I Saw – Revelation 21

Bible Closeup

“I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). “And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev 21:22). Here are two more of John’s eye-witness accounts, two more of what “I saw,” when caught up into heaven and into the future.

The last three chapters of the book of Revelation show us something of what a new heavens and new earth will be like. There are lots of “new” things and lots of “no” things (things that will be no more).

Think first of what will be absent. There will be no more sea, nothing to divide and separate. Human life depends on the hydrologic cycle: evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. But in that day, life will be sustained by divine power and there will be no need for the sea any longer.

There will be no more death. Can you imagine a deathless world? Life which is really life? No specter of death hovering over you, no funeral cortege ever to wind its way to some desolate cold and windy cemetery (not sure why it always seems cold, windy, and rainy in cemeteries). And linked with the absence of death, no more sorrow, crying, or pain. All of these things linked with our former life, with our bodies which have been humiliated by sin, will be no more forever. We will have bodies raised in power and glory, not just by power and glory!

Then there will be changes in the cosmos as well. No sun, no moon, and no night. Does this suggest an eternal day? Our bodies will never weary and not need sleep. No longer will there be the “terror of the night” (Ps 91:5). Darkness will be banished, relegated to an old creation. All will be light. The sun which warms will no longer be necessary as we will walk in the light and warmth provided by the Lamb (Rev 21:23). Locked and barred doors and windows linked with earth will be exchanged for a gate that will never be shut. There will be continual access to the city. No lockdown in that day or “shelter in place” orders will ever be issued.

The curse will be no more (22:3). All the direct and indirect effects of sin will be gone forever. All the injustice of earth, the triumphing of the wicked and the oppression of the poor, the persecution of the godly, and the arrogance of the proud. No more disease or COVID-19 pandemics to bring the world to the brink of chaos!

And no more flesh to struggle with day by day! What a change! All the value systems of earth will be forgotten. Only what God values will remain.

But perhaps best of all, there will be no physical distance between us and the Lord Jesus. “His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face.” To serve undistracted, free from all the tainted motives which we struggle against, the half-hearted devotion, the self-awareness that plagues us – is a service to be coveted.

What about the “new?” Instead of listing all the new things which will mark that day, as seen by John, just listen now as the King ascends to His throne and gives His grand inaugural address to a worshiping and wondering world. “Behold, I make all things new.” “All things,” not just somethings. What is going to make this inaugural address unique is that there is an Administrator Who is able to carry out every part of His platform. His agenda will be totally “new.” He will start out with a New Heavens and a New earth. There will be a New Song to fill the streets of that New City. We will have new bodies, bodies suited for a celestial sphere and a ceaseless service. We will have bodies pulsating with life as we never knew it here on earth.

We will have a “new name” (Rev 2:17), an expression of His appreciation of us! We will live in the enjoyment of that for all eternity. Everything is going to be new. And as C. S. Lewis so eloquently described it, as we go further up and further in, we will continually discover more “new” things and revel in the grace that has brought us there.

As the pandemic and the resultant lockdown, distancing, mask-in-place situation drags on, we long for change. We want our “liberty” back and restrictions lifted. Whatever day it is that the change occurs, and we can walk around, shake hands, hug and greet, will be a great day. Going from restrictions to liberties is a thrilling thought. But that pales before the prospect of the ultimate change when there will be no more of all that has been the result of sin, COVID-19 included, and everything will be new!

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Better to travel expectantly than to arrive.” In other words, the expectation during the trip is better than the actual destination. We have all known that when it comes to plans and vacations on earth. But it will not be that way when we get to heaven. The expectation will pale before the majesty and wonder of the arrival!

I Saw – Revelation 19

It would be difficult to find a sight comparable in its majesty and its soul-thrilling grandeur than the sight which John received on that day when he saw heaven opened. Listen to his words which must have been spoken with unparalleled joy: “I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and He that sat upon him was called Faithful and True” (Rev 19:11).

What a sight for any mortal to behold! Heaven rent! A Rider issuing forth! A Revelation of a Conquering Christ! The One Whom men said was a fraud, will then be declared to be “True.”  The Man Whom men accused and judged to be a sinner; God will display as the “Faithful” One.

As we look around, so earth-bound as we are, the thought of heaven being opened and Christ descending to judge the assembled armies and the unholy trinity seems like a fairytale of a master spinner of stories. Yet, it is true, every word. The problem is with us, not with the eye-witness account of John.

From chapter 18 and on to the end of the book, John has ten “I saw” eye-witness accounts. This is only one of those ten. Each is thrilling in its own right. Here John sees a sight of the return of Christ to the earth accompanied by the hosts of heaven. That company associated with Him will include you and me. So we have a vested interest in that day. Elsewhere, Paul tells us that in that day He will come to be admired in all of us who believe and to be glorified in us as well (2 Thess 1:10). We are reminded that the manner in which we live now will enhance His glory in that day. Men will marvel at what He accomplished with such poor material as we are.

This day is worth waiting for with great expectations, expectations which will not be disappointed. For over 2,000 years, Christ has been denied all that belongs to Him. He has been blasphemed, labeled an impostor. Some have tried to sanitize humanity’s estimation of Him by calling Him a great teacher, a wonderful example of selfless service, a martyr, or someone who brought a great philosophic way of life to us. None of that is consistent with the claims He made: “I and the Father are One.” And, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” He is either Lord of all or the greatest fraud who ever lived!

These concepts of men will bear no resemblance to how He will be revealed when He comes. Look at the titles and pictures which John provides for us in the sight which he saw.

“His name is called, The Word of God.” He came as the Word with a message of grace at His first advent and men denied Him. He will come as God’s Word, His final message to men. They rejected the message, the Word, and refused to hear. Now God’s final message to them will be one of judgment. 

On His thigh will be written another name, “King of kings and Lord of lords.” In that day, this name will strike terror to the hearts of the followers of the beast who has claimed world-wide dominion. It will cause wonder and worship to a beleaguered Jewish remnant when they realize for the first time that the true Messiah for Whom they have waited is the One Who was here and Who died. In the words of Zechariah, they will “look upon Him Whom they pierced,” and a “fountain for sin” will be opened for their cleansing (Zech 12:10; 13:1).

But there is another wonderful truth contained in that name written on His thigh. It is not only the pronouncement of His Kingship, but the place where it is written, His thigh. In Jewish history and tradition, their patriarch, Jacob wrestled with God and had his hip dislocated. As a result, they did not eat of the “sinew which shrank which is upon the hollow of the thigh” (Gen 32:32). The thigh is a constant reminder of a broken man, a man who had to be subdued beneath the hand of God as he wrestled with Him. In contrast, Christ never needed to be “broken.” He was the One Who could ride upon the unbroken colt. He was, as in the picture of the red heifer in Numbers 19, the One Who never needed a yoke to control and subdue Him. He was always submissive to His Father.

But the thigh would also remind the nation of weakness. Jacob’s thigh was weakened by the touch of God during the all-night wrestling match. Upon the thigh of the Lord as He returns in might and power, is the reminder of the One Who will rule and reign over the nations. There is no weakness linked with Him. 

Thirdly, there is a name which “no man knew but He Himself” (v 12). His true worth and value can only be known amongst the Godhead. He will grow greater in our estimation as eternity rolls its course, but we will never know Him as His Father knows Him. But it will be the delight of the Godhead to eternally reveal fresh beauties to us: The Son declaring the Father and His character, the Father revealing the Son and His beauty. We will sit in the classroom of the great University of Heaven and learn unceasingly of the wonders of our God. Paul caught a small glimpse of this when he burst forth in his doxology of Romans 11: “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! … For of Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Whom be glory unto the ages” (Rom 11:33-36). There will be no commencement exercise from the University of Heaven, but course after course will be pursued throughout eternity.

Unsearchable riches, unsearchable grace, unsearchable wisdom and judgments, all revealed in unspeakable words. We are in school now; we are going to another school where we will not have the distractions which now hinder us, and we will have capacities for learning which will enable us to know and appreciate Him better.

I Saw – Proverbs 24

“Then I saw, and considered it well. I looked upon it and received instruction” (Prov 24:32). If we had eyes to see, the most commonplace and mundane, the most ordinary and repetitive would all serve as windows into spiritual realities. Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned long age, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.” 

Thus it was for our friend who was out for his walk in the country. His feet took him down a road upon which, perhaps, he had not ventured before. Passing the fields of growing crops, lush with the evidence of care and order, all harbingering a future day of bounteous reaping, he was impressed with the farmers and the industry evidenced from the fields upon which he looked. 

As he rounded a bend, however, a totally different field arrested his attention. Here was a vineyard that bore all the signs of neglect. If there was to be a harvest it would be an exceedingly exiguous one. He noted first that the wall was broken down. What once was kept out of the vineyard was now growing in the vineyard, side by side with the vines, choking life and robbing nourishment. There were thorns and weeds throughout. It was dry and barren, lacking water, but above all, lacking work by the owner. 

The wise observer could only hazard a guess as to the cause: “A little sleep, a little slumber … so shall thy poverty come” (ch 24:33).

What lessons, other than the value of work and the poverty which comes from slothfulness, did he, and can we, draw from this? “I saw” resulted in, “I received instruction.” What can we learn?

Lesson number one is that every field needs a wall. If I am to be like “a watered garden” (Isa 58:11), having fruit for the pleasure of God, then my life will require boundaries. To the western mind inebriated with the concept of individualism and freedom, the thought of boundaries is inherently abhorrent. It all reeks of legalism and restrictions, of lives bound by Victorian rules and mores. But the onlooker learned that a garden without boundaries would be open to invasion by everything that belonged on the outside.

The lesson he learned for his own spiritual life was that self-discipline is vital but also exceedingly difficult. To say “no” to legitimate pursuits, to place the Kingdom of God first, to maintain that mindset throughout the Christian life is a worthy and demanding goal. How you apply that to friendships, occupations, career goals, hobbies, entertainment, and time management are all personal things which you must work out in the presence of God. But you must establish some boundaries.

The field also needed weeding. As believers, we need to be active in weeding things from our lives. This is not to suggest a legalistic pursuit in an attempt at “perfecting holiness” (2 Cor 7:1). It does mean we need to ask God for the grace to not only keep things out but to remove things that can hinder fruitfulness for Him. Many of us have allowed weeds to grow and to hinder the development of fruit for Him.

It is obvious that the field needs water. Perhaps the most critical factor for the farmer or vine dresser is that water will make or break the crop. Times of drought inevitably lead to times of famine if no other source of water can be supplied. Water is frequently employed as a picture of the Word of God throughout the Scriptures. We need the Word of God daily in our lives. We need it not only for its cleansing effect, but for it refreshing and renewing influence. It is our lifeline to the throne, our food for daily living, our handbook on the road to heaven. It is here that we learn more of Him; it is here we glean handfuls of truth for worship. It is from the Scriptures that we learn of ourselves and of the grace and goodness of God. We need the “water of the Word.”

The lesson learned by our wise onlooker, however, is that the one ingredient sorely lacking was work. The owner of this field was sleeping, idle, indolent, and lazy. Walls, weeding, and water all presupposed someone working in the field and performing all of these vital functions. Laziness in spiritual things does not produce likeness to Christ. “Work” is exactly that; it is work. It is not that we merit fruitfulness by our efforts, but without effort and self-discipline, it is highly unlikely we will produce much fruit from the vine. In John 15, you might rightly argue, it is the Father Who does all the work of lifting the earth-bound vine and of purging the branch which is producing fruit. But there is a responsibility of the branches – to abide in the vine. 

Living in an age of mass distractions, even during a lockdown, we are easily distracted from what ought to be our priority in life. “Abiding” in the vine takes work. Each of us needs to prioritize ultimate goals and seek with God’s help to be willing to invest that work in light of the fruit.

So, we all need to open our eyes and allow all that heaven has “crammed into the earth” to educate us, to give us insights and spiritual lessons from all that is around us. Perhaps then we will be able like the wise man of Proverbs 24 to say, “I saw … and received instruction.”

I Saw – Asaph’s Vision

The human eye with the faculty of vision is an incredible gift, defying evolutionary explanations and enabling humanity to experience the beauty and wonder of creation. It makes possible the observation and the learning which results from it. It opens vistas of imagination provided by the thrill of reading. The blessings of vision are so numerous that they are difficult to detail. The human eye is an amazing organ, from cornea and lens, to the macula and the 120 million rods and 6 million cones which inhabit your retina. Then there are the pathways to the brain which enable us to “see” and interpret the image which has been projected. The eye is so finely tuned that it can distinguish between hundreds of colors; it is so well designed that it can recognize facial distinctions of thousands of people. Add to that the fact that God has given us a written Word for us to read and through which we find salvation, and we cannot thank God enough for the gift of vision.

But vision can also have its downsides. There is a man in the Old Testament who experienced just such a low tide in his spirit due to what he saw. “I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (Ps 73:3). Asaph was just about to throw in the towel, hang up his Bible bag, send in his letter of resignation to the local assembly, and practice the ultimate in social distancing for the remainder of his days. His steps were “well-nigh” to slipping. What he saw threw him into a tailspin of grief and despondency. The injustice, the prosperity of those who were profiting from others, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, and the silence of heaven all coalesced to deluge his soul with a sense of hopelessness.

As we look at the injustice around us, the double standard for the elite and the average citizen, the lack of logic in so much of what we are told to do and not to do, it is understandable that we are confused, despondent, and even angry at times. 

But being upset over conditions does not have to lead to pessimism and despondency. G.K. Chesterton highlighted this when he said, “There is a world of difference between sorrow and pessimism. Sorrow is founded on the value of something, and pessimism upon the value of nothing. In terms of hope for the future, this makes all the difference.”

Asaph experienced the triad of sorrow, perplexity, and despondency. He did, however, turn the corner and rise above the mood that had overwhelmed him like an enshrouding prison. It was the sanctuary experience that made all the difference. When he got alone with God, when his “vision” rose above the visible to the unseen, when his values took their standard from the sanctuary, suddenly all changed. Earthly prosperity and fame faded into insignificance. The temporal and eternal resumed the proper balance in his thinking. Once again, God ascended the throne of his heart and proud, orgulous humanity receded.

So marked was the reversal in Asaph’s thinking, that he burst forth with one of the most exalted paeans of praise found in the psalter. Its truth has been a bedrock for believers down through the ages. “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? And there is none upon earth that I desire beside Thee. My flesh and my heart faileth, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever” (vv 25, 26).

You do not have to look far to see the injustice, the double standards, the meaningless, and often illogical demands being made upon everyone. Day by day, goals change; weekly, extensions are made to “temporary” guidelines. What we see can cause that dark cloud to descend upon us with amazing rapidity. We do not live in a world that is fair; just trace the life of Paul the Apostle, the martyrs, or chiefest of all, our Lord Jesus Christ.

But we have an invitation which is staggering in its implications. Millennia back, God warned Aaron that he could not come at will into the Holiest “that he die not” (Lev 16:2). But you and I are told that we have an entrance into the holiest and can come with confidence at any time (Heb 10:19-22). It is only in the sanctuary that balance can be attained, and vision can be adjusted. For hearts that are “failing” amidst the current circumstances, try a dose of Asaph’s medicine: “God is the strength of my heart.”

I Saw – Isaiah’s Vision

It was August 28, 1963, when, standing at the Lincoln Memorial with 250,000 marchers at his feet, Martin Luther King gave his famous, “I have a dream” speech. With his unsurpassed eloquence and unique passion, ignoring the advice of his staff and a prewritten speech, he electrified his followers with his “I have a dream speech.” Most would admit, that although progress has been made, his dream lies unfulfilled. Yet his dream shaped and guided his life and that of countless others since that day. Visions are not merely the stuff of visionaries and mantic dreamers but controlling principles for living.

As noble and as praiseworthy as the vision of Dr. King might be, there has likely not been as awe-inspiring a vision as that which Isaiah experienced in his youth. It was dated by “the year that King Uzziah died” (Isa 6:1). The date is given not only to establish a time frame, but to paint the landscape which served to enhance and define this “career-changing” sight.

Uzziah reigned for 52 years, among the longest in Judah’s long history of kings. Very few people living in Judah could remember another king. His had been marked by a reign of prosperity. The borders of the nation had expanded. Reforms had been instituted. His army was renowned for its victories (2 Chron 26:6-15). Judah was prospering in every sense under this wise and godly king.

Sadly, when he was “strong,” he trespassed by going into the temple of God and trying to offer incense upon the golden altar. As a result, he was struck with leprosy in his forehead, necessitating his dwelling in a separate house and being cut off from the House of the Lord. 

Uzziah had died. The throne was now empty. Men looked to this king, they had depended upon him, but he was gone. The world of the average Judean had suddenly been turned upside down. With the removal of the good king, what would follow? What would his successor be like? Insecurity, uncertainty, and worry would be the normal reaction to what men “saw.” Isaiah, however, saw higher and farther than anyone else. “I saw the Lord, high and lifted up.”

He saw another throne, another temple, another altar, another sovereign, and another army. Isaiah saw a throne that was far above Uzziah’s throne. Here was the throne of the universe and a Throne Sitter Who bore no mark of leprosy; in contrast, He was marked by absolute holiness. Here was another Temple in which the Throne Sitter dwelt and into which Isaiah was brought. There was another incense altar upon which he could look. In contrast to Uzziah’s mighty army, the One upon Whom Isaiah looked was the Lord of the Hosts of heaven.  

Events on earth may change in dramatic fashion, kings rise and fall, armies march to victory and defeat, but the Throne in heaven remains. We need to constantly remind ourselves that above the events of earth, above the major players in the drama of life, there is a throne, a temple, and an army which do not take their cue from Washington, Wuhan, or Westminster.

Isaiah also saw farther than anyone else. To his “How long” (v 11), God said, “until.” God’s “untils” remind us that God has a program, it is finely calibrated, exact in its timing and execution. He can cause a monarch to lose sleep to elevate Mordecai; He can interject dreams to fulfill His promise to Joseph;  He can bring along Paul’s nephew at the right moment to overhear a conspiracy, enabling Paul to avoid assassination.

Can I jog our forgetful porous minds to remind us that God has an “until” so relevant to our day? “I will overturn, overturn, overturn, it: and it shall be no more, until he come whose right it is; and I will give it Him” (Ezekiel 21:27). We need not make ourselves anxious over conspiracy theories or bury ourselves under a cloud of despondency because of politicians using the crisis to promote their agendas. We have the privilege of standing on Isaiah’s shoulders and seeing higher and farther than even he saw. No, we are not invited physically into the throne room as he was, but with the telescope of Scripture to our eye, we can see a Throne Sitter Who is not only awesome in His greatness, but as our Father, abundant in His love. We can see not only the “until” of His future program for the earth, but the future He has assured for us.

Isaiah could say, “I saw.” Each of us can testify like one of old, “We have seen the Lord” (John 20:25). That sight should suffice and secure us amidst all the unnerving events swirling like a maelstrom around us. In a totally different context, Jeremiah could say “mine eye affecteth mine heart,” (Lam 3:51). What he saw on that occasion touched his heart, causing grief. But we can see a throne which should stabilize our hearts. Like Elisha, we can see what others cannot see; not the hills filled with the chariots of the Lord (2 Kings 6:17), but a God and Father Who sits unperturbed and undismayed, awaiting His “until.”

Hymn Writers who Overcame – Eliza Hewitt

The name of Eliza Hewitt may not be a household name, but her hymns are known to anyone who has attended Sunday School.

She was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1851. She was the second child in a family that would eventually have six children. She grew up during the tragic Civil War in America, being educated through those turbulent years. She was an intelligent young woman who graduated as valedictorian from the Girls’ Normal School which she attended. Subsequently, she became a teacher in the Philadelphia public school system. It was while working as a teacher that tragedy struck. It is alleged that she was struck by a student who used his heavy slate and hit her across her back while he was being disciplined. So, not all children in the 1800s were respectful and feared their teachers!

As a result, she became bedridden, being place in a heavy cast for six months. Confined to bed, she faced the same choices that each individual so affected has faced: “Will I become bitter over this or will I seek to use it in some way for others?” She gave herself to the study of English literature at first, and then began to write hymns. One of her first was:

Sing the wondrous love of Jesus, sing His mercy and His grace

In the mansions bright and blessed, He’ll prepare for us a place.

As she continued writing, her poems became well-known. One of her poems, “Winning souls for Jesus,” was placed in the cornerstone of the Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in West Philadelphia. Her poems were put to music by Professor W. J. Kirkpatrick. Soon, her writings were being sung in distant areas of the USA and beyond.

Many of her hymns were penned while an invalid in her home in Philadelphia. Adversity and tragedy were turned to the gold of heaven because a woman refused to become bitter and angry at the circumstances God allowed into her life. Eventually, however, she regained strength and was able to return to work as a teacher (it is rumored that she only distributed foam slates from that time on). She became a close friend of Fanny Crosby and the two often met to discuss their hymns. 

Other hymns which she penned in include: “When we all get to heaven,” “Will there be any stars in my crown?” “More about Jesus would I know.”

For a period of time, she lived at 804 South 10th St in Philadelphia, thus sharing with the writer the distinction of being raised in South Philadelphia. Sadly, the similarity ends there. She died April 24, 1920 and is buried in Woodlands Cemetery in the City.

There are lessons which may seem trite, and even hackneyed to some, but which her life illustrates so emphatically. When a sovereign God allows adverse circumstances into any life, it is not with a whimsical or curious intent to see how someone will react. His plans and purposes are rich with intent and potential blessings. His Providence may allow the circumstances; our faith will determine how we respond. To those who like the Fanny Crosbys and Eliza Hewitts of the world respond by a gracious submission, there is the satisfaction of lives marked by usefulness, and by an eternity promising compensation beyond calculation.

None of us may have a crippling back injury or sustain blindness from birth (Fanny Crosby). Each of us, however, will know at some time in life, circumstances which seem to change the course of life we have outlined for ourselves. It is then that we are tested and the result of that test will have eternal consequences. 

Hymn Writers who Overcame

There has likely not been anyone as prolific in the field of hymn writing, nor marked by such heights of hymnology, as Isaac Watts. A diminutive musical genius, he stood a total of five feet in height, yet His gigantic shadow still falls upon us in this age.

Isaac was born July 27, 1674 at Southampton, England, the eldest of nine children. His father was a Dissenter from the Anglican Church and on at least one occasion was thrown in jail for not following the Church of England. Isaac followed his father’s strong Biblical faith. He was a very intelligent child who loved books and learned to read early. He began learning Latin at age four and went on to learn Greek, Hebrew, and French as well. He showed a propensity to rhyming from an early age, and often even his conversation was in rhyme (some people we know speak in alliteration!). His father became quite annoyed at this and told him to stop. When the rhyming persisted, the father started to spank him, and little Isaac cried out:

“O father, do some pity take
And I will no more verses make.”  

Isaac would not follow the national Church of England, and so he was not able to attend the Universities of Cambridge or Oxford. No one apologized in that day for discrimination. He went to an academy sponsored by Independent Christians. It was during this time that he began as never before to study the Scriptures. In 1707 he published his first edition of Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

He knew suffering and illness. The Lord used Watts’ sufferings to produce a gentle, modest, and charitable spirit. Out of his compassion, one-third of his small allowance was given to the poor. Watts’ tenderness to children can be seen reflected in his lovely Divine Songs for Children, published in 1715.

The road to becoming a writer of hymns was quite unique in Watts’ experience. In the time in which he lived congregations sang only the Psalms in the churches. One day he complained to his father, AThe church ventures to sing a dull hymn or two at church, in tunes of equal dullness.” At which point, his father told him, “Why don=t you write some yourself, then?” So be careful what you complain about!

Watts would often take Psalms and paraphrase them into rhyme. Examples of Watts’ method can be seen in his paraphrases of Psalm 72 into the hymn “Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun,” Psalm 90 into “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” and Psalm 98 into “Joy to the World.”

We are indebted to none other than Ben Franklin for his assistance in making Watts known in the American colonies. He was the first to publish Watts’ psalm paraphrases in America in 1729. Franklin was not the only American publisher to take an interest in Watt’s hymns. His hymns were published in Boston, in 1739. They were well-loved by Americans of the Revolutionary period. 

Besides over 600 hymns, Watts published 52 other works, including a book of logic used in the universities, books on grammar, pedagogy, ethics, psychology, astronomy, geography, three volumes of sermons, and 29 treatises on theology. After his death on November 25, 1748, a monument to Watts was erected in Westminster Abbey. His greatest monument, however, are the hymns to his God still used by us today. He has rightly been called the Father of English Hymns.

But there is a lesson from his life, in the truth that you cannot have it all. Though he had a beautiful soul, apparently Isaac Watts was not much to look at. He was frail and often sickly. His head seemed too large for his five-foot-tall body; his small, piercing eyes and hooked nose did not enhance his appearance. A lady, Miss Elizabeth Singer, once fell in love with Isaac by reading his poetry. This led to a correspondence between them. When she met him face to face, however, she was very disillusioned, though he fell in love with her. He asked her to marry him, but her reply was, “Mr. Watts, I only wish I could admire the casket (jewelry box – the outer person) as much as I admire the jewel.” Watts never married, though the two remained good friends for over 30 years

A few of his hymns which we sing today include:

  • Alas and did My Savior Die
  • Not all the Blood of Beasts
  • When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
  • Jesus shall reign where e’er the sun 

Illness, discrimination, even a lack of physical appearance could have caused him to wallow in self-pity and despondency. Instead, he left a rich legacy to future generations through the hymns he contributed to us.

Hymns and their History

It might be good to refocus our attention from all that is around us and to consider some hymns which we cherish and appreciate. The name of Cecil Frances Alexander is hardly one that trips off your tongue every day. She was born in the Republic of Ireland and later lived in Londonderry. She was marked by compassion and care for others. She expressed that concern for those disadvantaged by traveling miles each day to the sick and poor, providing clothes, food, and medical supplies. She also founded a school for the deaf. All this was quite progressive in the 1800s.

She became well-known for her writing of children’s hymns and poetry. But she is best known to us by some of the hymns which came from her pen. The two which will occupy us in this brief discourse are linked by the two events which “bookend” the life of our Savior and by the fact that the two locations of which she wrote were a mere 6 to 8 miles apart.

At Christmas time we sing the words of one of her hymns:

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle-shed
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for His bed
Mary was that mother mild
Jesus Christ her little child

He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all
And His shelter was a stable
And His cradle was a stall.

But at the Breaking of Bread we often sing another touching hymn which moves from Bethlehem and a cradle to Jerusalem and a cross:

There is a green hill far away,
outside a city wall,
where our dear Lord was crucified
Who died to save us all.

We may not know, we cannot tell,
what pains He had to bear,
but we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.

Bethlehem and Jerusalem, at the one He was worshiped; at the other, He was mocked. At Bethlehem, He came down, but at Golgotha He was lifted up. We look to Bethlehem and remember He was a real man. We look to Calvary and remember He is our Great God and Savior (Titus 2:13) Who gave Himself for us. Cecil Frances Alexander captured the essence of both of these eternity-shaping events in her hymns of worship.

The full text of these hymns can be found in www.Christianmusicandhymns.com

Isolation

Although there are many other examples in Scripture of those who knew social distancing and isolation, the final individual to merit our attention is the Apostle John. Like some who are reading this (not all, of course), he was an aged person. He was on Patmos, a rock strew island off the coast of modern-day Turkey. It is only about 7 miles by 4 miles, so not a lot of hiking to do, and at age 90, not a lot of stamina to do it.

He was there because of being a Christian. No other accusation was leveled against him, but being a Christian was enough to get you banished and to experience some significant social distancing.

John, however, was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s day. I do not think that initially, this meant any ecstatic experience or some special level of spiritual attainment. Likely, it simply means that instead of engaging in a day of self-pity and despondency, he was determined to enjoy his spiritual blessings.

We are not told how long John was on Patmos before we are brought to the events of Revelation 1. He may well have spent many lonely and monotonous days on the island, watching the sunrise from one side of the island and then the setting sun on the western side. Days came and went with little to distinguish them apart from changes in the weather. His real interest, however, was not in the weather or the scenery (or lack of it). He was “in the Spirit,” communing with His Savior, even on Patmos.

And then, a day like no other occurred as suddenly he heard a voice behind him, and, as has been said, you know the rest of the story. The man who had known the closest physical and perhaps emotional relationship with the Lord, resting on His breast at the supper (John 13), now falls at His feet. To the exiled apostle is now granted a “revelation” of Christ which overwhelmed his soul, thrilled his heart, and filled his mind.

Exegetes may draw many wondrous truths from Revelation, theologians may argue over many points, prophetic teachers (and modern-day prophets) may opine on future events and the calendar of God, but the lessons we can draw are quite simple and on the surface.

Circumstances cannot hinder our enjoyment of Christ:

A barren island, harsh conditions, lack of social contact, and fellowship with other believers, even the advancing of age cannot hinder “being in the Spirit.” It is a choice I make. Do I want to bemoan my circumstances, wallow in my perceived deserved self-pity, rail against the events that have transpired? Or would I rather find enjoyment in fellowship with the Savior? You and I have a whole Savior to ourselves to enjoy.

Circumstances may afford a fresh revelation of Christ:

None of us will get the magnitude nor the majesty of the revelation which John received. God is not asking any of us to write a Revelation of future events. The circumstances in which John found himself, did lead to a knowledge of Christ he did not have prior to this. If you had asked any of the disciples which of them knew Christ the best, they might, in a moment of rare humility, have motioned to John. Yet, John had so much more to learn. Had we been able to interview John, it is likely would have said something to the effect of, “I never knew He was so majestic,” or, “I can’t believe that the One Who is so great allowed me so near.” Glory and grace would have cowed him in wonder and worship.

To my shame, I have to confess I have not had a fresh revelation of Christ through the pandemic. We might enjoy Christ, but have I learned anything new of His infinite person?

Circumstances cannot hinder usefulness for Christ:

When the Roman emperor banished John to Patmos, he did so with the certainty that he was limiting the influence of this aged patriarch on the upstart movement of Christianity which was seen as disloyal to the Caesar-cult. The island would serve as an effective end to John’s service.

God had other plans. Nothing and no one, including the Caesars of that day and of any day, can hinder God’s purposes and work. No one can limit the usefulness of a vessel for which God has purposes and plans. The form of John’s service may change, but his usefulness will only increase. He had written three epistles for believers; he had already penned a Gospel account for his generation of both unbelieving Jews and believers (still enjoyed by us today). Now God would entrust him with penning a volume, not only for seven assemblies in Asia, but for all believers down through the centuries. His usefulness was not only intact but expanded.

May we learn to be “in the Spirit,” look for fresh unfolding of His person, and seek for avenues of usefulness whatever circumstances the Lord may allow in our lives.

Quarantine (Part 2)

She might well have been the originator of “social distancing.” She did not call it that; but when she plotted against Joseph and he was consigned to the prison house, it was intended to be the end of him. This was no cushy federal prison. There were no jailhouse lawyers to work on appeals or the overthrow of sentences on technicalities. There was no prison yard for camaraderie and small talk. Joseph was as good as forgotten when he entered the prison. In normal circumstances, he would have been thrown into something which served as a cell and lived out his days in true distance from society of any kind. We know that God overruled, even in the prison. In God’s providence, he was elevated to responsibility and oversight even within the prison, and ultimately to the house of the Pharaoh. But there were long days before that occurred.

The story of the dreams of the butler and baker are well known. The butler left the prison house with the request of Joseph fresh in his mind: “Think on me when it shall be well with thee” (Gen 40:14). The sad commentary of the inspired writer, however, jolts us back to reality. “Yet did not the chief butler remember Joseph, but forgat him” (v 22).

Two full years of days passed with only silence, fading hopes, and “social distancing.” We are not given any insight into Joseph’s reaction during those years. It is only normal that he would have expected to hear footsteps running down the corridor, a key turning the door, and a welcoming smile to greet him with the prospect of liberty. But each day passed as the one before. Monotony ensued; hopes faded; the reality of his isolation enveloped him as a heavy fog descends on the city. Did he forget the day of the week? The month? If there was no sunlight into the prison house, he may not have even known day from night. We are told in the Psalms that, they hurt his feet “with fetters: he was laid in iron” or, more literally, “the iron entered into his soul” (Ps 105:18) He knew suffering and sorrow. 

Yet, we never read of

Frustration

As day after day lengthened and morphed into weeks and months, we could well expect groans of frustration and impatience to have filled the prison cell housing Joseph. We hear nothing of that. They were days of formation and not of frustration. In isolation, God was forming the vessel which was to be a blessing, not only to his family, not even just to Egypt, but to the entire region. Genesis began with a man, Adam, who was to be a blessing to the world; he failed. Genesis will conclude with a man who is a blessing to “all the countries (that) came into Egypt to Joseph to buy corn” (Gen 41:57). God was using the isolation to form the man who would fulfill His purpose and be a small glimpse of a Greater One to come.

Fuming

Even though the psalm refers to the iron entering into his soul, it had a remarkable effect. Rather than hardening, it softened. Here was a man, who would display nothing of vengeance or spite when the opportunity came. He was marked by a gentleness and grace, a majesty blended and balanced by mercy. His time of isolation produced a man who valued time and the opportunity to do good and to be a blessing to others. Will our period of isolation have a similar influence upon us?

Fretting

There is nothing in Joseph’s composure or behavior when he stood before Pharaoh to suggest that he was a man desperate to enjoy freedom, to burst loose from the chains which he had worn. There is a holy calm and peace which seems to emanate from him as he stands before the mighty monarch. He is the man in control of the moment, in touch with the God of heaven. He has been kept in “perfect peace,” dependent on his God for the fulfillment of His promise.

If I am fretting under the imposed restrictions, the social distance demanded, the limitations imposed, I am falling short of confidence in God and contentment with God amidst my circumstances.

Failure

There is no stain attached to Joseph in any of the houses which he inhabited: his father’s house, Potiphar’s, the prison, or Pharaoh’s. It appears that there were two things which sustained and preserved him: the remembrance of God’s promise in his dreams, and the reframing of all his circumstances. God had promised eventual blessing and honor. In the dignity of that promise, Joseph endured his isolation. But he, in turn, as a result of that Word from God, was able to reframe his circumstances and to refocus on his God: “Ye thought evil, against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20.

We have the assurance from God’s Word that all will be well. Can we, in turn, use it to reframe our isolation, social distancing, and inconveniences, and to refocus on how we can be a blessing to others both now, and in the future?