Safely through Another Week

John Newton, 1774; stanza 1, line 4 and stanza 3, line 1 by Thomas Westlake? 1796
Addressed to one another, then God
Safely through another week
   God has brought us on our way;Ps. 121:8
let us now a blessing seek,
   waiting in his courts today; Ps. 65:4
day of all the week the best,Gen. 2:3
emblem of eternal rest.Heb. 4:1–11; Rev. 14:13
While we pray for pard’ning grace,1 Kings 8:35–36; Ps. 25:11
   through the dear Redeemer’s name,John 14:13; Acts 10:43
show thy reconciling face;Num. 6:25; Ps. 80:3
   take away our sin and shame;
from our worldly cares set free,Deut. 5:15; Matt. 13:22
may we rest this day in thee.
Here we come thy name to praise,Ps. 22:22; 100:4; 102:21
   let us feel thy presence near;1 Cor. 14:25; 1 John 4:13
may thy glory meet our eyes,Ps. 27:4; 63:2
   while we in thy house appear:
here afford us, Lord, a tasteActs 20:7; Rev. 19:9
of our everlasting feast.
May thy gospel’s joyful soundPs. 89:15 (KJV)
   conquer sinners, comfort saints;John 5:25; Acts 2:37; 1 Cor. 1:18; Eph. 1:13
may the fruits of grace abound,Deut. 1:25; Is. 27:6; John 15:5; Col. 1:6
   bring relief for all complaints:Ezek. 47:12b
thus may all our Sabbaths prove,
till we join the church above.Heb. 12:23; Rev. 7:9

Anyone who has been convinced from Scripture to observe the Lord’s Day in accordance with the Fourth Commandment will agree, at least in principle, that it is something to sing about. God does not let us distract and exhaust ourselves in perpetual, earthly toil but liberates us for a whole day of refreshment, celebrating our redemption. It brings favorable conditions for seeking “the things that are above” (Col. 3:1). Historically, congregations have treasured the day by singing the excellent Sabbath hymns available to them, including the one we will discuss here or Watts’s “This Is the Day the Lord Has Made” or Christopher Wordsworth’s “ O Day of Rest and Gladness.” One has only to remember the pleasures of singing together about Christmas and Easter to begin to imagine something similar for the pre-eminent Christian feast.

Not that it is easy. In our first sentence above we acknowledged that, for some sabbatarians, it is only “in principle” that the commandment seems something about which to sing. The curse of Genesis 3:17 affects all seven days alike. The hard work of worship and the hard work of fellowship—not to mention poorly ordered services, casuistry, or the outright sins of legalism or resentment that God has not given us the kind of sabbaths we think we would like to have—make enjoying the Sabbath a challenge. How can something so marred accurately picture eternal rest and glorious worship in heaven?

The east German city of Leipzig is home to the Gewandhaus, arguably the world’s most venerable concert hall, where Felix Mendelssohn led the Gewandhaus Orchestra for a dozen golden years (1835–47) and where much of the world’s most beautiful music was first heard, including Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto (1811) and Brahms’s complete German Requiem (1869). Since 1781 the hall has been centrally adorned with a motto from Seneca, embossed in foot-high letters. RES SEVERA VERUM GAUDIUM (True Joy: a Serious Thing). Given the correspondence between spiritual growth and joy, it should not surprise when joy makes its demands. But it does surprise. Conditioned to identify pleasure with oblivion, we are continually amazed by the depth of pleasure to be had in life, in reality, in beholding, in paying attention to God’s revelation—amazed to discover we had, in fact, no idea what pleasure was. Surprised that rest comes with repentance. In singing a Sabbath hymn, we remind one another of where true joy is found, and we train ourselves to look for it.

The point in the opening of the hymn above is not safety but progress. We remind one another that God has brought us safely along our way, along a course or track that led (at least provisionally) to this place and to this activity—to this day, which God blessed and made holy. To his courts. He did so for a purpose: that its blessing—its pictured promise of rest—might be ours. Reminding one another of all this, we also urge one another to seek the blessing, which we do for the remainder of the hymn.

Before asking God to grant several particulars in stanzas 3–4, we first acknowledge our sinfulness and request reconciliation in stanza 2, for we know that to come near to God without a Redeemer is death to sinners (Lev. 16:1–3). The buried r sounds of “pray for pard’ning grace” emerge as prominent, initial r sounds in “dear Redeemer’s,” “reconciling,” and “rest”—sounds which, in turn, contrast markedly with the sibilants of “show,” “sin,” and “shame.” The fifth line contains a helpful double meaning. “Wordly cares” obviously refers to whatever occupies us during the week, our “worldly employments and recreations,” as the Westminster Confession put it. But, given (a) the sense of the stanza as a whole, (b) the Bible’s sometimes negative use of the word “world,” and (c) the fact that we call them “cares” (sorrows, troubles), the phrase can also invoke the figurative, so-called moral meaning of the Sabbath, in which we cease our sins and rest spiritually in God our Savior.

Stanza 3 is the heart of the hymn, comprising a summary description of human felicity. It amounts to three things: the act of loving the best thing (“here we come thy name to praise”), a sense that we are loved by the greatest lover (“let us feel thy presence near”), and contemplation of the best thing (“may thy glory meet our eyes”). However much we enjoy these throughout the week—in faithful work, in personal devotions, in Christian fellowship, in contemplating general revelation—quotidian joy is no replacement for (and to some extent it depends on) Lord’s Day exercises, because of the special freedom those exercises afford us to focus on God and because of his special presence in the called worship of his people. Psalm 42:2 says that to participate in such a service is to “appear before God.” Our hymn describes Lord’s Day bliss in sensory terms, which the gnostic will reject and the radical charismatic may abuse, but which are thoroughly biblical. We desire to “feel” God’s presence. That his glory meet our “eyes.” That he afford us a “taste” of our everlasting feast. Through the means of grace we would experience the work of the Holy Spirit and thus grow confident in our hope (Rom. 5:5).

Of our five senses, the one most critical to participation in God’s ordinances is reserved for the last stanza: “may thy gospel’s joyful sound conquer sinners, comfort saints.” (Note how the criss-crossed alliteration of these last four words delights the ear—the very organ alluded to.) Hearing the word read and preached, we meet God. This encounter has an effect on us. It is by faith and through the outward means of the word, sacraments, and prayer that we ordinarily receive the benefits of redemption. Our hymn calls these benefits the “fruits of grace,” which the catechized will immediately recognize as justification, adoption, sanctification, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end. Relief for all complaints, indeed. The hymn ends by asking God to make this happiness characteristic of all our sabbaths until the emblem is completely fulfilled and we join the church above.

The distinctive tune SABBATH assumes a melodic shape, rhythms, harmony, and overall form that picture rest. It would be even more restful if we sang it a step lower, in F major, as the composer published it (when he moved the melody from the tenor to the soprano in 1840; he also suggested that the tenor and bass fall silent in measures 9–12, for the first singing-through of lines 5–6 of the stanza, in an effect rather like that in “Joy to the World” and “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful”). The big descent to an emphasized dominant in measure 8 (at the end of the fourth line of the stanza) energizes the melody so we don’t flag in the second half, even as the descending contour of the emphasis maintains the peacefulness at which the tune aims.