"NEARER, MY GOD, TO THEE"
"It is good for me to draw near to God: I have put my trust in the Lord…" (Psa. 73.28)
INTRO.: A hymn which breathes a request to be near to God is "Nearer, My God, To Thee" (#124 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #56 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Sarah Flower Adams, who was born at Great Harlow in Essex, England, on Feb. 22, 1805, the second daughter of a newspaper publisher Benjamin Flower who edited both the Cambridge Intelligencer and the Political Review. When she was five years old, her mother died of tuberculosis. Showing an early talent for poetry, in 1834, at the age of 29, she married a fellow writer and inventive engineer named John William Brydges Adams, and moved to London. Knowing her ambition to be an actress, her husband encouraged her to make a try at it. So in 1837 she appeared as Lady Macbeth at the Richmond Theater in London to much acclaim. However, the strain of performing was too great, and recurring illness forced her to retire from the stage later that year, cutting short a successful stage career, and she returned to her writing. Many of her poems were published in magazines, and she authored at least two large works.
With her husband and sister Eliza, Mrs. Adams attended the Unitarian South Place Chapel in Finsburg, a suburb of London. In 1840 the minister, William John Fox, was preparing a new hymnbook. Fox asked Sarah and Eliza, who was musically talented, to produce a new hymn on the story of Jacob and Esau that could accompany a sermon that he was planning to preach on the subject and then be added to the book. Eliza encouraged her sister to provide the words while she composed the music. In preparation, Sarah began reading the Bible account very carefully. But about that same time, Eliza contracted tuberculosis too and Sarah began nursing her. Thus, Sarah wrote her most famous hymn not only to be used in the hymnbook but also to comfort her dying sister. It was first sung later that year and then published in 1841 with the original tune by Eliza Flower in Fox’s Hymns and Anthems.
Unfortunately, while nursing her sister, Sarah caught tuberculosis too. Eliza died in 1846, and Sarah died two years later in London on Aug. 14, 1848, at the age of 43. The tune (Bethany) that is most commonly used with these words in this country was composed on request as a new musical setting for this text in 1856 by Lowell Mason (1792-1872). It first appeared in the 1859 Sabbath Hymn and Tune Book edited by Edward A. Park and Austin Phelps in Andover, MA. In 1871 travellers report hearing this song sung at the site of Bethel where Jacob had his celebrated dream. In 1901, when President McKinley was shot, he is said to have whispered these words, thought to be his favorite hymn, to his family as he lay dying, and they were sung around the nation at memorial services following his death. Then in 1912, as the Titanic was sinking, many claim that the ship’s band played the strains of this song, whereas others dispute this account, although some survivors believe that it was the British tune, not the American one, that they heard, which may help to explain these seemingly contradictory accounts.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song appeared in the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; the 1935 Christian Hymns (No. 1), the 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2, and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 all edited by L. O. Sanderson; the 1963 Abiding Hymns edited by Robert C. Welch; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today, it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Hymns for Worship, Sacred Selections, and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.
The song well expresses the aim of every Christian to draw nearer to God.
I. The first stanza begins with the universal cry of mankind to be nearer to God
"Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee,
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me.
Still all my song shall be, ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee."
A. God wants us to draw near to Him: Jas. 4.8-10
B. Just as Jesus was raised up toward heaven on the cross, so we can draw nearer to God in heaven by bearing our cross: Matt. 16.24
C. As we draw near to God, we sing to Him: Ps. 28.6-7; and one aspect of our song to the Lord should be to draw even nearer to Him
II. The second stanza illustrates this desire with the experience of Jacob
"Though like a wanderer, The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, My rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be Nearer, my God, to Thee."
A. Jacob was a wanderer, fleeing the wrath of Esau, and we too are wanderers upon this earth: 1 Pet. 2.10
B. Also, just as darkness was over Jacob and his rest was a stone, so this world is a place of darkness and trouble for us: Job 14.1
C. Yet, consider the dream of Jacob: Gen. 28.10-12a; we too can dream (in the sense of a strong desire or goal) of being nearer to God
III. The third stanza personalizes the story by asking that our future paths might be as Jacob’s ladder that reached up to heaven
"There let the way appear Steps unto heaven:
All that Thou sendest me, In mercy given.
Angels to beckon me, Nearer, my God, to Thee."
A. Though we cannot climb a literal ladder into heaven, this might be thought of as a figure of Jesus Christ who is the way to the Father: Jn. 14.6 (In drawing from this same passage, Elizabeth Clephane in "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" wrote, "So seems my Savior’s cross to me: A ladder up to heaven.")
B. And while we are travelling toward heaven through Christ, we need to remember that all which God sends or even allows is by His mercy: 1 Cor. 10.13
C. The Bible does not teach that angels beckon us directly to heaven, but consider Jacob’s dream of angels: Gen. 28.12b-14; in like manner, God’s message in His word beckons us to come to Him
IV. The fourth stanza offers praise to God for this wonderful blessing
"Then, with my waking thoughts Bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be Nearer, my God, to Thee."
A. The song pictures the saint, like Jacob, sleeping through the night, then awakening in the morning with a song of praise in his mind and on his lips: Ps. 5.1-3
B. As an expression of his praise and thanks to God, Jacob raised a pillar of stone which he called Bethel: Gen. 28.16-19; in like manner, when we rise each morning, we can raise own own Bethel of praise to express our gratitude to the Lore because of His nearness to us
C. In fact, even the woes that we experience in this life can be a means of drawing nearer to God: Jas. 1.2-4
V. The fifth stanza then suggests that as the angels in the dream ascended, so someday we may hope to ascend to immortality and be with God
"Or if on joyful wing, Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, Upward I fly;
Still all my song shall be, ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee."
A. Even in death, we can look forward to the angels carrying us with their wings to rest in Abraham’s bosom: Lk. 16.22
B. And when the Lord returns, upward we shall fly: 1 Thes. 4.16-17
C. Then, the prayer of the song to be nearer to God will be answered in its fullness, because we shall be directly with Him in His presence forever: 1 Jn. 3.2
CONCL.: Each stanza ends with a repetition of the opening line to re-emphasize the main thought of wanting to be nearer to God in our lives here with the hope of being with Him in eternity.
"Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!"
A sixth stanza was suggested by Edward H. Bickersteth, Jr. in the notes to his annotated edition of Hymnal Compilation of 1876, where he says, "The Editor shrunk from appending a closing verse of his own to a hymn so generally esteemed complete as this, or he would have suggested the following:
"There in my Father’s home, safe and at rest,
There in my Savior’s love, perfectly blest;
Age after age to be, nearer my God to Thee."
John Julian wrote, "This hymn is a curious illustration of the colouring which is given to a hymn by the antecedents of its author," since Mrs. Adams was a Unitarian, and cites several other examples of alterations and additions made to bring the hymn more into harmony with what various editors think it should have said. One of the major objections for these alterations and additions has been that the hymn does not mention Christ (notice Bickersteth writes, "There in my Savior’s love"), because Unitarians generally do not believe in the deity of Jesus. I do not know what Mrs. Adams personally believed, but she was writing a poem based on an Old Testament event, so there might not have been any occasion specifically to mention Christ. William Williams in "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah" drew upon Old Testament events and does not specifically mention Christ in that hymn either, but no one has ever questioned it. In any event, these lines, picturing Jacob at Bethel sleeping on a stone and dreaming of angels, reflect our yearning which we so often express in our prayers to be, "Nearer, My God, To Thee."