Problems with the hymn on guidance

Recently, we’ve been preaching on Guidance, and to reinforce the theme, I selected “Guide me, O my great Redeemer” as our hymn of the month.

After church, a very sharp Christian (that’s you, Bernie), said, “What’s with that hymn?” Wrongly presuming he was just noting some of its uncommon imagery, I replied, “Read my Minister’s Letter” (which explained it).

But he asked me what the hymn was saying. I replied that it was encouraging us to be confident that God would guide us, just as God guided the Israelites in the desert.

Bernie said, “No, that’s not what it’s saying, and it contradicted your sermon.” Now that got my attention!

At first I hesitated (just a tad stubborn), but I concluded he was exactly right. Let me explain.

He pointed out that the hymn was a direct request to God, for him to guide us, in fact, each one of us, “Guide me, O my great redeemer…”

And it put us in pretty much the same position as the Old Testament Israelites wandering in the desert, “pilgrim through this barren land”.

Then the hymn has us asking God to feed us with manna—the “bread of heaven”—and in stanza two, to “Let the fiery, cloudy pillar, lead me all my journey through”.

In other words, in its own words, it was applying the imagery of God’s guidance for Israel in the wilderness wanderings directly to us today.

I wonder if readers of Guidance and the Voice of God are starting to see the problem!

You see, in my sermon, I had just expounded the first three propositions from that book.

  1. God sovereignly uses everything to guide us ‘behind the scenes’ (i.e. doctrine of providence, not revelation here).
  2. God can guide is in all sorts of ways with our ‘conscious cooperation’, just as he did in the past; see Hebrews 1:1 (i.e. not cessationist in regards to the possibility—N.B. not probability—of various forms of revelation).
  3. In these “last days”, God has spoken to us by his Son (i.e. the coming of Jesus was the decisive turning point of salvation history—see Hebrews 1:2).

Now with regard to #2, I specifically mentioned as examples such things as the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night (Ex 13:21-22), along with the voice from the burning bush, Balaam’s donkey, Samuel’s audible voice, etc. I said God could still do all that if he wished.

But I pointed out that to say how God can guide us, or how he has guided people in the past by no means tells us his normal practice today!

And when modern readers somehow expect to copy examples they read in the Old Testament, I pointed out they often misunderstand the details of the story (and I used the example of Gideon’s fleece to illustrate). I also noted how selective people are in wanting to copy the fleeces, or Elijah’s “still, small voice” (far more amenable to subjectivity), while never seeming to seek talking donkeys or wall-writing!

And then I said…

But the biggest mistake is this. The ‘example story’ method of Bible reading ignores the uniqueness of the different stages of the Bible and their place in God’s over-all plan. My situation is quite different from Moses. I’m not the leader of God’s Old Testament people. I’m not even an ordinary Hebrew out in the Sinai desert. So why should I expect God to guide me by a burning bush or pillar of fire? God did guide Moses that way. He could do it again. But I cannot conclude that he will guide me that way. In particular, this copy-cat method takes no account of the incredible difference made by the coming of Jesus.

And I went on to explain proposition #3. (The decisive contrast between Heb 1:1 and Heb 1:2… with v2 introduced by “But”. V1 – “In the past”; v2 “In these last days” Then, v1, “through the prophets”; now, v2, “by his Son”; who, v3, has adopted the posture of completed action, seated at God’s right hand, after offering the perfect purification for sins.)

But you see my problem with the hymn, which we sang soon after the sermon.

I had just preached that we should not expect God to guide us by a pillar of fire or cloud. Then the hymn had us asking God to “Let the fiery, cloudy pillar, lead me all my journey through”!

Bernie was right.

Like many churches, our church has lots of experienced Christian Bible readers. But it also has new Christians, and untutored Christians, and people with English as a second language. I can see they might be confused.

Why hadn’t I picked it up?

Because as an experienced Christian with decades of Bible reading behind me, and well versed in Graeme-Goldsworthy-style biblical theology, I intuitively made the mental links. I did not read the hymn-lyrics in what might seem to be their plain meaning, but understood their metaphorical intent.

So I sing this great hymn (and I still love it) as a prayerful assertion that I can be confident God will guide me all the way to our promised land of heaven (by the work of Christ, unexpressed in this hymn), with the same confidence that I see he guided Israel through the desert to their promised land of Canaan. And of course, there is a very clear hint of metaphorical, eschatological connection in stanza three’s linkage of “landing safe on Canaan’s side” with “death of death and hell’s destruction” (taking us to Rev 20:6 and 20:14)!

So I—and probably lots of my experienced Christian friends—filled in the implicit theological gaps without even thinking about it.

But it’s asking a lot of inexperienced or untutored Christians, let alone those with English as second language to make those leaps, without explanation, especially when I’d just strongly asserted the opposite, that we had no right to expect any pillars!

Now we need to acknowledge that the genre of hymn and song is poetry. As such, it often involves image and metaphor. And I believe we will rob ourselves of something if we try to get rid of all poetics in song and ‘dumb it all down’ to make it easy and prosaic.

But I think I may have made a mistake in scheduling this hymn straight after that sermon.

At the very least, it’s the sort of hymn that will sometimes need a simple one or two line introduction, to help tutor the less experienced, so they can make the proper biblical theological connections as well!

15 thoughts on “Problems with the hymn on guidance

  1. Gordo, I nominate you.

    Actually, I get what you are saying with such cheeky brevity, but I don’t think the author of Hebrews 4 made the mistake I did (or any mistakes for that matter).

    Do you think – on what I described – I made a mistake?

    Can you see that in some circumstances the hymn might be misleading? That is, without further explanation … analogies of which the author of Hebrews provides in his context by explaining there is ‘another day’ and a ‘rest that remains’ etc, distinguished from the original or earlier ones.

  2. You Have Been Warned
    The prophet has already warned us that we should be careful not to think that God has any form or likeness, saying: “Watch yourselves most carefully, since you saw no image” (Devarim 4:15); “But you saw no image – there was only a voice” (ibid. 4:12). “Watch yourselves…..carefully” means: be careful – in your thinking and imagination – not to represent the Creator by any shape, nor to conceive of Him in any image or likeness, for your eyes beheld neither image nor form when He spoke to you, as it says: “To whom, then, will you liken the Almighty? What likeness will you compare to Him?” (Yeshayahu 40:18); “To whom, then, will you liken Me, that I should compare to?’ says the Holy One” (ibid. 40:25); For who in the skies can be compared to God? Who is like God among the heavenly beings?” (Tehillim 89:7); “There is none like You among the gods, HaShem, nor are there works like Yours” (ibid. 86:8); and there are many similar passages. (source pg. 133 Duties of the heart)

    The Divine attributes of action are those that are ascribed to the Creator as a result of His actions. It is possible that in attributing these qualities to Him, He is made an associate of some of His creatures [to whom they are also attributed]. Nevertheless, we are permitted to ascribe these qualities to Him, because of our urgent need to know Him and recognize His existence, so that we may assume His service. We find extensive use of this kind of Divine attribute in the Torah and the books of the prophets, as well as in the praises offered by the prophets and the pious. Such attributes are used in two ways:

    1) Attributes are ascribed which indicate image and bodily form, as in the following examples for Scripture: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him” (Bereshis 1:27); for in God’s image did He make man” (ibid. 9:6); “By the mouth of God” (Bamidbar 9:18); “My hands alone stretched out the heavens” (Yeshayahu 45:12); “in God’s ears” (Bemidbar 11:1); “and under His feet” (Shemos 24:10); “O arm of God!” (Yeshayahu 51:9); who has not sworn falsely by My Name” (Tehillim 24:4); “in the eys of God” (Bereshis 6:8); “and God said in His heart” (ibid. 8:21) and there are other similar attributions of bodily organs to God.

    2) Attributes are ascribed to God which indicate movements and bodily actions, as it says: “God smelled [the pleasing fragrance]” (ibid. 8:21); “God saw…regretted…and He was saddened at heart” (ibid. 6:5-6); “God came down” (ibid. 11:5); “God remembered” (ibid. 8:1); “God heard” (Bemidbar 11:1); Then God awoke as one that had slept” (Tehillim 78:65); and there are many other similar attributes to Him of human actions.

    The foolish and ignorant person will conceive of the Creator, may He be exalted, according to the literal sense of the Scriptural phrase.

  3. @David, thank you for your comments. I found the feedback I received a bit unsettling, but was also glad to be made to think and change a bit – at least how I’d intro the hymn in some settings.

    @ZPasternak, I am sorry to say that I object to your comment on a number of levels. For a start you have broken our posting rule that requires you to use your full name.

    Secondly, your comment appears to be a straight cut and paste from an article on your own Muslim website. If we wanted to read your own articles, we would be subscribing to your website. I do not expect your articles to be posted on our website.

    On the other hand, if your comments on this particular article I have written made sufficient sense as you actually engaged with the topic, then perhaps people would be interested to click through to your website.

    Lastly, as related to the above, your comment seems to relate to my post at best tangentially, if at all. It is very rude and disrespectful to post on someone else’s blog post material promoting your own world view that has almost nothing to do with the topic the author of the original post has chosen to raise.

    Perhaps you can demonstrate how I am mistaken in these comments, but how would you feel if I started posting material on your blog that is unrelated or tangential to the topics you choose to raise.

    I guess people can assess how well this practice reflects on your world view.

  4. Sandy, context is king, of course, and Hebrews 4 does come after (among many other verses), Hebrews 2:17.

    So if you really wanted to turn your song selection for the month into a theological mistake on your part, then you’ve mounted a strong case for it.

    It would possibly be a stronger case if we could find a Christian anywhere in the whole wide world, or in Wollongong, who was perpetually scanning the horizon looking for fiery cloudy pillars to guide them all their journey through. Especially if they only started doing it after singing that hymn.

    But I’ve always taken it as an analogy—we are like Israel in being guided by God our redeemer into salvation. And I suspect that you are like that too, or you wouldn’t have been so surprised by the objection.

    So sing on with a glad heart, I say!

    PS the other thing it makes me think of is the end of Pilgrim’s Progress.

  5. I enjoyed reading this ( I remember reading guidance and the voice of God many years ago). I agree totally with the direction but I feel that we need to remember that God “is” “God” and indeed he can communicate to us in any manner he chooses (the bible is the principle way). I just want to make sure that we don’t limit what God can do and lose sight that at times he can communicate in a personal manner to a person. Of course, we should not expect this when we ask for guidance, and we need to look to the bible.

    I also feel that these type of topics need to always have a little attention paid to the consequences on prayer because this is VERY related. This helps shape how we pray!

  6. Jerome, thanks for reminding us that confidence that God will guide should never lead to fatalism. I always needs the challenge to keep praying. And so now I defend this hymn – it is of course a prayer to God, and a wonderful one at that!

    Gordo, I think you hit the nail on the head with this comment…

    But I’ve always taken it as an analogy—we are like Israel in being guided by God our redeemer into salvation. And I suspect that you are like that too, or you wouldn’t have been so surprised by the objection.

    Correct, but this points to one of my problems, that I should not assume everyone in the congregation I preach to is just like me. They won’t all automatically realise it’s an analogy. NESB people for example, whom we love to welcome. Likewise newcomers (whether Christian or not yet) who have little experience in Bible reading.

    Of course you are also right to say…

    It would possibly be a stronger case if we could find a Christian anywhere in the whole wide world, or in Wollongong, who was perpetually scanning the horizon looking for fiery cloudy pillars to guide them all their journey through. Especially if they only started doing it after singing that hymn.

    That’s also part of the problem. There’s no one looking for these pillars any more than talking donkeys (maybe you could write a hymn that gets Balaam’s ass into it!) But there are people looking for “still, small voices” and Gideon-like fleeces (someone mentioned it with approval one week after the sermon that dissed it as an idea for us!)

    The exegetical issues differ for each one. But the biblical theological issues are the same – they form part of the many and varied old covenant ways of Heb 1:1 and occur pre-Christ’s coming, who is God’s decisive word of guidance (Heb 1:2).

    By putting them altogether I was trying to show it was no better to search for a still small voice than for a fiery pillar, now that Christ has come. But then we used the fiery pillar as an analogy!

    Simple for you and me. But surely confusing for some. I’ll leave it there.

  7. I really can’t let this topic go without saying something about the tune that is usually used for this hymn. I think it’s great and I’m sorry that most of the permutations and combinations of note progression for good melodies for hymns and choruses were finally used up about 30 years ago. To me there’s something either quite inspid or else ear-splittingly offensive in much of today’s church music. Give this old man a melodically good singable traditional hymn tune any day (with robust scriptural words).

    Ah! That feels better, even though largely irrelevant to the topic.

    Please don’t show this to my son.

  8. “So why should I expect God to guide me by a burning bush or pillar of fire?” I think we’ve established that very few, if any, take William Williams literally. But this does cause me to wonder: what do I actually expect?

    Although I was brought up as a rabid cessationist, I was encouraged to read the biographies men like George Muller and Billy Bray. However, in my mind, such experiences of God were not for today, and might as well have been recorded in Acts 29 and following, along with all the other stuff that doesn’t happen today.

    I had some negative experiences of the charismatic movement in my formative years, to which my response was to adopt a lazy proof-texting prejudice. But I think I threw out the baby with the bathwater, and was left with a cold, joyless antisupernaturalism. So much of my theology became a defence for a lack of experience.

    But it wasn’t just some people that bothered me, I also had a hard view of God. Eventally I could see myself in the Luke 15’s older brother. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you, yet you never gave me a party, but when these raving loonies turn up with their childish behaviour and dodgy theology, you give them a feast”.

    Christianity Explained (later Explored) and Biblical Theology eventually changed the way I interacted with Jesus and the read Bible. But they also undid my cessationist proof texting.

    The words of Jesus to the Pharisees in Mark 7:6-13 haunted me, especially v13 “Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” And a little phrase in James 4:2 also bothered me: “You do not have, because you do not ask God”, to which I would add “And you don’t ask, because you don’t expect”.

    Then I stumbled across John Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” (which I had always been warned about), and his quote from C.S. Lewis…

    “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

    And then Jesus words in John about streams of living water springing up within, and of never being thirsty again began to set my expectations much higher. And his teaching in Luke 11 about prayer, of a Father who delights to give good gifts, and a “how much more” promise of the Holy Spirit to those who ask set me on a new trajectory.

    “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

    I see this an invitation into a positive feedback loop.

    What can you imagine?

  9. Thanks for commenting Phil. I am not sure why you are mentioning the cessationist position, because I don’t think it is one I or the Guidance and the Voice of God book advocates (see point 2 of the summary above). Maybe it is just to do with your background.

    In terms of expectancy, could you say why you think Ephesians 3:20 might have particular application to further guidance and if so, what.

    To be honest, my first reply was to think of the words of another hymn…

    How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord,
    Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!

    What more can He say than to you He has said,

    You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?”

    It catches the point of Hebrews 1:1-2 perfectly. With our decisions, our questions, our struggles and sicknesses, why focus on the things God has not seen fit to comment on in the Bible? And why muck around with trying to interpret circumstances and inward feelings – so notoriously difficult, so potentially subjective, so often trivial!

    God has said all he needs to in the gospel of Jesus and his precious death and powerful resurrection. (I think that is the context for Eph 3:20 – knowing the resurrection power of God and understanding more of the wonderful extent of the love of Christ). So we should let that gospel fill our horizon, dominate our thinking, and be the lens through which we approach all other questions and decisions.

    • Sandy, thanks for your comments. I think the broader issue I was trying to address was my own general lack of expectation and my own excuses for why the experience of Muller and others is so far from my own. I don’t expect a burning bush, or pillar of fire, but then I don’t expect very much at all.

      My cessationist thing was linked to that. For me, God had become remote, and no longer intervened in outwardly supernatural ways in the lives of his people as he did the past (e.g. as in Acts). I even used to squirm whenever I heard a testimony of someone having had a vision of Jesus telling them to go somewhere to hear the gospel.

      Huge though the immediate context of Ephesians 3:20 is, I don’t think its scope can be confined to that. Indeed, “the God who has done, is doing, and will do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine” is pretty much the theme of the whole letter.

      Isn’t the point of 3:20 not what God has done, but that what he will do will be immeasurably more than we can ask or think? I’m pretty sure this is Paul’s confidence as he prays in 1:16ff. The reason I brought it in was because I think sets an expectation for God to blow our puny expectations out of the water.

      I might pray for something with limited expectations. God may graciously answer in a way that far exceeds my expectations. Perhaps this builds my faith and expectation for the next time I pray? I doubt George Muller started his walk with God sitting the kids in his orphanage down to give thanks for food they didn’t have.

      And yes, I do think this is linked to guidance too. I was tempted to despise people who talked about “laying out a fleece” until I realised that they often seemed to have a much more intimate relationship with God than me.

      I have since been in situations where I’ve not known which way to turn, where scripture and the counsel of other christians has not made things any clearer, and where I have prayed, and where God has answered quickly through circumstances. Perhaps God is just particularly patient and gracious with me and my foolish ways?

      It is easier to interpret circumstances when you’ve put the work in up front (e.g. when this is an immediate answer to prayer). I do share your concerns over subjectivism, but I’m trying to learn to discern and expect more of God’s direct intervention too.

      I love that hymn too. We chose it for our wedding and for the funeral of our first daughter, Talitha, who was born prematurely and then only lived for an hour. The following verse is often omitted. Perhaps it is a little quaint, but it speaks wonderfully of the sovereignty, faithfulness, nearness, gentleness and lovingkindness of God…

      “E’en down to old age all My people shall prove
      My sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
      And when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
      Like lambs they shall still in My bosom be borne.”

      Such a God will do immeasurably more than we ask of imagine :)

  10. Apologies for a late post on a pretty dead thread…

    Of course the problem’s in the translation. William William’s hymn in the Welsh edition I have before me (Trysorau Gras (“Treasures of Grace”) Evangelical Press of Wales 1979) is more explicitly Christological (as well as being 2 verses longer than the standard English versions – I blame his brother, Peter).

    The Welsh first line doesn’t really carry the connotations, in this Welshman’s mind at least, of “Guidance”. It also starts with “Lord” not “Jehovah”. The question that the hymn writer is addressing is “how will I get through life (& death)?” and the answer is by looking to the all-sufficient Saviour. The Exodus imagery only kicks in in verses two and three and the whole thing is wrapped up in verses 4 and 5…

    A distinctly prosaic ‘translation’ of the last two verses would be:

    When I tread the verge of Jordan
    -Cruel Death in all its power-,
    You have passed though it long before,
    Why should I fear it any more?
    Shall be my prayer in the flood.

    I depend on your power
    Ever great is the work you did
    You took death, You took hell
    You took Satan under your foot
    Calvary’s Hill
    should never leave my mind

    • Hefin, great to have a Welshman aboard. Good to hear from you. And thanks for the extra info.

      The almost ubiquitous David McKay made the point that Jehovah was not in the original Welsh in his comment on my first post on this hymn too!

      But I don’t think ‘McKay’ has quite the same Welsh pedigree as ‘Jones’!

      And while I am back here on this old post, thanks to Phil Harman for his godly comments from his very slightly different perspective from mine. I appreciated them at the time, which I why (alongside busyness) I did not feel the need to quibble with details any further.

      Bye for now.

      • I should add that I can see Hefin is making a far more important point than ‘Welsh McKay’s’ Jehovah matter. And it’s very encouraging to see it!

        What a pity we don’t have the original last verse in the English version!

        Maybe the old-hymns-reborn musos at Emu and elsewhere can get to work turning Hefin’s prose into poetry.

        But can we keep the old tune? (I’m wish ‘Welsh’ on that!)

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