“Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise”

My favorite hymn is “Nearer My God To Thee.”  For those who may have only ever encountered this song aurally or reading it as it’s arranged in a hymn book, try looking at it as a simple poem:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross that raiseth me;
Still all my song would be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

There let the way appear steps unto heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Then with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Or if on joyful wing, cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upwards I fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

The first two verses are pretty standard: they proclaim to the Lord that no matter what kind or degree of suffering the speaker may be called to pass through (“E’en though it be a cross” and “Though…darkness be over me, my rest a stone”), he or she will still strive to seek out and follow God’s way.  It might be a cliche of religious thought, but it’s an important one, and phrased quite poignantly here. 

In fact, I like how, in the first verse, the image of the cross “raising” someone towards God implies that enduring hardship itself can be a spiritual growth experience, a truth that we can too easily forget when we’re in the midst of such trials.  This hymn helps me remember that.  That first verse then goes on to proclaim that, even if it’s the suffering of the cross that draws us near to God, we’ll still worship Him in song and seek to draw even nearer.  Now that’s piety. 

The last verse takes this to the other extreme: if and when we fly through heaven towards God, in the very moment of inheriting our eternal salvation, we should still plead to become more unified with His will through our submission.  So at both ends of the spiritual spectrum–abject suffering and absolute ecstasy–and at all points in between–our lives are to be spent focused on bringing ourselves more in line with the will of God and joyfully worshipping Him as we do so.

That alone would make it one monumentally great hymn.  But it gets even better.  The fourth verse is what makes this supernal work of pious poetry my favorite part of the hymnal canon.

Sandwiched after the diligent declaration that our every waking thought should resonate with praise and before the insight that our “woes” will be used as instruments in training ourselves in cheerful discipleship, this powerful spiritual thought appears: “Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise.”

This one line has actually come to me and offered comfort at challenging times of my life.  One one level, I appreciate it merely as a clever pun: Bethel was a holy place in the Old Testament, most notably as the site of the stone altar that marked the place where Jacob saw the Lord in a dream (Genesis 28:16-22).  The line in the song, then, may be understood metaphorically as a commitment to persevere in trials (“out of these stony griefs”) by turning our sorrows over to the Lord, even to the point of somehow employing them in His service (“Bethel I’ll raise”); but it can also be read literally as a historical reference to Jacob. 

The idea of “stony griefs” becoming building materials in the construction of a life of praise is very attractive to those of us occasionally inclined to melancholy.

And you just thought it was a nice little song to listen to while the Titanic was sinking…

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One comment on ““Out of my stony griefs, Bethel I’ll raise”

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