Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer (LSB 918)
Our opening hymn for Sunday, August 1, has been in each of the LC-MS’s official main English language hymnals, though the first line has been changed. In our first English language hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book (1924), the first line was “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” It was hymn 340. In our second English language hymnal, The Lutheran Hymnal (1941), it was hymn 54. In Lutheran Worship it was hymn 220 but the first line was changed to “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer.” In our current hymnal, Lutheran Service Book, the first line has become “Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer.” In each of these hymnals, the hymn has three verses, though the original Welsh version published by William Williams (1717-1791) has five verses. The omitted stanzas are, in translation:
Open Thou the pleasant fountains,
Where the living waters flow:
Let the river of salvation
Follow all the desert through,
May Thy presence
Always lead and comfort me.
Lord, I trust Thy mighty power,
Wondrous are Thy works of old;
Thou deliverest Thine from thraidom
Who for naught themselves have sold;
Thou didst conquer
Sin and Satan and the grave.
(Translation from: The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal)
“Thraidom” is an old word meaning “bondage” or “servitude.” Peter Williams (not related) first translated the three verses we use into English in 1771. The hymn has been translated into at least 75 other languages. Though Williams was a prolific hymn writer (composing 147 hymns), this is his only hymn in Lutheran Service Book (as well as Lutheran Worship), though The Lutheran Hymnal has two of his hymns (this one and “O’er the gloomy hills of darkness” TLH 505).
The fact that this hymn was originally a Welsh hymn, written by a Calvinist Baptist preacher, underscores a truth I have long maintained; hymns are the most ecumenical part of Christian worship. Wherever the Gospel of Christ has gone, it has won souls to Jesus. Those believers have put their faith into song. Those songs travel across the boundaries that divide us, whether those boundaries are language, culture, geography or even theology. If the words have value, others use them, or modify them slightly to fit their context. Our current hymnal has hymns from every continent except Antarctica.
The hymn was originally published in 1771 and the tune by George William Warren was written in 1884. The following link will take you a congregation singing the hymn: https://youtu.be/RgzRWL4yRZI
The three verses in our current hymnal read, in translation:
Guide me, O Thou great Redeemer,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty;
Hold me with Thy pow’rful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
Open now the crystal fountain
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong deliv’rer, strong deliv’rer,
Be Thou still my strength and shield;
Be Thou still my strength and shield.
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to Thee;
I will ever give to Thee.
The major use of images from the Exodus years of wandering by Israel is apparent and, in my opinion, helped to popularize the hymn. We are also reminded of how Jesus called himself the bread from heaven. Passages to consider include:
You have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed;
you have guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exodus 15:13)
(From the song Moses sang after the crossing of the Red Sea.)
And the LORD went before them [Israel in the wilderness after leaving Egypt] by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.(Exodus 13:21-22)
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (John 6:32-35)
“[W]hoever drinks of the water that I [Jesus] will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14)
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)
Before we actually look at the lyrics, I want to address the “elephant in the room.” LSB and LW have modified the opening line, substituting “Redeemer” for “Jehovah.” For those who don’t know, “Jehovah” is one way the Hebrew letters used as God’s name in the Old Testament is translated. In modern translation these four letters are most often translated with the word “Lord” in capital letters, like so: LORD. In the Old Testament, we discover that Jehovah (the LORD) is our Redeemer.
Our Redeemer—the LORD of hosts is his name—
is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 47:4)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
There are other names used for Jehovah and linked with him being our redeemer as well.
They remembered that God was their rock,
the Most High God their Redeemer. (Psalm 78:35)
There are lots of other passages we could reference. Just a few are: Deuteronomy 7:8; 8:26; 13:5; 2 Samuel 7:23; 1 Chronicles 17:21; Psalm 44:26; etc. Bottom line, Jehovah is our Redeemer. The Old Testament images come with the idea that God has redeemed his people from their enemies, like Egypt and Babylon. These Old Testament redemptions are a foreshadowing, or type, of the greater redemption Jesus won for us. One of the reasons the more modern translation of the hymn might have substituted Redeemer for Jehovah is that few actually use “Jehovah” anymore, as it is based on a rather shaky translation tradition. The more common translation today is “Yahweh.” “Yahweh,” though, has only two syllables whereas “Jehovah” and “Redeemer” both have three syllables, which is a second reason the translation might have been changed to “Redeemer.”
In Exodus 13:21-22 (quoted above) we find God leading the people of Israel by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire through the wilderness (references in verse 2 of the hymn). Thus, by both day and night, the people could follow God, their Redeemer, through the barren wilderness. They had been a nation of slaves. Slaves are not the powerful people in the land. They are the weak. Who, if they had the strength to resist, would willingly become slaves? However, in verse one, we sing “Guide ME.” The hymn places us in the Exodus story. It is much like the way the Hebrews were instructed to celebrate the Passover. In Exodus 12, when the Passover is established, the future generations are considered when the people are told how to answer the future children when they ask why they celebrate the Passover. They are told to say it is a remembrance of when the Lord passed over “us,” thus including future generation in the great deliverance. The Redeemer God of Israel is our Redeemer God. The wilderness, then, becomes our current sin-broken world and we look forward to the return of Christ and the establishment of the New Heavens and the New Earth, alluded to in verse 3 by a reference to the Promised Land.
The line “bread of heaven” reminds us of how God fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. It also echoes John 6 (quoted above). There Jesus calls himself the bread that comes down from heaven (John 6:33). At this point in his “bread of life” discourse, by “eating” this bread that comes down from heaven [that is, Jesus], our Lord means believing in him (John 6:5). Later, in this sermon, as the congregation continues to think in terms of physical bread and then eating Jesus in a cannibalistic way, Jesus basically says, “Fine. If that is how you think, then yes, there is a way believers will eat my body and drink my blood. This will be done in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper” (John 6:53). Of course, by then Jesus has dropped the word “bread” in favor of “flesh.” While Williams probably only had believing in mind, we certainly remain in the spirit of our Lord’s teaching if we also think of the Lord’s Supper where he gives us his body and blood under the bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. And, as Luther once said, “Where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation.”
In verse 2, Williams directly uses the pillar of cloud and fire in his hymn. In 1 Corinthians Paul uses this Old Testament manifestation of Jesus to guide us into thinking of our baptism. Just as we are baptized into Christ through water so they were baptized into Christ through the cloud and the crossing of the Red Sea. Scientists today will tell us that clouds are basically water, so the connection is even stronger. He calls the manna “spiritual food,” again giving us a Lord’s Supper image. So we have baptism and the Lord’s Supper referenced.
Christ is our Rock of salvation (Psalm 62:2; 89:26). Paul sees the rock from which the Hebrews drank as an image of Jesus (Exodus 17:5-6; Numbers 20:7-8). This is the “water of life” that Jesus spoke of to the woman at the well in Samaria (see John 4 quote above). Those who drink of it will have eternal life. That is to say, those who believe in Jesus receive the redemption he has won for us. When Williams speaks of the “crystal fountain” he is directing us to this water from the Rock Story, but he accents the worth of Jesus by making the Rock heavenly crystal (Ezekiel 1:22; Revelation 21:11; 22:1).
Finally, the quote from Exodus 15 above comes from the song Moses sang after the people crossed the Red Sea. He sings the praises of his Redeemer, the Lord. So we stand with Moses and all those who have received the Lord’s redemption, and sing the praises of the Lord, our God, with this wonderful hymn.
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert