“Watchman, Tell Us of the Night”

"…Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh…" (Isa. 21:11-12)

     INTRO.: A hymn which tells us that one of the blessings which came to the world through Jesus Christ was the light of a new day is "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night." The text was written by John Bowring (1792-1872). Author of several hymns, such as "In the Cross of Christ I Glory," "Father and Friend," and "God Is Wisdom, God Is Love," he published it in his 1825 Hymns: As a Sequel to Matins. It is said that the conversational style reflects the author’s travels and experiences in the service of the British Colonial government. Several tunes have been used with or suggested for this hymn, including one (St. George’s Windsor) which is usually associated with Henry Alford’s "Come, Ye Thankful People Come," but one (Antiphonal Hymn or Watchman) that was intended specifically for it was composed by Lowell Mason (1792-1872).  It is dated 1830 was first published in The Boston Handel and Haydn Society Collection of Church Music, tenth edition, of 1831. When Bowring was in China, he informed A. P. Happer, a minister, that he first knew of the poem’s employment as a hymn in 1834 or 1835 when he attended a prayer meeting of American missionaries in Turkey and heard it sung by them.  One might assume that they used Mason’s melody. 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 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 edited by E. L. Jorgenson. 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 (with a minor-key Welsh melody composed by Joseph Parry); and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; as well as the 2009 Favorite Songs of the Church edited by Robert J. Taylor Jr.

    The song interprets the "morning" in a Messianic sense as the coming of Christ’s new day to bless the earth with peace and truth.

I. In stanza 1 the morning star appears over the mountain rim
"Watchman, tell us of the night, What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height, See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, doth its beauteous ray Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day, Promised day of Israel."
 A. In his prophecy, Balaam saw a star that would arise out of Jacob: Num. 24:17
 B. Just as the morning star heralds the beginning of a new day, so Jesus is the bright and morning star: Rev. 2:16
 C. Therefore, He heralds the new day that dawns in our hearts: 2 Pet. 1:19

II. In stanza 2 the star rises and shines on more areas of darkness
"Watchman, tell us of the night; Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light, Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own; See, it bursts o’er all the earth."
 A. Other prophets predicted that when the Messiah came He would bring light to the world: Isa. 9:1-2
 B. When Jesus was born, the star that led the Wise Men to Him stopped at the place of His birth: Matt. 2:9
C. With the coming of Christ, the light of God burst over all the earth: Jn. 1:4-5

III. Stanza 3 the dawn flushes the sky with full day to realize the promise of the star
"Watchman, tell us of the night, For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight, Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease; Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace, Lo! the Son of God is come!"
 A. Just as when with the rising sun the morning dawns and darkness takes its flight, the promised Messiah is the Sun of righteousness: Mal. 4:2
 B. Therefore, we can let our wanderings cease and no longer walk in darkness but walk in the light: 1 Jn. 1:5-7
 C. The reason is that the Prince of Peace has come: Isa. 9:6

     CONCL.: This is a powerful hymn which Mason’s tune fits perfectly.  It is a shame that not more of our books have included it. Albert Edward Bailey wrote that while this work "has primary reference to the coming of Christ–prophesied long years ago, anxiously awaited, realized in the manger of Bethlehem…Bowring may have had in mind also the growing missionary movement." He then pointed out that the symbolism of Bowring’s hymn, with phrases like "higher yet that star ascends" and "the morning seems to dawn" and "see, it bursts o’er all the earth," may have envisioned the mounting concern of those who had the gospel for those who had it not, and concluded that this must be the reason that, along with "Jesus shall reign" and "From Greenland’s icy mountains," one of "the Church’s great missionary hymns" (in that day when churches were actually concerned with taking the gospel to the whole world) was "Watchman, Tell Us of the Night."


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