A Hymn for Our Time
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” wrote Yeats in “The Second Coming.” He penned those words in 1919, but as David Lehman once observed in the Wall Street Journal, those words provide a “summary of the present age.”
Yet through it all, God is at work even when things look bleak—perhaps especially when things look bleak. There’s a great hymn from the 1800s that reminds us of this. It’s is James Russell Lowell’s classic, “Once to Every Man and Nation.”
It is a hymn for our time—with all the setbacks and ebbs and flows in the advance and seeming regress of the gospel and Judeo-Christian morality.
This hymn, sung to the tune of “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” is such an American classic that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. read the words to his followers as an encouragement at a critical juncture in his movement.
Everyone knows that more than fifty years ago, the civil rights marchers had their famous struggle across the bridge in Selma, Alabama on the way to Montgomery. What is not as well known is that when they finally made it over, the Baptist minister read the words of this obscure hymn.
Here are the words of that hymn, which I slightly updated for clarity:
“Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide.
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side.
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight.
And the choice goes by forever, between that darkness and that light.
“Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust.
Before her cause brings fame and profit, and ‘tis prosperous to be just.
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Until the multitude make virtue of the faith it had denied.
“Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong.
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong.
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”
This last verse in particular is the one that gets me. Sometimes it does seem like evil is triumphing. But then in a moment God changes things. Even when nobody expects it.
My long time pastor, Dr. D. James Kennedy, once said this:
“Who would have thought:
*In that hour when Lazarus lay stinking in his tomb, that soon he should be rejoicing around the table with his Redeemer;
*That when Jonah was in the depths of the sea that soon he would be preaching at Nineveh;
*That when Nebuchadnezzar, the mighty monarch of Babylon, was out munching on the grass in the forest, that one day soon he would again be sitting upon the throne in Babylon;
*That when Joseph was deep in the prison in Egypt, that soon he would be prime minister of the greatest nation in the world at that time;
*That when Job was sitting there on a dunghill scraping off his sores in the midst of his sorrow, that soon he would be rise up and be richer and more blessed in everything in this world?”
God turning things around unexpectedly happened many times in the life of Athanasius, the 4th century saint, who was the champion of the Trinity. For his views, he was banished five times from the Roman Empire (outwardly Christian at that time). But he never gave up.
Athanasius’ views prevailed and are reflected in the version of the Nicene Creed that is still read week after week by hundreds of millions around the world.
Athanasius was on the scaffold many times, but that scaffold swayed the future. More than a millennium later, the Christian Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce (1759-1833), was fighting slavery in the British Empire. As evangelist John Wesley was dying, he wrote Wilberforce a letter.
He penned, “MY DEAR SIR, Unless the Divine Power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum [Athanasius against the world], I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy [i.e., slavery] which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” To paraphrase: “William, unless God is in this, you will fail.”
Often in history it seems the bad guys are winning. But we should take heart because the Lord knows what is going on and in His time will make things right.
Those who have written off the Christian cause in our world—and certainly it has seen its share of defeats lately—may yet be surprised when God arises. As another hymn (“We Gather Together”) puts it, “So from the beginning the fight we were winning; Thou, Lord, were at our side, all glory be Thine!”