Hymnology: O Jesus I Have Promised

I mentioned the other day that Prince Louis was going to be baptised on Monday. According to details released online, William and Catherine chose two hymns – O Jesus I have promised and Lord of all hopefulness. I was generally impressed with the selection of hymns and readings – they’re not the hymns and readings which everyone chooses, but I believe reflect a desire of the couple to genuinely bring their children up in the Christian faith. I thought the choice of O Jesus I have promised was particularly appropriate, and I’d like to talk a bit more about that hymn now.

I found a page with the history of the hymn – I found it an interesting read! At one point in the Church of England, it was sung so often at confirmation services (the hymn itself was written for the confirmation of John Bode’s children) that bishops had to request it not to be sung so much!

What strikes me about the hymn is how it’s so counter-cultural at the moment. According to the history page I just linked to, the hymn is based on John 12:23-26:

Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honour the one who serves me.

Jesus here was facing his own death. Jesus knew what was going to happen to him – he knew that he had to die. But he also knew that this death was going to end in glory: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…” – he knew that his death was going to result in “many seeds”. In dying, Jesus accomplished the Father’s mission – that of forgiving our sins.

It is the same with us: we, too, face the same path as Jesus – laying down our lives for the good of others. We must hate our lives “in this world” – that is to say, we are to set aside the ways of the world for the ways of Christ. Hate is a strong word – not to say we should hate ourselves, but rather hate worldliness even when we find it in ourselves. There are two paths, two ways to live – either we can serve the world, or we can follow Jesus. You can’t do both. James 4:4 makes this clear: “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”

The stark choice – Jesus or the world – is then sweetened with the promise of eternal life for those who do follow Jesus. As Jesus rose to new life, so too will those who lay down their lives for Jesus’ sake rise again. And “My Father will honour the one who serves me” – God will honour those who serve Jesus, however hard it is, however much they give up – they may not be honoured by the world, but they will be honoured by God.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

All of this is beautifully encapsulated in O Jesus I have promised. I particularly like this verse:

Oh, let me feel Thee near me;
The world is ever near;
I see the sights that dazzle,
The tempting sounds I hear;
My foes are ever near me,
Around me and within;
But, Jesus, draw Thou nearer,
And shield my soul from sin.

The idea of being corrupted by ‘the world’ is a very unfashionable idea, even within the church. And yet I think this verse expresses it well – there are foes there, which are both ‘around’ and ‘within’ (sometimes expressed as the trio ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’) but we need to seek Jesus who will shield us.

In fact, it makes me sad that, looking at the church today, this kind of message is often so absent: worldly thinking has overtaken in many quarters, and people have lost the notion that following Jesus involves a rejection of the world.

I hope and pray for the church, that this hymn would be sung with conviction at confirmations once again! But most of all that this idea of choosing Jesus over the world would prevail in the church. And I pray that little Prince Louis – as well as his brother and sister – would grow up to know this truth, and would grow up to plant his footsteps in those of Christ, and not the world.

Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for hymn – but it is no hardship, because in doing so we find true life.

Oh, guide me, call me, draw me,
Uphold me to the end;
And then in heaven receive me,
My Saviour and my Friend.

This is part of an occasional series on hymns – you can see the rest under the hymnology tag.

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