Study. An Occasional Series.

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In the first edition of our new series, our friend Grant has been at work and in this post we learn about an evening hymn….. Grant writes:

God, that Madest Earth and Heaven

I thought we could look at a short evening hymn which is obviously often sung at Evensong. It consists of only two stanzas, the first written by Reginald Heber 1783-1826, Bishop of Calcutta from 1823-1826, This evening hymn was first published (posthumously in 1827) in a hymn book for children and young people in Dublin. The second stanza was added by Richard Whately 1787–1863, Archbishop of Dublin from 1831 and incidentally a promoter of the works of Jane Austen.

God that madest earth and heaven,

darkness and light;

Who the day for toil hast given,

for rest the night;

May thine angel guards defend us,

slumber sweet thy mercy send us,

holy dreams and hopes attend us,

this live-long night.

This verse is a commentary on Genesis 1, the first myth of Creation accounted for in the Bible. The second half, though, adds the idea that the angels are there to aid us and during the evening hours to defend us against those things which trouble us at night. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness the devil unsuccessfully used Psalm 91:11,12 as a text ‘He (God) will command his angels…..to protect you’. Another Psalm declares ‘The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.’ Psalm 34:7. In the time of Our Lord it was a common belief that angels were not only messengers from God but also sent by him to help us in our times of need.

Guard us waking, guard us sleeping,

and, when we die,

May we in thy mighty keeping

all peaceful lie:

When the last dread call shall wake us,

do not thou our God forsake us,

but to reign in glory take us

with thee on high.

This second stanza is that written by Archbishop Richard Whateley and is a free paraphrase of the antiphon used before and after the Nunc Dimittis in the evening Office of Compline. The Prayer Book (1928) states ‘Preserve us, O Lord, while waking, and guard us while sleeping, that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.’ The ‘dread call’ is a reference to St Paul’s comment to the Thessalonians ‘The Lord himself, with a cry of command …..and with the sound of God’s trumpet will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.’ 1Thessalonians 4:16

It is said that Reginald Heber heard the Welsh tune Ar Hyd y Nos and then thought of the words. The tune has been used ever since for this hymn. In its two stanza form it was first published in Whateley’s ‘Sacred Poetry’ in 1838.

Perhaps the 19th Century Church found only two verses rather short for their purposes and so by 1864 an extra two verses were added. They certainly have never found their way into more modern hymn books but I have appended them here for your own perusal.

And when morn again shall call us

to run life’s way,

May we still, whate’er befall us,

thy will obey.

From the power of evil hide us,

in the narrow pathway guide us,

nor thy smile be e’er denied us

the live-long day.

Holy Father, throned in heaven,

All holy Son,

Holy Spirit, freely given,

Blest Three in One

Grant thy grace, we now implore thee,

till we cast our crowns before thee,

and in worthier strains adore thee,

whilst ages run.

These verses were probably added by the Rev’d William Mercer (1811-1873) whose ‘The Church Psalter And Hymn Book’ of 1854 was at some stage the most popular hymn book of the time. I think, however, we can all be pleased that they never entered later mainstream hymnbooks as they change the evening thrust of the first two verses!

Grant Brockhouse 

As a special treat too, we can hear the hymn being sung by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge and by whose permission we are able to include it here.

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