Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah

A Prayer for Strength to Go through the Wilderness of the World
William Williams, 1745; trans. by Peter Williams and the author, 1771-72
Addressed to God
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,Deut. 32:10-12; Is. 58:11
   pilgrim through this barren land;Deut. 8:15; Heb. 11:13-16
I am weak, but thou art mighty;2 Cor. 12:9-10
   hold me with thy pow’rful hand;Ps. 73:23-24; 139:10; Is. 41:13
Bread of heaven,Ex. 16; John 6:51
feed me till I want no more.Matt. 5:6; John 6:35
Open now the crystal fountain,Ex. 17:6; Is. 48:21; 1 Cor. 10:4
   whence the healing stream doth flow;Ezek. 47:12; Rev. 22:2
let the fire and cloudy pillarEx. 13:21; 40:38
   lead me all my journey through;Ps. 48:14
strong Deliv’rer,2 Sam. 22:2; Ps. 18:2, 144:2
be thou still my strength and shield.Ps. 28:7
When I tread the verge of Jordan,Josh. 3
   bid my anxious fears subside;Ps. 23:4; 34:4; Phil. 1:20; Heb. 2:14-15
Death of death, and hell’s Destruction,1 Cor. 15:54; Rev. 2:11; Rev. 20:14
   land me safe on Canaan’s side;2 Tim. 4:18
songs of praisesPs. 95:2
I will ever give to thee.Ps. 89:1; Rev. 5:13

Anyone reading the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Joshua (as opposed to slowly studying them) will soon discover that this story—of the liberation, pilgrimage, and arrival of God’s covenant people—seems to be both a historic account of God’s mercy and an archetype for the Christian life. Certainly it must have seemed so to William Williams, the Welsh preacher who wrote the hymn above. Drawing on imagery from the Exodus that reappears later in Scripture to find fuller significance, Williams shows us first the Christian’s pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world and then the crossing into the heavenly promised land. In doing so, he arrives at a hymn not only rich in biblical language, but one whose entire conceit is scriptural—the Exodus from Egypt and the sojourn in the wilderness really do correspond to our conversion and earthly sanctification. The crossing into Jordan really does correspond to our bodily death and entrance into God’s rest. The third chapter of Hebrews gives us plenty enough license to see the correspondence if our own imagination weren’t enough.

The hymn’s first two lines make many references to the Hebrew exodus. God is here described as Jehovah—the covenant Lord of God’s people. The singer is identified as a pilgrim—one who makes a journey at God’s prompting. The land is “barren.” And Jehovah is a “guide.” But all these are oblique references. The concrete one comes in the fifth line where God is now called “Bread of heaven.” A delightful double intention is created in the last line of this stanza by the transitive and intransitive use of “want” and the way “no more” can also mean “no longer.” When Christ feeds us (1) we desire nothing more, and (2) we will never again be lacking.

In stanza 3 we, like Bunyan’s Christian and Hopeful, discover that one last obstacle stands in our way. “Now I further saw, that betwixt them and the gate was a river; but there was no bridge to go over, and the river was very deep. At the sight, therefore, of this river the pilgrims were much stunned; but the men that went with them said, ‘You must go through, or you cannot come at the gate.’” In “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” we pray that God would replace our fear of death with faith. The third line of the last stanza is a little tricky to follow until we realize that God is actually being here named. He himself is the Death of death and the Destruction of hell. The two things we feared the most are overcome for us by God himself.

The poem’s unfailing trochees and its small parcelled phrases make its sound and sense lively. This suits it well to John Hughes’s tune CWM RHONDDA (that is, “the valley of Rhondda,” the Welsh coal-mining region where this tune was first sung in 1905). The first four lines of text are set to two parallel periods (note that we sing “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” to the same music as “I am weak, but thou art mighty”). We sing the melody of lines 3-4 as both an answer to and a development of the melody of lines 1-2. Since CWM RHONDDA requires that the words of line 5 and the words of line 6 be sung twice, it’s helpful that the melody mimics itself at both points: measure 10 is the same as measure 9 but higher, and measures 13-14 follow the descending scale of measures 11-12 with only a little ornament added. The repetition in line 5 builds toward the climactic leap in line 6. The dominant chord at “shield”(st. 2) and “thee” (st. 3) is powerful and prolonged. Thus the music and the poem work together to communicate the pilgrim’s resolve not to lose sight of his Guide.