Friday, March 6, 2020

Hymns in Time of Pestilence

Time for an overseas holiday?

Daniel Defoe (c. 1660-1731), in his 1722 work A Journal of the Plague Year, portrays his narrator, stranded in London during its last great plague of 1665, as doing much as any conscientious believer ought in time of prudent self-isolation and enforced quarantine:

Terrified by those frightful objects, I... retire[d] home... and resolve[d] to go out no more; and... I [kept] those resolutions for... days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family, and the constant confession of my sins, giving myself up to God every day, and applying to Him with fasting, humiliation, and meditation. 

As we enter upon the coronavirus pandemic – may it be mild, not severe; may but few suffer, not many; may we repent and beg mercy; God’s will be done – here are some old hymns by Protestant writers that demonstrate a full-blooded Scriptural acceptance of plague and pestilence as instruments chosen by the Almighty to inflict salutary punishment upon us sinful mortals, who ought read these signs of the times aright, and therefore repent and implore the Lord’s clemency, that we may not endure his wrath.

The first two were written by James Montgomery (1771-1854) and issued as “Hymns to be sung on the Day of Humiliation, Wednesday, August 22nd, 1832”, as observed in Sheffield, England, to pray for the cessation of a cholera outbreak: 

Hymn 1. (C.M.) [I omit the original first verse]
1. Let priests and people, high and low,
Rich, poor, and great, and small,
Invoke, in fellowship of woe,
The Maker of them all.  
2. For God hath summoned from his place
Death in a direr form,
To waken, warn, and scourge our race,
Than earthquake, fire, or storm.  
3. Let churches weep within their pale,
And families apart;
Let each in secrecy bewail
The plague of his own heart.  
4. So, while the land bemoans its sin,
The pestilence may cease,
And mercy, tempering wrath, bring in
God’s saving health and peace. 
Hymn 2. (L.M.) 
1. It is the Lord!—Behold his hand
Outstretched with an afflictive rod;
And hark! a voice goes through the land,
“Be still, and know that I am God.”  
2. Shall we, like guilty Adam, hide
In darkest shades our darker fears?
For who his coming may abide,
Or who shall stand when he appears?  
3. No,—let us throng around his seat;
No,—let us meet him face to face;
Prostrate our spirits at his feet,
Confess our sins, and sue for grace.  
4. Who knows but God will hear our cries,
Turn swift destruction from our path,
Restrain his judgments, or chastise
In tender mercy, not in wrath?  
5. He will, he will, for Jesus pleads;
Let heaven and earth his love record;
For us, for us he intercedes,
Our help is nigh:—it is the Lord.

The next hymn is a selection from the metrical paraphrase made by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) of the first part of Psalm 91 (Psalm 90 in the Vulgate), significantly subtitled “Safety in public diseases and dangers” from his masterful version of The Psalms of David (1719), utilising stanzas 6, 5, 7, 9 and 10 – the reordering gives a better sense:

Hymn. (L.M.) 
1. If vapours with malignant breath
Rise thick, and scatter midnight death,
Israel is safe; the poisoned air
Grows pure, if Israel’s God be there. 
2. If burning beams of noon conspire
To dart a pestilential fire,
God is their life; his wings are spread
To shield them with a healthful shade. 
3. What though a thousand at thy side,
At thy right hand ten thousand died,
Thy God his chosen people saves
Amongst the dead, amidst the graves. 
4. But if the fire, or plague, or sword,
Receive commission from the Lord
To strike his saints among the rest,
Their very pains and deaths are blest. 
5. The sword, the pestilence or fire,
Shall but fulfil their best desire;
From sins and sorrows set them free,
And bring thy children, Lord, to thee.

And my last choice of hymns for these troublous times is taken from Hymns Ancient and Modern, being written by William Bullock (1798-1874):

Hymn. (C.M.) 
1. In grief and fear to thee, O Lord,
We now for succour fly;
Thine awful judgements are abroad,
O shield us lest we die. 
2. The fell disease on every side
Walks forth with tainted breath;
And pestilence, with rapid stride,
Bestrews the land with death. 
3. O look with pity on the scene
Of sadness and of dread;
And let thine Angel stand between
The living and the dead. 
4. With contrite hearts to thee, our King,
We turn who oft have stray’d;
Accept the sacrifice we bring,
And let the plague be stay’d. Amen.

No comments: