The hymns of Charles Wesley (2)
We have noted that there is an enduring popularity to Charles Wesley’s hymns, especially when set to rousing tunes, and we have already looked at some of these (January ET).
Now let’s consider two more great Wesley hymns. Of O love divine, how sweet thou art! one Methodist commentator said, ‘This is one of the hymns of Charles Wesley, which enabled Methodism to sing itself into the heart of the human race. It … has found an honoured placed in the hymn book of almost every other denomination’.
Another writer commented that it contains an extraordinary depth of feeling and desire — eager, impatient, resolute, combined with an extended view of God’s love, such as only a poet of much heart-experience could write.
Essentially the hymn expresses a person’s longing to cleave to God, rooted and grounded entirely in him:
O love divine, how sweet thou art!
When shall I find my willing heart
All taken up by thee?
I thirst, I faint, I die to prove
The greatness of redeeming love,
The love of Christ to me!
We may think our present experience of God’s love is all there is to know. But when we consider God’s infinity, this can hardly be so. Who are we to limit God? And Wesley was aware of this:
Stronger his love than death or hell;
Its riches are unsearchable.
Even the angels cannot comprehend the depths of God’s love:
The first-born sons of light Desire in vain its depths to see,
They cannot reach the mystery,
The length, and breadth, and height.
The angels are so fascinated by their Creator that they try to understand his ways. Of course, having never sinned and so not having experienced redemption, they cannot directly experience God’s love in Christ as we sinners can. It remains true that:
God only knows the love of God.
Only God really knows the depths of his own love. And so Wesley pleads for an overwhelming measure of it:
O that it now were shed abroad
In this poor stony heart!
For love I sigh, for love I pine:
This only portion, Lord, be mine,
Be mine this better part!
Then Wesley uses different people from the Bible to illustrate various responses to the effusion of God’s love into the heart. He affirms that their experience can be his too:
O that I could for ever sit
With Mary at the Master’s feet!
He says, like Mary:
My only care, delight, and bliss,
My joy, my heaven on earth, be this,
To hear the Bridegroom’s voice!
Next, there is Peter and his humbling denial of Christ, followed by deep repentance:
O that with humbled Peter I
Could weep, believe, and thrice reply
My faithfulness to prove.
Finally, there is John, the beloved disciple:
O that I could with favoured John
Recline my weary head upon
The great Redeemer’s breast!
From care, and sin, and sorrow free,
Give me, O Lord, to find in thee
My everlasting rest.
Strangely, the seventh and last verse, does not appear in Wesley’s hymnal, but is found in Wesley’s poetical works (Vol. 4):
Thy only love do I require,
Nothing in earth beneath desire,
Nothing in heaven above;
Let earth, and heaven, and all things go,
Give me thy only love to know,
Give me thy only love.
The passion of both Wesley brothers, John and Charles, was to know God’s love. But this craving did not hinder them from serving the Lord. Rather, it meant presenting the gospel message to as many people as they could.
In fact, this intense hymn was written during a time when Charles Wesley was continually facing persecution and labouring with amazing energy for the salvation of his fellow human beings. These verses portray the devotional life of a public man who always put first things first.
Charles Wesley’s Come O thou traveller unknown is one of the all-time classic hymns. In fact, so influential and powerful was this hymn that probably more tunes were written specifically for it than any other hymn.
Scanning rapidly through various hymn and tune books, I found tunes called Parker’s traveller, Traveller, Peniel, Wrestling Jacob, and Jacob and the dawning — names that all speak for themselves.
In this hymn, Wesley recounts the ancient narrative of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:24-32) and applies it to his personal spiritual experience, thereby illustrating ‘his own fierce struggle for the vision of God’ (J. Ernest Rattenbury, The evangelical doctrines of Charles Wesley’s hymns, Epworth Press). This comes out in the very first two lines:
Come, O thou traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
Like Jacob, he says, ‘I am left alone with thee’. In the loneliness, the One he is wrestling with asks him his name. But, unlike Jacob, he replies that no answer is necessary, because:
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on thy hands and read it there.
But the real question remains unanswered:
But who, I ask thee, who art thou?
Tell me thy name, and tell me now.
This mystery must be solved once and for all. What is the true name or nature of this Man whose blazing purity condemns him? He must know the answer.
You can see that every detail of the Jacob narrative is treated as if it were an event in Wesley’s own experience. The intensity of his longing is unlimited. Even if he is maimed in the struggle, he is determined to continue wrestling:
With thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.
In vain thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
The secret of thy love unfold;
Wrestling I will not let thee go,
Till I thy name, thy nature know.
Although he is being beaten in this unequal contest, he disregards his ‘shrinking flesh’. That doesn’t matter, for such weakness is his strength. In the end, it is only by weakness he can prevail. That is the way of the cross!
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak then I am strong;
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.
At last, victory dawns! The more his human strength shrinks, the nearer victory is in sight. His words sound like defeat, but when we decrease, then God increases. At that point true faith enters in:
Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer.
And so he makes his trembling but hopeful challenge in the faith which, so to speak, conquers God:
Speak, or thou never hence shall move,
And tell me if thy name is love.
Then comes victory. He has learnt what God means and all doubt vanishes:
‘Tis love! ‘Tis love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure universal love thou art;
To me, to all, thy mercies move;
Thy nature, and thy name, is love.
That is the climax of his discovery. And now Charles Wesley speaks of the new day which follows the struggle of the dark night. This is how he paraphrased the Scripture words ‘the sun rose on Penuel’:
The Sun of Righteousness on me
Hath risen with healing in his wings.
He has discovered ‘Jesus, the feeble sinners’ friend’ and knows that he can trust him:
Nor wilt thou with the night depart,
But stay and love me to the end.
And so he is content to rest on his broken thigh:
All helpless, all weakness, I
On thee alone for strength depend.
He now faces the future with triumphant joy. He may be maimed, but he can sing:
Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home.
So in these vivid and dramatic words, Charles Wesley told the story of his own discovery of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. This account of intense, personal spiritual conflict portrays what can happen to anyone whom God really takes hold of.
It tells us how sinful people can achieve the vision of God and receive his power, as pride is broken into self-despair. So trust is born that penetrates into the mystery of God, to discover that ‘God is love’.
Mike R. Taylor