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Reading the Hymns – The Sands of Time Are Sinking

February 20th, 2011 | 6 min read

By Kevin White

This weekend’s hymn is a follow-up to last weekend’s profile. Samuel Rutherford did not, to my knowledge, write any hymns. But in the 19th century, someone wrote one for him.

Ann Cousin (1824-1906) was a Scottish poet and the wife of William Cousin, a Free Church of Scotland minister.  She starting writing hymns for use in her husband’s church in Irvine, Scotland. Very soon, her hymns were being used and enjoyed throughout Scotland and England.  In 1854 she wrote a poem, originally titled “The Last Words of Samuel Rutherford”, based off of his Letters and deathbed sayings. The original version contained a whopping nineteen verses, but before long five of them circulated together as “The Sands of Time Are Sinking.” The full version is on the Indelible Grace website, with notes indicating which letters are referenced in each verse.

Cousin does a great job distilling Rutherford’s main pastoral themes into concise, accessible verse. The result is a beautiful Christian reflection on death and what comes after, and on the beauty of the Savior. Still, it is Cousin’s hymn and not Rutherford’s. Far from slavishly copying his catchphrases, she shows a willingness to rework even his most memorable lines and to supplement them with poetic images of her own invention. Her adaptation was so successful that the “Rutherford” quotes on the memorial in Anwoth are, in fact, Cousin quotes. In sum, “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” is at once a pithy introduction of Samuel Rutherford’s theology, and an expression of Cousin’s poetic genius.

1. The sands of time are sinking,
The dawn of heaven breaks;
The summer morn I’ve sighed for -
The fair, sweet morn awakes:
Dark, dark had been the midnight
But Dayspring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.

Here we see Cousin’s skill in drawing a picture in words, and using that picture to express an abstract point. We have images of the last sands sinking through an hourglass, of the early summer dawn. Jesus is the Dayspring, that is, the morning star, the light of Heaven’s dawn. Thus, by using this classic Christological title, she proclaims that Christ is the gracious new light that greets the Christian at death. Earthly sufferings are the darkness of midnight, but Jesus is coming. The last sands fall throw the glass, but Christ already shine’s forth. As Rutherford said, the sight of Jesus’ face is almost the entire glory of Heaven. And as Cousin’s refrain says it, heaven is the land of Emmanuel—God with us. Glory lives there.

(And yes, this hymn talks about more than just heaven. In fact, verse 16 of the long version provides some great resurrection imagery, and casts Paradise as the transitional state between death and resurrection.)

2. The king there in His beauty,
Without a veil is seen:
It were a well-spent journey,
Though seven deaths lay between:
The Lamb with His fair army,
Doth on Mount Zion stand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.

This is the greatest glory of heaven: seeing, unmediated, the face of God-made-flesh, the presence of the Savior who gave all to purchase us. Even the darkness of midnight, even the journey of life and death taken seven times over, is a happy exchange for this glory. That is not to minimize the sorrows we may face on Earth, but to maximize the joy of seeing—and sharing—Christ’s glory.

Note how Cousin says “seven deaths.” Rutherford’s recurring line is “ten deaths.” Both seven and ten are numbers of completion, but here “seven” scans better. Cousin does not let slavish devotion to her source material get in the way of the poetry. The language, by the way, does not mean that we have to clear seven different deaths to get to Heaven. This is not some odd mystical text, listing the seven/ten deaths of the Christian. It is a statement of the unsurpassed value of enjoying Jesus’ presence.

“The Lamb with His fair army” is a reference to Revelation 14:1-5, which describes the saints as the Lamb’s retinue on Mount Zion. Participating in his triumph, and singing a new song of praise. Sharing in the glory of Emmanuel’s land.

3. O Christ, He is the fountain,
The deep, sweet well of love!
The streams on earth I’ve tasted
More deep I’ll drink above:
There to an ocean fullness
His mercy doth expand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.

Christ is the fountain of love, the source of the living water of grace. Perhaps Cousin means to use the same image as Cowper in “There is a Fountain,” where the fountain is specifically Christ’s wounds on Calvary. Perhaps, since she has already made one reference to Revelation, she has in mind the crystal stream from beneath the throne in the New Jerusalem. Either way, Jesus is the fountain of grace both in this life and the next. We taste this gift of the Spirit now, but that is only a foretaste. The full dose is yet to come. We’ll drink straight from the boundless ocean of His love.

4. The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
But on my King of grace.
Not at the crown He giveth
But on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Emmanuel’s land.

Here is another eye-grabbing image. The Bride—us, collectively and singly—dressed in a glorious white robe as describe in Revelation. But upstaged by the very face of the Bridegroom. He holds out a lovely crown, but the scarred hand that holds it and places it on our head is fairer still. So lovely that we do not look at the crown, only the hand. Heaven is a realm of glory, but the Lamb is all the glory.

Again, Cousin—in Rutherfordian fashion—points us to the all-surpassing beauty and worth of Christ. Do not long first for Heaven, for the New Jerusalem, the New Heaven and New Earth. The costly white robe is a glory, but Christ is greater. We will be given unimaginable glory of our own, but Christ’s will still be preeminent. This is not to say that we shouldn’t rejoice in God’s promise of a new, glorified body and eternal life in a renewed world. But if we are the Bride, and we look to our Lover with the eyes of love, then that great dowry is only of secondary concern. The great promise of heaven is not streets of gold, or seeing our loved ones again, or in having every tear wiped from our eyes, but to enjoy the presence of the fairest of the sons of men. Who once became marred beyond human recognition to gain our admission into Emmanuel’s land.

5. O I am my Beloved’s
And my Beloved is mine!
He brings a poor vile sinner
Into His house of wine
I stand upon His merit -
I know no other stand,
Not e’en where glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel’s land.

In this verse, Cousin cranks up the bridal imagery to eleven, through direct references to Song of Solomon. In particular, to Song of Solomon 2:4, “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” What most English translations put as “banqueting house” is literally “house of wine.” (The original Geneva Bible used the unfortunate phrasing, “He brought me to his wine cellar.”) Cousin’s use of the “house of wine” phrasing emphasizes the sensual pleasure of the wedding feast. It maximizes the contrast between our poverty and the riches that Christ will provide us. We belong to Jesus, and He belongs to us. We look forward to the time when that will be fully realized.

And, even in that land of glory, we have our standing purely on Jesus’ merit. We claim Jesus as Beloved, join the feast in the house of wine, and live forever, purely as gift. Even there, we are wholly dependent on Christ. That is why we will be eternally secure in Emmanuel's land, because He will never turn away or falter.

Kevin White