Posted by: rcottrill | June 2, 2017

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown

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Words: Charles Wesley (b. Dec. 18, 1707; d. Mar. 29, 1788)
Music: St. Petersburg, by Dmitri Stepanovich Bortniansky (b. Oct. 28, 1751; d. Oct. 10, 1825)

Wordwise Hymns (Charles Wesley)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Wesley’s more than 6,000 hymns certainly qualify him to be thought of as one of our greatest hymn writers. However, in his day, he also preached the gospel with great effectiveness. This hymn’s history combines both of those gifts.

There’s an odd expression that’s been around for at least four centuries: He got taken down a peg or two. We know what it means, but where it originated remains a mystery. Research reveals half a dozen suggestions as to its source, including marks on a drinking mug, and the position of flags displayed on a ship. None of the theories seems conclusive.

When we speak of someone being “taken down a peg or two,” it means he has been humbled. The individual had too exalted an opinion of himself, but something was said, or done, that has caused him (or others) to realize he’s not as clever or strong as he thought he was. Historically, the expression was used in religious circles of church leaders who pompously supposed they deserved to be treated with extra reverence, but found out others didn’t share their opinion.

We are warned, in the Bible, “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Rom. 12:3). Humility is seen as a necessary part of showing Christlike love to others: “Love does not parade itself, is not puffed up” (I Cor. 13:4). “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (I Pet. 5:5).

Jacob was a man in Old Testament times who struggled with this issue. The name he was given means heel-gripper, suggesting that he would always be trying to trip others up and get the better of them, and he lived up (or down!) to his name. (As an aside, it’s a good thing to name our children something that will inspire them to aim higher.)

Jacob put great stock in his ability to make deals to his own advantage. To gain the upper hand and enrich himself, Jacob had conned his brother Esau, and his father Isaac, and his father-in-law Laban. He was what we’d call a wheeler-dealer, and he showed his craftiness often.

Then, he met the Lord in a most unusual way (Gen. 32:24-31).

He was alone in the wilderness, camped out in the dark of night, when…

“A Man wrestled with him until the breaking of day. Now when He [his Attacker] saw that He did not prevail against him, He touched the socket of his hip; and the socket of Jacob’s hip was out of joint [and the muscle shrank, vs. 32] as He wrestled with him….And He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’”

There are definitely mysteries here, but many conservative scholars believe the midnight Wrestler was the pre-incarnate Son of God (vs. 30; cf. Hos. 12:2-5). And, true to form, Jacob tried to make a deal with Him: “I will not let You go unless You bless me” (vs. 26). But the Lord’s power showed that puny Jacob only remained in the fight because the Lord let him. His new name can be translated God fights, or God prevails. And Jacob’s continuing lameness (vs. 31)–perhaps a permanent disability–reminded him that his future renown as the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel was God’s doing, not his own.

On May 24, 1741, Charles Wesley preached on this unusual passage. He used it as a picture of the Christian’s need for prevailing prayer, to passionately and persistently seek the blessing of God, clinging to Him with the knowledge that it’s only by His enabling grace that we can do what He wants us to do, and be what He wants us to be.

A year later, Wesley wrote the present very long hymn (of fourteen stanzas) to convey his spiritual application of Jacob’s mysterious experience. In my view, we must be cautious in doing this. Jacob was a real, historical figure, and his experience was real–whether we can fully understand it or not. (His aching hip reminded him later that it was no dream!) And while it’s possible to use such events to illustrate spiritual truth, we must not imply by doing so that they are mere myths, to be interpreted as we like.

With that reminder, Wesley’s hymn says, in part:

CH-1) Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

And later there’s the admission of personal dependence on God:

CH-13) Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

1) What are the meanings of some names given to relatives or friends of yours? Do they reflect a positive image, something the individual can aspire to?

2) What experience have you had lately that taught you a lesson in humility?

Wordwise Hymns (Charles Wesley)
The Cyber Hymnal


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