Tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever. He will guide us forever.
When our hymnals are so filled with great hymns written by British, Irish, Scottish, and American composers, it can be easy to think that God has specially blessed the English-speaking Church with all the best hymnists. But the reality, of course, is that there is a vast treasure trove of hymns written in other languages, and only a small percentage of those are translated into English. To our benefit, “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” is one of those English language imports.
As the Great Awakening spread revival throughout the world, music became one of the primary means of spreading the Gospel. So when a young Welshman named William Williams was converted under the open air preaching of Howell Harris, he became passionate about reaching his own people with songs they could understand. Known as the “Watts of Wales,” Williams composed over 800 hymns in the Welsh language, while travelling by foot and horseback over 95,000 miles as an itinerant preacher.
Late in his life, Williams did translate this, the most popular of his hymns, into English, and from there it quickly gained the attention of Christians all over the world. It remained especially beloved among Welsh Christians, and early in the 20th century it was paired with a tune by Welsh composer John Hughes, a Baptist preacher. The powerful combination of this text and melody proved so compelling that when Welsh troops belted it out in the trenches of World War I, German troops began to sing along.
This hymn was famously sung at the wedding of Charles and Diana, the Prince & Princess of Wales, and more recently at the marriage of their son, Prince William:
David Potter recently recorded this text set to a new (and radically different) melody on his album “Man of Sorrows, Glorious King.” Most of the lyrics are original to Williams, though Potter has paraphrased a rarely-used stanza (Williams wrote more than the three which typically appear in hymnals) to create a bridge in this funky arrangement:
And here’s another good arrangement by Jeremy Casella of Indelible Grace Music:
Guide me, O my great Redeemer,
pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but you are mighty;
hold me with your powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me now and evermore,
feed me now and evermore.
Open now the crystal fountain,
where the healing waters flow.
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
ever be my strength and shield,
ever be 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 sing to you,
I will ever sing to you.
Much has changed since Williams first penned these words, but one thing hasn’t changed: Man is still weak, and God is still mighty. We are utterly dependent on His providence; that’s been the case since the day God breathed life into the first man.
In “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” Williams frames his prayer for personal guidance in terms of God’s deliverance of Israel from their Egyptian captivity. The first stanza recalls how God fed the Israelites with bread from Heaven to sustain them in the desert. The manna that fell from the sky met their needs, but it also pointed toward Christ, the true “Bread of Heaven.” Born in David’s town of Bethlehem (which is translated literally “House of Bread”), Christ came down from Heaven to meet our every need. Each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper, we remember the breaking of the Man who called himself “the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), who promised that those who come to Him will never hunger or thirst again.
The second stanza pictures God as the pillar of cloud and fire, which gave Moses and his people both guidance and protection during the Exodus. Throughout Scripture, God is referred to as our “Strong Deliverer,” our shield and defender. In Isaiah 41, God promised to hold Israel in his powerful right hand, saying “fear not, I am the one who helps you.” In Christ, we are the heirs of that promise.
At the end of Israel’s long wandering, they stood at “the verge of Jordan,” waiting to cross over into the promised land of Canaan. As Christians, we also look forward to entering a Promised Land, where we will ever sing songs of praises to our God. It is Christ alone who will deliver us from all our fears when he brings about the death of death and takes us home to Heaven.
The words of this hymn are a true and fitting prayer every day of the year, but the first of the year seemed like a particularly good time to be reminded of these promises. I pray the Lord’s blessing on you this year. May the Great Jehovah be your guide in 2014, and forever after!
- Wolgemuth, Bobbie. When Morning Gilds the Skies: Hymns of Heaven and Our Eternal Hope, pp. 63-65.
- Morgan, Robert. Then Sings My Soul, p. 61.