Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer

I’ve shared before the concept of “Hymn of the Month

In November, given our sermon series on Guidance, it makes sense that I selected “Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer” as Hymn of the Month. Here’s what I wrote about it in our weekly church newsletter…

This hymn is indelibly associated with Welsh Male Choirs, by its later linkage with the famous ‘Cwm Rhondda’ tune (composed 1907 by John Hughes). It has been heard at numerous rugby matches from the Welsh supporters! And it does have a repeated high note at the end of each verse, marvelously suited to male tenor voices, but a bit stretching for some others! Yet the tune has been a much-loved way of expressing our praise for the God who guides to safety.

The lyrics were originally written by William Williams (1717-1791). Williams intended to become a doctor. This changed when he was converted, listening to Howell Harris, the evangelical reformer, preaching in 1737. He became a deacon in the Church of England, and served as a Curate (= Assistant Minister) in several parishes. But because of his commitment to the system of Methodism (before it was a separate denomination), he was refused further ordination in 1743. From then, he devoted himself to travelling through Wales, preaching and establishing local fellowships of Methodists, for the converts he won. He became a leader of Calvinistic Methodism in Wales. And through his 800 hymns, he was one of the most important influences on Welsh language culture in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The hymn he is now best known for was translated into English in 1771 by Peter Williams (no relation), with the first line as “Guide me, O Thou Great Jehovah”. ‘Jehovah’ was the mistaken transliteration into English of the personal name of God, revealed to Moses (Exodus 3:13-15). The Hebrew word is now more accurately transliterated as ‘Yahweh’. To save confusion for the unfamiliar, modern versions often use the title ‘Redeemer’ instead.

And this is a good decision, because God’s guiding hand as he redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt is the theme of the hymn. In the Song of Moses from Exodus 15, the Israelites sang of Yahweh their Lord and God this way (verse 13),

In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed. In your strength you will guide them to your holy dwelling.

Some of the hymn’s imagery may be unfamiliar, if you have not read much Old Testament.

But after leaving Egypt, the people of Israel travelled 40 years, as ‘pilgrims through this barren land’. This was the desert area of the Sinai peninsular between Egypt and the promised land of Canaan (which became known as Israel, once God’s people had secured it). During this wilderness wandering, to avoid a food shortage, God fed them with ‘manna’, a bread-like substance, which fell from heaven (i.e. the sky) each day (Exodus 16).

Stanza two of the hymn reminds us that God guided his people to safety by a pillar of cloud by night and of fire by day that moved ahead of them (Ex 14:19 & 24; Num 14:14). The crystal fountain refers to the rock Moses struck, which produced flowing water, when the people were thirsty and grumbled against God for taking them through a desert (Ex 17:1-6).

Stanza three imagines the hymn-singer ‘treading the verge of Jordan’ that is, the edge of the river Israel had to cross to enter Canaan. But then ‘Canaan’s side’ is associated with “Death of death and hell’s Destruction” (see Rev 20:6 & 14)! Clearly the ultimate ‘promised land’ of heaven is on view. In the same way that God guided his Old Testament people safely to Canaan, even though they were often sinful, forgetful, unthankful and rebellious, we can be sure Christ will safely bring us to the new creation (see John 10:28-29).

This hymn has comforted Christian miners on their way to the dangers of their underground profession. Welsh soldiers sang it in the trenches of World War I. I trust it comforts you.


Now it’s a great hymn, and we sang it with gusto. But there’s a problem, at least for my series on guidance. More soon.


3 thoughts on “Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer

  1. Great hymn.

    It sounds odd to me when it is sung with “Redeemer” instead of “Jehovah.” But, that’s only because it is what I am used to.

    The original hymn does not contain the word “Jehovah”, or whatever its Welsh equivalent is.

    And the word “Jehovah” is now forever associated with a 20th century cult.

    Other Christians have always sung “Redeemer,” as they did in the Queen Mother’s funeral.

  2. Pingback: Problems with the hymn on guidance | The Briefing

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