Sunday, June 14, 2015

"The Sands of Time Are Sinking"

It's been a looong time since I've written a hymn post. I've been thinking lately of the beautiful but forgotten hymn "The Sands of Time Are Sinking." I myself never really knew the hymn until one of my friends chose it at one of our regular hymn sings, but it's become a favorite since then and deserves to be better known.

A partial history of the hymn is found in this useful post. Here is my brief version: There was once a nonconformist Scottish minister named Samuel Rutherford who lived in the 17th century. He found things a little rocky due to the religious ups and downs of that century and his tactless decision to write a treatise against the divine right of kings. He was doing okay during the middle of the century when Cromwell was in charge in England (that is not an endorsement of Oliver Cromwell!), but at the Restoration of Charles II, Rutherford found himself in a tight spot. Charles II was forgiving of some people, but not of the Scots (for a variety of political and historical reasons that had nothing to do with Rutherford personally), and Rutherford found himself on trial for treason for his political writing. But he was getting old already by that time and died before his trial. His letters and various deathbed sayings attributed to him were published.

Fast forward to the 19th century. A pastor's wife named Ann Cousin (also Scottish) was inspired by his letters to write a nineteen-verse poem called "The Last Words of Samuel Rutherford," full of allusions to his life and his hopes for heaven. Here are all the verses.

Subsequently, it appears to me, an Englishman named Edward Rimbault took selected stanzas from Cousin's poem and set them to a tune by a French violinist named Chretien d'Urhan who had presumably never heard of Rutherford. That didn't stop Rimbault from (this is my reconstruction) christening his tune "Rutherford" when it became part of a hymn. Now, I could be wrong about Rimbault's role there, but I'm having trouble finding the clear historical path from Cousin's non-hymn poem and d'Urhan's independent tune to the publication of "The Sands of Time Are Sinking" qua hymn, so this is my best guess.

The resulting hymn is very beautiful. Here are the stanzas that are generally used in the hymn version:

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 hath been the midnight,
But day-spring is at hand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel's land.

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.

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 fulness
His mercy doth expand,
And glory, glory dwelleth
In Emmanuel's land.

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 piercèd hand:
The Lamb is all the glory
In Emmanuel's land.

Here is a lovely instrumental version of the hymn; here is a nice choir rendition.

Here are a few more verses that are good poetry and that it seems to me could be incorporated into the hymn. (According to the Hymnary site it seems that the last of these is sometimes used, though I haven't seen it myself.)

But flowers need night's cool darkness, 
The moonlight and the dew;
So Christ, from one who loved it, 
His shining oft withdrew:
And then, for cause of absence 
My troubled soul I scanned
But glory shadeless shineth 
In Immanuel’s land.

I’ve wrestled on towards Heaven, 
'Gainst storm and wind and tide,
Now, like a weary traveler
That leaneth on his guide,
Amid the shades of evening, 
While sinks life’s lingering sand,
I hail the glory dawning 
From Immanuel’s land.

With mercy and with judgment 
My web of time He wove,
And aye, the dews of sorrow
Were lustered with His love;
I’ll bless the hand that guided, 
I’ll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.

Cousin's poetry captures well the sense of a man coming to the end of his life and reflecting on the sorrows of his life in the light of eternity. The poem is, in atmosphere though not (at least in these verses) in distinctive theology, a product of 19th century Scottish evangelical piety. But at the same time it has a sense of pain and tragedy that is sometimes missing from our contemporary evangelical worship, even when it is fairly traditional. 

I love hymns, but I have to say that some of the 19th and 20th century Protestant tune-makers were far too fond of the waltz rhythm. I occasionally remind those who come to my home for hymn sings of the rich heritage of slow, reflective, even sad hymns as well as the bouncy, happy ones. Let's not forget "O Sacred Head" while we're enjoying "In My Heart There Rings a Melody."

Or take a song like "O To Be Like Thee." The poetry is okay, but to my mind the line "Gladly I'll forfeit all of earth's treasures/Jesus thy perfect likeness to wear" goes by too fast for one to get any sense of the suffering that might be involved in such a process of sanctification. (And I definitely think that hymn could use a more interesting tune.)

In contrast, I find Cousin's references to wrestling, sorrow, and the dark night of the soul to be believable and valuable for contemplation. 

The verses that are more often used for "The Sands of Time Are Sinking" do not include these references but are good in themselves, because they emphasize the fact that Jesus (rather than golden streets, etc.) is the "glory of Immanuel's land." I particularly appreciate the line "Not at the crown he giveth/ But on His piercèd hand." The image is vivid to my mind: Jesus holds out a crown for the saint in heaven, and the saint can gaze only on the nail-scarred hand, not at the crown. In this regard the hymn is an older exploration of the theme of one of my favorite gospel songs, "Look For Me At Jesus' Feet."  

I would like to see a contemporary gospel group take up this hymn and record it in a simple, harmonized version. An all-male group would be best.

Christians who sing hymns should revive this one and bring it into our repertoire.


John said...

Hymns produce much of their meaning and power by being history-bound, don't they? I love to hear the expressions of lyric and tune against the particular context of a song, and this hymn has roots in more than one context.

Each era tends to surface and highlight particular themes that often elude songwriters of another time, and each of these themes recalls particular insights from Scripture that hide behind the cultural blinders of a different age. It is one of the joys of musical worship to link our own day with another from the past and hear devotions on Scripture that would otherwise get by us. I would love to see Rutherford's response to the hymn inspired by the life of this "nonconformist Scottish minister" (ever was there a "conformist" Scottish minister!).

Presently I enjoy, what for me, is a most unlikely genre of hymn--the Newsboys! I worship a cappella and so enjoy this soul-stirring outside of church. I encourage you to listen and watch "We Believe". I prefer the production "Live from Ocean Way" (

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, John!

I don't mind rocky music, but normally I prefer a varied melody.

Here's a completely different musical creed. "We Believe" by the Booth Brothers. Keep listening. It gets more dramatic as it goes on.

John said...

Thanks for introducing me to the Booth's and another creedal song, I enjoyed the dynamic of one talented brother after another picking up the tune and the statement of faith.

Back to "The Sands", it strikes me that one theme that often surfaced in a prior time, that seems not to surface in the hymns of this day, is a longing for heaven. I confess that it does not grab me, and I tend to focus on the here-and-now and keep heavenly hope as a "some day" eventuality. I remember this reflection from Peggy Noonan:

"It is 1956 in the suburbs in the summer. A man comes home from work, parks the car, slouches up the driveway. His white shirt clings softly to his back. He bends for the paper, surveys the lawn, waves to a neighbor. From the house comes his son, freckled, ten. He jumps on his father, they twirl on the lawn. Another day done. Now water the lawn, eat fish cakes, watch some TV, go to bed, do it all again tomorrow.

"Is he happy? No. Why should he be? But the knowledge of his unhappiness does not gnaw. Everyone is unhappy or, rather, everyone has a boring job, a marriage that’s turned to disinterest, a life that’s turned to sameness. And because he does not expect to be happy the knowledge of his unhappiness does not weigh on him. He looks perhaps to other, more eternal forms of comfort.

"Somewhere in the seventies, or the sixties, we started expecting to be happy, and changed our lives (left town, left families, switched jobs) if we were not. And society, that tough old galleon, strained and cracked in the storm.

"I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated—that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost somehow a sense of mystery—about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. The reason: if you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness—if that is what you believe, then you are more than disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are in despair."

Lydia McGrew said...

The whole question of a longing for heaven is a complex one. I think in many ways our longing for heaven has to have two elements, which might seem contradictory: First, we long for heaven as the fulfillment and source of all that is beautiful on earth. In that sense, every heart-stopping feeling of the glory and beauty of earth should lead us on to God and to a longing for what "lies behind" that glory and beauty and is its source. The more we love this earth, the more we should be willing to give it up in return for that which "eyes have not seen and ears have not heard" which is *in some sense* like it but also unimaginably different and more glorious. Second, we long for heaven as we see the insufficiency of earth, its weakness and even its evil. In this sense, God uses sickness, tragedy, evil, and loss, as well as our own struggles with sin and our sense of our sin nature to bring us to long for an existence free of all of these things.

So the longing for heaven has both a positive and a negative aspect, neither of which requires a very clear imagination of precisely what heaven is like. (Thank goodness, since we don't have one.)

I'm ambivalent about the quotation from Peggy Noonan. It's one of her "write like an angel" moments, for sure, and is very evocative. And she is obviously right about some things--the fleshly worldliness and materialism that has taken over our culture and the loss of any notion of longing for a better world.

On the other hand, her picture of the man in the 1950's who doesn't expect to be happy seems to me to have some problems. For one thing, there is in fact much happiness in the very picture she paints of a man who doesn't expect to be happy! He has a stable home, a loving child, a place to call his own. How many throughout history have longed for what he has? Noonan assumes for some reason that his marriage is indifferent, but that seems like a kind of gratuitous slap to 50's marriages. Why should they have been any more likely to be indifferent and cold than any other marriages? If a man does have an indifferent marriage, that is a great grief, but this particular man also has a loving son in which he _should_ take joy. Even the grass is beautiful and should be seen as beautiful.

It is not the vaguely unhappy and indifferent who are in the best position to long for heaven, really. The man Noonan portrays seems to be asleep (as she portrays him), whereas the longing for heaven is a situation of being very much wide awake. It's not a situation of dull endurance and vague unhappiness. The man she pictures needs to learn to love earth more before he can learn to love it less. That process will, of course, be painful. If he has a cold marriage he will suffer more from it if he gives up his dull indifference and becomes a holier and more alive and awake person. (Perhaps that will have the happy consequence of leading to the revival of his marriage, but there is no guarantee of that.)

John said...

Heaven is where Jesus is, and I want to go. Now. But quality of life is so high now that I'm sure it takes away some of the draw. Contrast to the older hymns, where we might imagine people facing short life spans in grim circumstances, and they longed--really longed--to leave this brutish life for something better. Was it Epictetus who pointed to the follow of viewing life like a traveler who, on finding a nice inn, quit the journey to stay there.

And Noonan hit something more than pleasant prose. The best life down here leaves us with an inner sense that something somewhere is better, with fulfillment not the least lacking. I appreciate her observation that this sense did not "gnaw" at the 50's guy's hope, because he has anchored that somewhere beyond. He probably had the American sense that we have it better here than anywhere on earth, and was confident that his boy would have it better yet.

As much as we have "Presence" here, the potential for closeness with the Lord gets maxed out no where short of Heaven.

agnes giroux said...

I just wrote music to this hymn ,,thank you for your comments
Blessing Agnes