I usually pick the hymn studies based on the upcoming Sunday, but this week I’m basing it on a hymn for a memorial service. It is the great hymn For All the Saints, with text by William Walsham How and music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. William W. How (1823-1897) was an Anglican priest best known for his work among the poor. He was known at the time as the “poor man’s bishop”. The hymn itself is a wonderful proclamation of the life and salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus. It’s a hymn of the church triumphant and uses the imagery of the Christian church as an army of soldiers. This text and tune is a treasure of our Christian hymnody. As we go through it, pay special attention to the way the hymn takes us from the present into the future.
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
Jesus deserves all glory and thanks for the saints who are given eternal life. We are redeemed by our Lord and strengthened by Him in this life. Stanza 1 echoes Revelation 14:13:
13And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
What wonderful words! Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord! Death has no sting or victory, for we belong to a resurrected and victorious Lord and King.
Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might:
Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.
This stanza summarizes much of Psalm 27. Here are a few parts of that Psalm:
1The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
5For he will hide me in his shelter
in the day of trouble;
he will conceal me under the cover of his tent;
he will lift me high upon a rock.
Notice who is doing the action in both the Psalm and the hymn stanza. The Lord is our strength, our salvation, our light, and our rock. This was true when David wrote Psalm 27, it was true when William How wrote the hymn text, and it is true for us today.
Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold!
In the first two stanzas, we praised our Lord for His work in the lives of the saints. Now we pray that He would continue that work today in our lives and in the lives of all believers. We pray that we may persevere to the end, as we are told in Revelation 2:
10Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’
Oh, blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
We are reminded in this stanza that we are not in this life alone. We have communion and fellowship with the other members of the body of Christ. Jesus prayed in His high priestly prayer in John 17 that this would be so:
10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.
We know from Colossians 1 that we are part of body of Christ:
18And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
We have life together in the body of Christ, which is the church. We teach one another, forgive one another and encourage one another; yet we do sometimes grow weary along the way. This leads us into the next stanza.
And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
This stanza is wonderful for the imagery. This hymn works chronologically, and as we sing in stanza 5 we are beginning to approach the fulfillment of all things. What is the triumph song? It is the song of salvation that runs through all scripture. The triumph song is God’s deliverance at the Red Sea, from the Fiery Furnace, from the flood, from the tomb, and at last the victory against death itself. The Lamb will triumph, as we hear in Revelation 17:
14They will make war on the Lamb, and the Lamb will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”
The Lamb will conquer. Let this be our triumph song!
The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.
The cycle of the sun has often been used to speak of death and resurrection. The prayer service of Compline focuses on these themes. Just as we lie down and rest in the evening and awake in the morning so we will also lie down and rest in the Lord to be awakened at the last day. We pray that our Lord Jesus will come soon. Paul uses this imagery in Romans 13:
12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
The sweet calm of stanza 6 refers to the rest that we have in death. We do not fear death because we rest in the Lord.
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day:
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Now we have reached the second coming of Christ and the new heavens and new earth, where we will see Him face to face. Having rested in Christ at our death, we are raised to everlasting life and worship Him in the splendor of holiness forever and ever. What a glorious sight it will be when our King passes before us and the new heavens and new earth all join in singing the praises of our Triune God! These last two stanzas are a glimpse of heaven after the resurrection and the imagery comes from Revelation 21:
“Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” 10And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, 11 having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.
21And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass.
22And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
Knowing our salvation is secure, we praise our Triune God with stanza 8:
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: