“We’re Marching to Zion”

"…Come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy…" (Isa. 35.10)

     INTRO.: One of our more beloved songs which expresses the concept of being with the Lord in Zion is "We’re Marching To Zion" (#190 in Hymns for Worship Revised and #2 in Sacred Selections for the Church). The text was written by Isaac Watts, who was born in Southampton, England, on July 17, 1674, to a cloth merchant named Enoch (sometimes also given as Isaac) Watts. His father was a deacon at the Above Bar Congregational Church and as a dissenter from the established Church of England was imprisoned several times for his beliefs. The elder Watts also ran a boarding school where his son first studied. Isaac had a severe case of smallpox as a child and as a result grew to be only five feet tall with a large head, hooked nose, small piercing eyes, and a frail, sickly body. However, he was precocious. By the time he was thirteen, he had learned Latin, Greek, French, and Hebrew. A local physician offered to send him to Oxford or Cambridge if he would become an Anglican minister, but he refused and was educated at the Nonconformist Academy of Stoke Newington under Thomas Rowe. At age fifteen he began writing poetry. One Sunday after the morning service he complained about the lamentable singing. He later wrote, "The singing of God’s praise is the part of worship nighest heaven and its performance among us is the worst on earth." I think that I have been in some of those kinds of services too.

     Isaac’s father challenged him, "Give us something better, young man." Before evening, he had penned his first hymn, "Behold the glories of the Lamb," and either that night or the following Sunday when it was sung in the service the people went wild. Watts went on to produce over 650 notable hymns. In 1701, after completing his education, he became minister at age 26 of the Mark Lane Independent Chapel in London where he continued writing hymns to go with his sermons. Because of ill health he rarely preached two Sundays in a row, but he remained at Mark Lane for the rest of his life. One Sunday in 1712 a member of the congregation, Thomas Abney who was Lord Mayor of London, invited him to spend a few weeks’ vacation at the Abney mansion in the suburb of Stoke Newington to help regain his health. The result was that he lived with the Abneys for the remainder of his days. Falling in love with the three Abney daughters, he took a special interest in their education, writing verses and lullabies for them which were later published as his Divine and Moral Songs for Children. Also he wrote books on logic, science, grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, three volumes of sermons, and 29 treatises on theology–a total of 52 works in all on a dozen different subjects.

     On one occasion a beautiful lady, Elizabeth Singer, fell in love with Watts through his poetry but had never met him. When she sought him out, he immediately fell in love with her. However, she turned down his proposal of marriage, saying sadly, "Mr. Watts, I only wish I could say that I admire the casket as much as I admire the jewel." Perhaps this event, along with others, caused him to realize that there are things more important in life than earthly beauty and physical happiness, as he expressed in his song beginning, "Come, we that love the Lord," from his 1707 Hymns and Spiritual Songs, originally in ten stanzas, though only seven have been commonly used in standard hymnbooks. Watts never did marry and died at the Abney home in Stoke Newington, England, on Nov. 25, 1748. "Come, we that love the Lord" has been set to a number of tunes, but four stanzas were selected, a gospel song tune (Marching to Zion) was composed, and the chorus added in 1867 by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). It was first published in his 1868 hymnbook Silver Spray. Watts has been called the father of English hymnody, and in addition to his 1719 Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, is the author of such classics as "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" and "Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed."

     A few alterations have been made in the song. For unknown reasons "Come, we that love the Lord" was changed to "Come, ye that love the Lord" and "Then let our songs abound" was changed to "Then let your songs abound" by John Benjamin Wesley (1703-1791). Some of our books follow these changes but others do not. Some unknown editor changed "But favorites of the heavenly King" to "But children of the heavenly King" and this has been continued almost universally. 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.

     "We’re Marching to Zion" is filled with joy at the privileges found in God’s spiritual Kingdom.

I. Stanza 1 says that we can surround the throne of God in praise
"Come, we that love the Lord, And let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, And thus surround the throne."
 A. The song is addressed to those who love the Lord: Mk. 12.30
 B. Those who truly love the Lord can join in songs of sweet accord: Heb. 2.12
 C. They also have the blessing to be able to come before the throne of God though our High Priest, Jesus Christ: Heb. 4.14-16

II. Stanza 2 (3 in the original), says that we can become spiritual children of God
"Let those refuse to sing, Who never knew our God;
But children of the heavenly King May speak their joys abroad."
 A. Of course, many in this world may refuse to sing because they do not know God: Eph. 2.12
 B. However, those who come to Christ in obedience to His word are identified as God’s children: 1 Jn. 3.1
 C. As His children, we should never be ashamed to speak of our faith in Him but offer to Him the fruit of our lips and proclaim the praises of Him who called us: 2 Tim. 1.8, Heb. 13.15, 1 Pet. 2.9

III. A stanza (8 in the original) not used with the gospel song but which I think is interesting says that we can be characterized by the fruit of faith and hope
"The men of grace have found Glory begun below,
Celestial fruits on earthly ground From faith and hope may grow."
 A. The children of the heavenly King can be identified as "men of grace" because they have been saved by grace: Eph. 2.8-9
 B. We can find glory begun even here below as the celestial fruit of the Spirit begins to develop in our lives: Gal. 5.22-23
 C. This celestial fruit grows from the seeds of faith and hope which are among the things which abide: 1 Cor. 13.13

IV. Stanza 3 (9 in the original) says that even now the hill of Zion yields God’s blessings to His people
"The hill of Zion yields A thousand sacred sweets,
Before we reach the heavenly fields, Or walk the golden streets."
 A. Zion does not always necessarily refer to heaven, but sometimes to the church: Heb. 12.22
 B. Even now God’s children benefit from Zion because we have all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus: Eph. 1.4
 C. These blessings are for us both in this life, and in the time to come when we reach the heavenly fields and walk the golden streets: 1 Tim. 4.8

V. Stanza 4 (10 in the original) says that the benefits that we have now will continue in those fairer worlds on high
"Then let our songs abound, And every tear be dry;
We’re marching through Immanuel’s ground To fairer worlds on high."
 A. Because we are God’s people, we should rejoice, letting our songs abound and drying every tear: Phil. 4.4
 B. The reasons for this are two-fold; first, we are marching through Immanuel’s ground: Matt. 1.18
 C. And, second, we look forward to fairer worlds on high in the new heavens and new earth: 2 Pet. 3.13

     CONCL.: The other stanzas of the original poem are as follows:
2. "The sorrows of the mind Be banished from the place;
Religion never was designed To make our pleasures less."
4. The God that rules on high And thunders when He please,
Who rides upon the stormy sky, And manages the seas."
5. "This awful God is ours, Our Father and our Love,
He will send down His heavenly powers To carry us above."
6. "There we shall see His face, And never, never sin!
There, from the rivers of His grace, Drink endless pleasures in."
7. "Yea, and before we rise To that immortal state,
The thoughts of such amazing bliss, Should constant joys create."
Lowry’s chorus epitomizes the joy that should characterize God’s people:
"We’re marching to Zion, Beautiful, beautiful Zion,
We’re marching upward to Zion, The beautiful city of God."
Some have objected to the thought of "marching TO Zion," saying that we are already in God’s spiritual Zion, the church. However, Zion is used throughout the scriptures as a synonym for Jerusalem. Figuratively speaking, we are in the church or spiritual Jerusalem now (Gal. 4.26).  However, we are also journeying toward the heavenly new Jerusalem (Rev. 21.1-2). The fact that Zion may sometimes be used to refer to the church and other times to heaven should not be thought odd because the church on earth is the gateway to heaven. So most assuredly as God’s people we should sing with joy as "We’re Marching To Zion."


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