Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dressed in Living Green

The Jordan River, seen above, sometimes appears in the hymns about heaven that we've seen. The applicable metaphor derives from the story of the Israelites, having escaped from Egypt and spent forty years in the wilderness, finally crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, already established in the Old Testament as a place of abundance. Moses, their leader, had seen this promised land across the Jordan (Deuteronomy 34: 1-5) but did not survive long enough to get there.

This text by Isaac Watts draws from that story. It's said to have been inspired partly by a view of green fields over the estuary at Southampton, where Watts often walked. This hymn ranked at #30 in The Best Church Hymns (1899) and still appears in some hymnals, though it might not be quite so highly ranked today. More than one source I consulted called it one of the most beautiful of Watts's hymns.

There is a land of pure delight,
Where saints immortal reign;
Infinite day excludes the night,
And pleasures banish pain.

There everlasting spring abides,
And never with'ring flowers:
Death, like a narrow sea, divides
This heav’nly land from ours.

Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed in living green:
So to God's people Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.

But timorous mortals start and shrink
To cross this narrow sea;
And linger, shivering on the brink,
And fear to launch away.

O could we make our doubts remove,
Those gloomy thoughts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love
With unbeclouded eyes!

Could we but climb where Moses stood,
And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood,
Should fright us from the shore.

Isaac Watts, 1707; alt.
Aaron Wiliams, 1764

Some hymnals have omitted the third and fourth stanzas about doubt, but certainly that was more or less the point for Watts. In his Hymns and Spiritual Songs, where this text was first published, it was titled A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy.

Two hundred years after Watts, Alma White (who would certainly have known this hymn) wrote her own crossing-the-Jordan hymn which we have already seen. Doubt was not a part of her text either, but it doesn't seem that White ever had much to do with doubt, at least in her public persona.

No comments: