"THAT SWEET STORY OF OLD"
"And He took them up in His arms, put His hands upon them, and blessed them" (Mk. 10:16)
INTRO.: A hymn which draws lessons from that time when Jesus took children up in His arms, put His hands on them, and blessed them is "That Sweet Story of Old," also known by its first line "I Think When I Read That Sweet Story of Old." The text was written by Mrs. Jemima Thompson Luke, who was born on Aug. 19, 1813, at Colebrook Terrace, Islington, near London in Middlesex, England, the daughter of Thomas Thompson who founded the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, one of whose activities was the supplying of floating chapels for the use of seamen. Beginning to write at an early age, she was thirteen when her first poem was published in the Juvenile Magazine, and most of her work appeared anonymously. Once she even surprised her father when he called for the singing of a certain hymn in Sunday School and she was its author. Serious illness kept her from missionary work, but her interest in the mission field never waned and from 1841 to 1845 she edited The Missionary Repository, the first missionary magazine in England for children.
In 1841, while visiting the Normal Infant School on Grey’s Inn Rd. in London to study teaching methods, Jemima heard a Greek folksong melody (Salamis) used as a marching tune which interested her but she could find no religious words to fit it. Later, while riding alone in a stage coach to attend a missionary meeting in Wellington, she penciled two stanzas of eight lines each on the back of an old envelope in order to teach the tune to the children in the village school where her step-mother taught. A third stanza was added later to make it a missionary hymn. The hymn with the Greek folksong melody first appeared in the March, 1841, edition of the Sunday School Teacher’s Magazine. Its first hymnbook inclusion was in the 1863 Leeds Hymn Book, where it appeared unsigned. In 1843, when she was thirty, she married Samuel Luke who was a Congregational minister in Bristol. Her other works include The Female Jesuit of 1851, and A Memoir of Eliza Ann Harris of Clifton in 1859. After her husband’s death in 1868, Mrs. Luke continued her literary and charitable activities, retiring later in life to Newport, Isle of Wight, where she died on Feb. 2, 1906.
Many hymnbooks today still use the original Greek melody (now called Sweet Story) as arranged either by William Batchelder Bradbury in 1859 or by Winfred Douglas in 1918. Some books, such as Wonder Hymns of Faith edited by Charles R. Scoville, W. E. M. Hackleman, and J. E. Sturgis for the Standard Publishing Co. of Cincinnati, OH, for use among Christian Churches and instrumental Churches of Christ, set the hymn to an old Irish folk melody (Davenant) for which Thomas Moore wrote his once popular air "Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms." The only one of our books to include the song had a tune composed by J. C. Englebrecht. I have been unable to find any further information on this composer. Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "That Sweet Story of Old" appeared in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson.
The song reminds us of how much Jesus loved children and how much He loves all of us.
I. Stanza 1 transports us to the Biblical event in question when Jesus blessed the children
"I think, when I read that sweet story of old,
When Jesus was here among men,
How He called little children as lambs to His fold,
I should like to have been with Him then."
A. The particular sweet story of old to which the song refers is the account where mothers brought their children to Jesus that He might bless them: Matt. 19:13-15
B. This occurred when Jesus was here among men, in the flesh: Jn. 1:14
C. On more than one occasion He called little children as lambs to His fold: Matt. 18:1-2
II. Stanza 2 wishes that we might have been there with Jesus at that time
"I wish that His hands had been placed on my head,
That His arms had been thrown around me,
And that I might have seen His kind look when He said,
‘Let the little ones come unto Me.’"
A. Though His hands cannot be literally placed on our heads, we can still believe in Him: Jn. 20:29, 1 Pet. 1:8
B. Thus, we can still rest in His arms, spiritually speaking: Deut. 33:27
C. We should remember His statement, "Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them": Mk. 10:13-14
III. Stanza 3 points out that we can still have contact with Jesus in prayer
"Yet still to His footstool in prayer I may go,
And ask for a share in His love;
And if I thus earnestly seek Him below,
I shall see Him and hear Him above."
A. While we cannot go to Jesus as these children did, we can still go to Him in prayer as our High Priest: Heb. 4:14-16
B. And in prayer we can ask of Him those things that we need, making our requests known to Him: Phil. 4:6
C. We can also have the hope that by earnestly seeking Him below, we shall see Him as He is when He returns: 1 Jn. 3:1-2
IV. Stanza 4 assures of that we can have eternal companionship with Jesus in heaven
"In that beautiful place He has gone to prepare
For all who are washed and forgiven,
The many dear children shall be with Him there,
For ‘of such is the kingdom of heaven.’"
A. Jesus has gone to His Father’s house to prepare us a beautiful place: Jn. 14:1-3
B. This place is for those who are washed and forgiven: Eph. 5:26-27, Tit. 3:5, Rev. 1:5
C. Hence, all people need to humble themselves and become as little children, "for of such is the kingdom of heaven": Matt. 18:3-4
V. Stanza 5 broadens the outlook to invite children of all places and times to come to Jesus
"But thousands and thousands who wander and fall
Never heard of that heavenly home;
I wish they could know there is room for them all,
And that Jesus has bid them to come."
A. Thousands and thousands do wander and fall because all have sinned: Rom. 3:23
B. They need to know that there is room for them all in the sheepfold: Jn. 10:16
C. Thus, we must tell the world that Jesus has bid them to come to Him: Matt. 11:28-30
VI. Stanza 6 looks forward to a time when children and people of every clime are blessed by Jesus
"I long for the joy of that glorious time,
The sweetest and brightest and best,
When the dear little children of every clime
Shall crowd to His arms and be blest."
A. Those who long for the joy of that glorious time will surely strive to preach the gospel to every creature: Mk. 16:15-16
B. The sweetest, brightest, and best of early disciples did just that: Acts 8:4
C. And the result was that many crowded to the spiritual arms of the Savior and were blest as the whole world had the gospel preached to it: Col. 1:23
CONCL.: Albert E. Bailey wrote of what is the final stanza above, "The last four lines do not necessarily refer to heaven, as most commentators suppose." Certainly it is true that all faithful believers hope and work for a time even on earth when this vision might be fulfilled, but it will eventually find its final application in the heavenly home above. For Englebrecht’s tune, each of Mrs. Luke’s original stanzas must be divided in half, making a total of six four-line stanzas. Also, the tune calls for a "refrain" at the end of each stanza, consisting of a double repetition of the last line followed by a D.S. repetition of the last two lines. The fact is that everyone, both young and old, needs to hear "That Sweet Story of Old."