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Reading the Hymns: Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending

July 3rd, 2010 | 5 min read

By Tex

I have so enjoyed Matt’s weekly postings of hymnodic reflections that I’ve jumped at the opportunity to continue the series during his absence.  This week’s hymn, another of the four most popular Anglican hymns, is often sung in the days leading up to Advent.  At first glance it might seems strange to celebrate the second coming of Christ in conjunction with His first coming, however, the practice of so doing provides the balance needed to keep the Advent (and Christmas) themes of Divine love and light from devolving into mere sentimentality.  Remembering the first coming of Christ in light of the end of all things ought to remind us how desperately we need a savior—and how immense and earth-shattering is the good news that God is just and merciful.

The present text of the hymn has undergone a few redactions since first being penned by John Cennick, a land surveyor turned preacher and Moravian evangelist.  Cennick was an acquaintance of the Wesley brothers and this quite probably accounts for Charles Wesley’s knowledge of the hymn.  The most common version of the text is Wesley’s and it is the version followed below.    However, the comparison of Cennick’s version with Wesley’s is interesting as it brings to light Wesley’s mastery of English and Scripture as he expounds upon and clarifies the nascent themes in Cennick’s version.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.

The theme of the hymn is taken from Revelation 1:7 and begins and ends with an exhortation to look to the coming King, Jesus Christ, and celebrate the blessed and glorious reign of God as the indisputable monarch of all things in heaven and earth.

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

It is natural to wonder what sort of King it is that is returning to claim his kingdom and what life will be like under his rule.  If He is to be a just and righteous ruler, what will that mean for the wicked men and women?  If He is to be a deliverer of His people (a Messiah), what will that mean for the people, institutions, and beliefs and practices that have been holding His people captive?  The implication of a just, righteous, and freedom-granting ruler is that injustice, wickedness and bondage will be abolished and done away with: Good news for the captive and the oppressed, bad news for the wicked and the oppressor.

Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heav’n and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!

Exploring, again, the implications of what is a great comfort to the Christian, but a terror to the ungodly—God’s omniscience and omnipresence—the author forcefully suggests that though heaven and earth would flee from the terrible presence of the just Judge who will open the secret heart of all men; the very men who would most hide themselves from this scrutiny will be compelled to stand before the Judge and give an accounting of their actions.  This is justice, the terrible equality of all men before God is such that every man must acknowledge his responsibility for his deeds.  The bribe’s of the wealthy, the words of the crafty, and the intimidation and power of the extortioner are all as nothing in face of the just King.

Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
See the day of God appear!

What then do we have to hope for?  If the secrets of all men be made known on the Day of Judgement, then surely all men will be tried and found wanting.  However, the centerpiece of this hymn, and of the Gospel itself, is the very good news that redemption has happened and that justice has been satisfied in such a way that God’s saints might be welcomed into the retinue of the King without lessening His justice in any way.  Hallelujah, indeed.

Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heav’n and earth t’inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!

Such words sound harsh and unfeeling in a day and age where niceness is one of the cardinal virtues of the land.  However, it is wise to keep in mind that if goods such as justice and righteousness are to prevail, they come with a cost: the cost of punishing all that is unjust and evil.  There can be no new heaven and new earth unless the old be done away with, there can be no universal reign of perfect goodness and truth unless badness and error are finally and absolutely defeated.  The cry of the Church and of God the Spirit is for such perfect state to come where all is peace and harmony and love, where communion between God and man is like the unity shared by the Blessed Trinity.  The birth pangs are necessary to bring about new life.

The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

The King bears in His own body the message of the Gospel.  That which was done out of hatred, rebellion, and pride has been transformed by Divine Love into the centerpiece of adoration and praise for all eternity.  The facts of wickedness and evil are acknowledged rather than glossed over, yet they undergo a powerful metamorphosis as their sting is turned into a song.

Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!

The exhortation to look for the coming King in the first verse modulates into an invocation of that same King in the last.  The great and terrible fact of the Second Coming provides the impetus for the action of prayer among His people—given the nature of the King and veracity of His promise, it behooves His people to act with a faith that gives expression to their knowledge of Him.