The King of Chorales
This Sunday, at our 8AM service, we will be singing one of the great treasures of our hymnody. Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying, by Philipp Nicolai, is a beautiful, majestic, triumphant hymn describing the joyous scene which will take place when Christ returns and takes his bride, the church, to the heavenly banquet hall for the feast of joy and victory. This is one of those great hymns that I wish every Christian knew by heart.
This hymn has a strong personal connection for me as it was one of the hymns at our wedding. For the ceremony, we chose Scripture readings that focused on imagery of the church as the bride of Christ. This is so fitting for the marriage because the relationship between husband and wife should reflect the relationship between Christ and His church. I hope that I can do this hymn justice when I lead it this weekend; although I won’t measure up to the organist at my wedding, Paul Soulek, who for the introduction improvised a perfectly harmonized 3 voice canon.
The hymn text is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins from Matthew 25, and is often used when that text is read. However, the hymn also incorporates Revelation 19:6-9, 21:21, and 1st Corinthians 2:9, which all describe the marriage feast of the lamb. The genius of this hymn is that Nicolai combines the texts in such a wonderful way that we end up with a hymn that is a vision of what Christ’s return will be for those who are waiting for Him. The parable of the ten virgins really focuses on the judgment for the foolish virgins, but this hymn gives us the perspective of those who were faithful. It’s also worth noting that Nicolai wrote this hymn for a community that was hit by the plague. That he was able to put so much joy into this hymn shows a truly remarkable faith and is a testament to the power of the Holy Spirit.
Here’s stanza 1:
Wake, awake, for night is flying;
The watchmen on the heights are crying:
“Awake, Jerusalem, arise!”
Midnight hears the welcome voices
And at the thrilling cry rejoices;
“Oh, where are ye, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes, awake!
Your lamps with gladness take!
Alleluia! With bridal care yourselves prepare
To meet the Bridegroom, who is near.”
For the church, the bride of Christ, the return of Christ is not a scene of fear and terrible wrath, but what another great hymn calls “the consummation of peace forevermore”. The church is the new Israel. We are the Jerusalem which awaits the coming king. Can you see the joy that is springing from this first stanza?
Here’s stanza 2
Zion hears the watchmen singing,
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom;
For her Lord comes down all glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her Star is risen, her Light is come.
Now come, Thou blessèd One, Lord Jesus, God’s own Son,
Hail! Hosanna! We enter all The wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.
In this stanza Christ is coming down to take us to the “wedding hall”. I love the third line , “She wakes, she rises from her gloom;”. When Jesus returns we will be freed from all gloom, from all pain, from sorrow, from sin, and from death itself. We will be victorious and we will enter the hall to eat the supper. I do not know if the reference here to holy communion is intentional, but we do get a foretaste of this heavenly banquet every Divine Service when we partake of the body and blood of our Lord.
And, finally, stanza 3:
Now let all the heavens adore Thee,
Let saints and angels sing before Thee,
With harp and cymbal’s clearest tone;
Of one pearl each shining portal,
Where, joining with the choir immortal
We gather round Thy radiant throne.
No eye has seen the light, No ear has heard the might of Thy glory;
Therefore will we Eternally
Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee!
Finally, in stanza 3, we are placed into the joy of heaven itself, where we praise our Bridegroom with the angels and saints and with the greatest music of heaven. The best part is that this glorious scene never ends! It is an eternal feast of worship and communion with our Lord. What a joy to get to sing this hymn in worship this Sunday!