Hymns have been called the poetry of the people, theologically rich songs written and sung to both worship the Lord and sometimes even soothe and allay the worries of those singing them.
When it comes to classic hymns of Church history we need to hold onto in trying times, it’s difficult to do any better than, “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.”
Written by William Williams in 1745, the Welsh poet is credited with penning over 900 hymns, but none more revered than this robust selection that remains one of the most popular of the faith.
Because Williams never wrote an autobiography and often toiled away quietly under most everyone’s radar, little is known about him. Growing up on a farm in South Wales, we do know he attended a “Non-conformist church” – a congregation that parted ways with some doctrines of Anglicanism. That may sound more dramatic than it really was – many popular denominations carried that label, including Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists, to name a few.
We also know Williams didn’t credit his childhood church with his conversion but rather a preacher and teacher named Howell Harris. Coming to church in Talgarth, Wales one Sunday, Williams heard Harris preaching in the neighboring cemetery. He was deeply moved by the warning of the coming judgment.
Originally intending to become a physician, Williams entered the ministry. As a Methodist pastor he traveled extensively helping lead the Welsh revival. Pastor Harris would eventually appeal to Williams to write hymns for the church, a task he happily accepted. As it was, “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” is said to reflect the many challenges the pastor faced as he traveled and preached.
Also borrowing from Exodus and Joshua in the Old Testament, the hymn begins:
Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land:
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand;
Bread of Heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.
All these years later, that prayer and plea still applies to us. In an increasingly secular and temporal world, Christians are pilgrims. And as churches empty and believers face varying forms of persecution for their faith, the landscape once more seems impoverished. We can’t effectively tackle any of this on our own – we need the Lord’s strong and steadying hand:
Open now the crystal fountain
When the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through:
Be thou still my strength and shield.
Just as the Lord led Moses and the Israelites, He still directs us in these troubled times. In fact, as the song alludes to, from water to food to leadership, He provides everything we need.
The traditionally final verse ends in triumphant fashion:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side:
Song of praises,
I will ever give to thee.
Of course, this verse points to the Israelites finally reaching the Promised Land. The victory wasn’t because of their efforts, but because of God’s grace. Like then, anxiety still runs high today, and even sometimes for people of faith. But for Christians, the Lord’s sovereign will prevails, a fact that should bring strength and solace.
Dr. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, a physician turned pastor who could relate to William Williams’ professional conversion, was also a big fan of the prelate poet’s hymn writing.
“The hymns of William Williams are packed with theology and experience,” he once said. “You get greatness, bigness and largeness with Isaac Watts. You get the experiential side wonderfully in Charles Wesley. But in William Williams you get both at the same time and that is why I put him in a category entirely on his own – he taught the people theology through his hymns.”
If believed, embraced, and put into practice, that theology can bring us great comfort and assurance that even in these uneven times, the Lord is still guiding us every step of the way.
Image from Shutterstock.