Of all Doddridge’s hymns, O God of Bethel is probably the best known. It was one of his earliest hymns, being written in 1731. The original manuscript still exists, and is headed ‘Jacob’s vow’, the theme being derived from the patriarch’s first encounter with God.
The version of the hymn most commonly sung is a revision of the original by Rev. John Logan, first published in his Poems (1781). The version that came from Doddridge’s quill reads as follows:
O God of Jacob by whose hand
Thine Israel still is fed,
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our fathers led.
To thee our humble vows we raise,
To thee address our prayer,
And in thy kind and faithful breast
Deposit all our care.
If thou, through each perplexing path,
Wilt be our constant guide;
If thou wilt daily bread supply,
And raiment wilt provide;
If thou wilt spread thy shield around,
‘Til these our wand’rings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode
Our souls arrive in peace:
To thee, as to our Covenant-God,
We’ll our whole selves resign;
And count, that not our tenth alone,
But all we have is thine.
While it cannot be questioned that Logan’s revision is a splendid one, it almost qualifies as a separate hymn.
The last three verses of the original depend more closely on one another than do Logan’s. Corporate singing requires a certain degree of self-contained completeness in individual verses, and this facility is lacking in the original but present in the revised version.
Whichever author is entitled to a greater share of the honours, O God of Bethel is a justly celebrated piece. It has been sung in times of peace and times of war. For two centuries, it has been used on national days of humiliation, thanksgiving and prayer.
His Majesty King Edward VII found the hymn a great source of help, and it was sung at his funeral. It was also the favourite hymn of David Livingstone, who derived unspeakable comfort from its lines during his wanderings through Africa.
Fittingly, the hymn was sung for Livingstone’s funeral at Westminster Abbey by a vast congregation, which filled the national shrine to capacity.
The eminent William Ewart Gladstone, Prime Minister in the reign of Queen Victoria, was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey to the strains of this hymn. The hymn was also sung during the silver Jubilee service of Her Majesty the Queen at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1977.
Surely, O God of Bethel requires no further commendation; it has served God’s people well.
Dr Routley called our next example ‘another forgotten treasure’. Here we have Doddridge’s Augustan expression of his passionate Puritanism. For him, the purity, preservation and triumph of the church were essential features of the salvation, character and destiny of God’s people. He wrote:
Triumphant Zion, lift thy head
From dust, and darkness, and the dead,
Though humbled long, awake at length,
And gird thee with thy Saviour’s strength.
Put all thy beauteous garments on,
And let thy various charms be known;
The world thy glories shall confess,
Deck’d in the robes of righteousness.
No more shall foes unclean invade,
And fill thy hallowed walls with dread;
No more shall hell’s insulting host
Their victory, and thy sorrows boast.
God from on high thy groans will hear;
His hand thy ruins shall repair;
Rear’d and adorn’d by love divine,
Thy towers and battlements shall shine.
Grace shall dispose my heart and voice
To share, and echo back her joys;
Nor will her watchful monarch cease
To guard her in eternal peace.
Doddridge was thoroughly persuaded of the practice of covenant baptism (believers and their children). Not surprisingly, he wrote a beautiful baptismal hymn for children. In the final verse, Doddridge probably had his daughter ‘Tetsy’ in mind:
See Israel’s gentle Shepherd stand
With all-engaging charms;
Hark how he calls the tender lambs,
And folds them in his arms!
‘Permit them to approach’, he cries,
‘Nor scorn their humble name;
‘For ’twas to bless such souls as these,
‘The Lord of angels came’.
We bring them, Lord, in thankful hands,
And yield them up to thee;
Joyful, that we ourselves are thine,
Thine let our offspring be.
Ye little flock, with pleasure hear:
Ye children, seek his face;
And fly with transport to receive
The blessings of his grace.
If orphans they are left behind,
Thy guardian-care we trust:
That care shall heal our bleeding hearts,
If weeping o’er their dust.
Dr Routley claims that Doddridge was the inventor of hymns which express ‘the social implications of the gospel’. Surprisingly, however, one looks in vain in the textual index of the 1904 Methodist Hymn Book for a hymn on the Good Samaritan.
Yet Doddridge did produce this concise and challenging gem:
Father of mercies, send thy grace
All-powerful from above,
To form in our obedient souls
The image of thy love.
O may our sympathising breasts
That generous pleasure know
Kindly to share in others’ joy,
And weep for others’ woe!
When the most helpless sons of grief
In low distress are laid,
Soft be our hearts their pains to feel,
And swift our hands to aid.
So Jesus looked on dying men,
When thron’d above the skies,
And, ‘midst the embraces of his God,
He felt compassion rise.
On wings of love the Saviour flew
To raise us from the ground,
And made the riches of his blood
A balm for every wound.
Of all the hymns of Philip Doddridge, it is difficult to determine which was his first composition. But it is tempting to think that his last might have been one headed ‘PraisingGod through the whole of our existence’.
The entire hymn is a perfect testimony to Doddridge’s life and serves to introduce us to our final observations.
The second verse obviously alludes to the stresses and strains of his busy life. As he wrote in a recently discovered letter to George Whitefield: ‘the composition of [hymns] often refresh my soul’. It also reminds us of the author’s personal motivation as a hymn writer.
This hymn is the portrait of a great soul filled with a great sense of God’s goodness, grace and glory. To Doddridge, the first principle of the Christian life is praise; the second principle is also praise; and likewise the third!
Doddridge was at his happiest when he was praising God. Let him lead us in so noble and exalted a work as together we praise the God of our salvation.
A work so sweet
God of my life, through all its days
My grateful powers shall sound thy praise;
The song shall wake with opening light,
And warble to the silent night.
When anxious cares would break my rest,
And griefs would tear my throbbing breast,
Thy tuneful praises rais’d on high
Shall check the murmur and the sigh.
When death over nature shall prevail,
And all its powers of language fail,
Joy through my swimming eyes shall break,
And mean the thanks I cannot speak.
But O! when that last conflict’s o’er,
And I am chain’d to flesh no more,
With what glad accents shall I rise,
To join the music of the skies!
Soon shall I learn th’ exalted strains,
Which echo o’er the heavenly plains;
And emulate, with joy unknown,
The glowing seraphs round thy throne.
The cheerful tribute will I give,
Long as a deathless soul can live;
A work so sweet, a theme so high,
Demands and crowns eternity.