His gifts with scorn.

3) I danced in folly’s giddy maze,
And drank the sea, and chased the wind;
But falsehood lurk’d in all her ways,
Her laughter left remorse behind.

4) I dream’d of bliss in pleasure’s bowers,
While pillowing roses stayed my head;
But serpents hiss’d among the flowers;
I woke, and thorns were all my bed.

Then comes James Montgomery’s appeal to a gracious and forgiving God. Like the prodigal son (Lk. 15:11-24), he turns, broken, from the world’s allures, and finds forgiveness and restoration in a loving Father’s arms.

7) Heart-broken, friendless, poor, cast down,
Where shall the chief of sinners fly,
Almighty Vengeance! from Thy frown–
Eternal Justice! from Thine eye?

8) Lo, through the gloom of guilty fears,
My faith discerns a dawn of grace;
The Sun of Righteousness appears
In Jesus’ reconciling face.

9) My suffering, slain, and risen Lord,
In sore distress I turn to Thee,
I claim acceptance on Thy word,
My God! my God! forsake not me.

10) Prostrate before the mercy seat,
I dare not, if I would, despair;
None ever perish’d at Thy feet,
And I will lie forever there.

Questions:
1) What are some things that lead to backsliding? What are some things that lead to repentance and restoration?

2) Can you think of any other hymn that speaks of guilt and forgiveness in a powerful way?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (James Montgomery born, died)
The Cyber Hymnal (James Montgomery)
Hymnary.org


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