"SHALL WE GATHER AT THE RIVER?"
"He showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God…" (Rev. 22.1)
INTRO.: A hymn that describes our hope of being at and seeing that pure river of water of life in the heavenly New Jerusalem is "Shall We Gather At The River?" (#414 in Sacred Selections For The Church). The text was written and the tune (Hanson Place) was composed both by Robert Lowry (1826-1899). In 1864 Lowry was minister at the Hanson Place Baptist Church in Brooklyn. That summer there was an epidemic sweeping New York City, and people were dying all over. When Lowry was not busy visiting those in his congregation who were sick, he was burying others who had died. This is why the 38-year old preacher was near exhaustion when he lay down on the couch of his Brooklyn home one hot day in July. While thinking about all the people who were dying, he began to think of the great reunion at the river of life. So he did not stay on his couch long, but soon arose and was busy writing. He left his own account of this event:
"One afternoon in July, 1864, when I was pastor at Hanson Place Baptist Church, Brooklyn, the weather was oppressively hot, and I was lying on a lounge in a state of physical exhaustion. I was almost incapable of bodily exertion, and my imagination began to take to itself wins. Visions of the future passed before me with startling vividness. The imagery of the Apocalypse took the form of a tableau. Brightest of all were the throne, the heavenly river, and the gathering of the saints. My soul seemed to take new life from the celestial outlook. I began to wonder why the hymn-writers had said so much about the ‘river of death’ and so little about ‘the pure water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb." As I mused the words began to construct themselves. They came first as a question of Christian inquiry, ‘Shall we gather?’ Then they broke out in a chorus, as an answer of Christian faith, ‘Yes, we’ll gather.’ On this question and answer the hymn developed itself. The music came with the hymn." Please note that I am simply quoting Mr. Lowry without necessarily agreeing with his usage of the word "pastor."
The song was first published in the 1865 Sunday School hymnbook Happy Voices edited by Lowry and William Howard Doane for Biglow and Main. Lowry went on to produce several other famous hymns, such as "Christ Arose" or "Low in the grave He lay" in 1874. In 1954, even though "Shall We Gather At The River" was not a southern camp meeting song from American folk tradition, Aaron Copland included it in his "Old American Songs" for solo voice, Second Set. It was sung at the funeral of American Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1975, and a portion of it was used in the 1985 Academy Award winning film, Trip to Bountiful. I recall hearing James P. Miller, who was preaching in the gospel meeting at my home congregation when I obeyed the gospel, say that this song was often sung back in the days before indoor baptistries were common whenever people would be taken "down to the river" to be baptized.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, the song has been in almost every one except Christian Hymns No. 1, (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns, and Hymns for Worship Revised. It 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 1948 Christian Hymns No. 2 and the 1966 Christian Hymns No. 3 both 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 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; in addition to Sacred Selections, the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat, and the 2007 Sumphonia Hymn Supplement edited by Steve Wolfgang and others.
The song answers several questions that we might ask about this river.
I. Stanza 1 tells us where we shall gather at the river
"Shall we gather at the river, Where bright angel feet have trod,
With its crystal tide for ever Flowing by the throne of God?"
A. This river is located where the angels have trod, and the Bible indicates that the angels dwell in heaven: Matt. 22.30, Mk. 12.25
B. It is located in a place where it will flow forever; while the term "forever" can be used in some contexts to mean age lasting or as long as the earth stands, on other occasions it is clearly used to refer to an eternal existence: Jn. 6.51, Ro. 1.25
C. And it is located by the throne of God, which is clearly in heaven: Heb. 8.1, Rev. 4.1-2. Ellis J. Crum in Sacred Selections made one of his famous alterations here, changing "by the throne of God" to "from the throne of God" (although NOT in the chorus), apparently because he thought the latter conforms more with the exact language of the Bible. However, I do not see a big difference here, at least enough to make such a change necessary. If we say that the Ohio River flows FROM Pittsburgh, PA, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers converge, then it certainly flows BY portions of Pittsburgh, given that the word "by" can mean "near."
II. Stanza 2 tells us how long we shall gather at the river
"On the margin of the river, Washing up its silver spray,
We will walk and worship ever, All the happy, golden day."
A. "On the margin of the river" would be along the sides of the river, where John pictures God’s servants serving Him: Rev. 22.2-5
B. Part of that service evidently involves worship, because those who surround the throne of God are pictured as worshipping Him: Rev. 4.3-11
C. And this worship will continue "ever, All the happy, golden day," because it will occur in a place where we shall have eternal life and there will be no death: 1 Jn. 2.25, Rev. 21.4
III. Stanza 3 tells us why we shall gather at the river
"Ere we reach the shining river, Lay we every burden down;
Grace our spirits will deliver, And provide a robe and crown."
A. Even before we reach the shining river, we shall lay every burden down in death and be granted rest from our labors: Rev. 14.13
B. It is God’s purpose through death and ultimately through the resurrection and granting eternal life in heaven to deliver us finally
and completely from all that is evil: Gal. 1.4, 2 Pet. 2.9
C. Then at the end of time, He will provide a robe and a crown for the faithful: Jas. 1.12, Rev. 2.10
IV. Stanza 4 tells us when we shall gather at the river
"Soon we’ll reach the silver river, Soon our pilgrimage will cease;
Soon our happy hearts will quiver With the melody of peace."
A. This stanza raises the question that brethren have discussed for years as to whether the spirits of the righteous dead go directly to heaven or to the Hadean realm to await the resurrection and judgment. The scriptures still lead me to the conclusion that the spirits of the righteous dead go to Hades, but the stanza does not necessarily contradict that conclusion. The fact is that the vast majority of people will die because it is so appointed: Heb. 9.27. In relative terms, this will occur "soon" as opposed to later, but the "river of death" becomes the gateway through which we shall eventually reach "the silver river"
B. In this life we are but pilgrims: 1 Pet. 2.11; but at death, our pilgrimage will cease
C. And even the souls of the righteous dead in Hades, awaiting the resurrection and judgment, will be experiencing the melody of peace and comfort: Lk. 16.19-25
V. Stanza 5 tells us who shall gather at the river
"At the smiling of the river, Mirror of the Savior’s face,
Saints whom death will never sever Lift their songs of saving grace."
A. Since this river is mirror of the Savior’s face, we know that the Savior will be there and we shall see Him as He is: 1 Jn. 3.1-3
B. Also, the saints or holy ones, who under the new covenant are those who make up the Lord’s church, will be there: 1 Cor. 1.1-2
C. And these shall join with the redeemed of all ages to "lift their songs of saving grace": Rev. 7.9-17
CONCL.: The first stanza having asked the question, "Shall we gather at the river," which the other stanza then go on to describe, the chorus answers:
"Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river,
Gather with the saints at the river That flows by the throne of God."
With the joyful hope of eternity with God, the Savior, and the saints of all ages expressed in this song, may we ever live so that we can give an affirmative answer to that question, "Shall We Gather At The River?"
[I recently came across an additional stanza:
3. In the bosom of the river,
Where the Savior-King we own,
We shall meet, and sorrow never
‘Neath the glory of the throne.
—Sweeter Than All Songs, copyright 1927, #128]