Before the throne of God above

Image from
original source unknown

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Before the throne of God above”.  I have sung this plenty of times in churches, and as the music is in contemporary style (actually credited to Vikki Cook, 1997) I assumed the words were also recently written, even if some words such as “graven” and “thence” are a bit archaic – but then there are ‘contemporary’ churches that still use the Lord’s Prayer in its old form. The language is otherwise quite similar to that used by Stuart Townend, for example, as the theme is that of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for our redemption. 

But no, the words were written as a poem by Charitie de Chenez who was born as long ago as 1841. You can hear it read as a poem online. Wikipedia tells us that she was born Charitie Lees Smith (a less exotic name for this Victorian Irishwoman), and she was a well known religious poet of her time. This particular poem was written in 1863 in response to the 1859 Ulster Revival (of which I admit I had not heard previously). The modern tune fits well with the mood of the old words, the high notes of the middle lines being set to phrases such as “my name is written on his heart”, “my sinful soul is counted free” and “my life is hid with Christ on high”. I enjoy singing this hymn, and can well imagine it being belted out at a revival meeting.

The Apocrypha in Lent – 27 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

27 February. 1 Maccabees  chapters 14-16

The record of the short-lived Maccabean dynasty ends with the death of Simon.  The “euology” to him in chapter 14 is almost unrelentingly secular: his magnificence, military conquests, bringing prosperity to the elders of the towns (though not the common folk), logistical expertise, and so on.  True, he achieved a short-lived peace in the sense of absence of military threat from outside, but again that was only because he had bloodily put them all down.   The eulogy ends with praise for Simon’s “striving to obey the Law” (apart, presumably, from the commandments not to kill or seek to amass wealth) and his furnishing the temple with new sacred vessels.  But there is no suggestion that he was a pious or humble man, or generous to the poor, or concerned for justice, or showed any of the other marks of holiness.  The euology is followed with the text of bronze tablets in his honour “on pillars on Mount Zion” (presumably outside the Temple) and “in the Temple precinct in a prominent place”.

The more I read this story, the more I am reminded of the English Victorian nobility and merchant class.  They too boasted of Britain’s overseas military might.  They too liked to be thought of as “obeying the Law” in the sense of seeming respectable in society, without paying much attention to personal morality in private. They too liked to talk of increasing prosperity for investors, while turning a blind eye to the working conditions of the common people.  They too loved putting up memorials to members of their own class in churches with fulsome praise for their perceived (or even imaginary) virtues.  I recently saw such a memorial to a major 19th century landowner, Member of Parliament and Justice of the Peace, which made much of his stand against corruption in public life.  But look up his Wikipedia entry and you find that he lost he seat in Parliament for being corrupt himself.

The Maccabees, then, may be thought of as like Victorians – bringing their country out of an age of isolation and engaging with the world around; bringing prosperity, at least to the upper classes; bringing peace at home by means of military force abroad; and all in the name, ostensibly, of religion, but in the words of Paul to Timothy, “keeping up the outward appearance of religion but rejecting the inner power of it” (2 Timothy 3:5). No wonder that this book is regarded as “outside the canon of Scripture” for although it tells of an important period in Jewish history, it does not present a model to follow.