“The Son of God Goes Forth to War”

"They loved not their lives unto the death" (Rev. 12.11)

     INTRO.: A song which pictures the Christian’s life as a warfare in following Jesus Christ as our leader even to the point of death is "The Son of God Goes Forth To War." The text was written by Reginald Heber (1783-1826). Produced while he was Anglican archbishop of Calcutta, India, from 1823 to 1826 for St. Stephen’s Day, a religious holiday observed by the Anglican Church, it was published posthumously in an 1827 collection of Heber’s poems entitled Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year. The tune (All Saints New) was composed for this text by Henry Stephen Cutler, who was born Oct. 13, 1825 in Boston, MA. After studying organ with A. U. Hayter in Boston, he went to Europe in 1844 to continue his studies in Frankfurt am Main.  While there, he visited many English cathedrals and became familiar with their style of music. Returning to Boston in 1846, he became music director at Grace Episcopal Church.

     In 1852, Cutler became music director of the Church of the Advent in Boston, and in 1858, at Trinity Church, New York City, NY, where he served seven years. In 1864 he received the Mus. D. degree from Columbia University. A composer of anthems, service music, and hymn tunes, he published the Trinity Psalter in 1864 and Trinity Anthems in 1865. This particular tune was first published in The Hymnal with Tunes Old and New of 1872. A well-known organist of his day, he later held positions in Brooklyn, NY; Providence, RI; Philadelphia, PA; Troy, NY; and Newark, NJ.  After retiring in 1885, he returned to Boston where he died on Dec. 5, 1902. Among hymnbooks published during the twentieth century by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ, the song was used 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 tune is found, with a 1966 hymn entitled "Macedonia" by Anne Ortlund, in the 1977 Special Sacred Selections edited by E. J. Crum.

     The song talks about both Him who leads us and those who follow Him in the Christian’s warfare.

I. Stanza 1 focuses on the Son of God
"The Son of God goes forth to war, A kingly crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar: Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink His cup of woe, Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears His cross below, He follows in His train."
 A. Some might object to the phrase in the first stanza, "A kingly crown to gain," thinking that it might be premillennial (I seriously doubt that Heber was a premillennialist!) and saying that Christ has already gained His crown. Actually, the song goes back and pictures the scene from time of Christ’s earthly life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension: Dan. 7.13-14. Also, while Christ has already been crowned King, He still seeks for men to crown Him as their own King in their hearts
 B. The rest of the song seeks to answer the question, "Who follows in His train?" Two qualifications are set. First, those who follow must be willing to drink His cup of woe: Mk. 10.35-39
 C. The second qualification is that they must be willing to bear the cross below: Matt. 16.24

II. Stanza 2 focuses on Stephen, "The martyr first"
"The martyr first, whose eagle eye Could pierce beyond the grave,
Who saw His Master in the sky, And called on Him to save:
Like him, with pardon on his tongue, In midst of mortal pain,
He prayed for them that did the wrong: Who follows in his train?"
 A. So far as we know, Stephen was the first individual called upon to die for His faith in Jesus Christ: Acts 6.5, 8.2, 11.19
 B. It may be that this is the reason why his eye was allowed to pierce beyond the grave and see the Master in the sky: Acts 7.55-56
 C. The song asks, "Who follows in his train?", because he left us an example of praying for those who did him wrong and asking God’s pardon for them: Acts 7.59-60

III. Stanza 3 focuses on the twelve apostles
"A glorious band, the chosen few On whom the Spirit came,
Twelve valiant saints, their hope they knew, And mocked the cross and flame:
They met the tyrant’s brandished steel, the lion’s gory mane;
They bowed their necks the death to feel: Who follows in their train?"
 A. It was the apostles who were chosen to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit to enable them to accomplish their mission of establishing the church and revealing God’s word to the world: Acts 2.1-4
 B. They were twelve valiant men, the eleven who were left after Judas’s death, and Matthias who was chosen to be a witness with them: Acts 1.13, 21-26
 C. Because they mocked the cross and flame, met the tyrant’s brandished steel and the lion’s gory mane, and bowed their necks even to feel the death, it is said that the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets: Eph. 2.19-20

IV. Stanza 4 focuses on the noble army who came after them
"A noble army, men and boys, The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior’s throne rejoice, In robes of light arrayed:
They climbed the steep ascent of heaven Through peril, toil, and pain:
O God, to us may grace be given To follow in their train."
 A. Since the church began, a noble army of men, boys, matrons, and maids have all joined in to fight the good fight of the faith: 1 Tim. 6.12
 B. Those who have already waged a good warfare and gone beyond are pictured in Revelation around the Savior’s throne, in robes of light arrayed: Rev. 7.9-17
 C. The song concludes with the request for God to give us grace that as we consider their example we may "note those who so walk, as you have us for a pattern" by "considering the end of their faith": Phil. 3.17, Heb. 13.7

     CONCL.: Because this song is not in any books currently published among us, very few members of the Lord’s church today are probably familiar with it. However, we do not have to celebrate "St. Stephen’s Day" to understand and appreciate the importance of his conviction and how it applies to us. There may be some in the religious world in general who would object to the "military" language of the song. Yet, the New Testament is full of military metaphors in describing the life that God wants His people to live. When properly understood this song is a very stirring call for us to do whatever is necessary to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ because "The Son of God Goes Forth to War."


3 thoughts on ““The Son of God Goes Forth to War”

  1. It is one of my favorite hymns. When I first heard it, I was struck by the truth of it. I regret that it is not sung more often. "O God, to us may grace be given To follow in their train!" (PS: I also like being homeschooled!)

  2. Why SHOULD we celebrate St. Stephen's Day? Where is there anything at all in the inspired word of God commanding us to do so, giving us an example of doing so, or even implying that we should do so? We can certainly honor the memory of Stephen and other great heroes of faith without making some "special day" for them.


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