Forty Days and Forty Nights

Another piece in our occasional “Study” series. Our friend Revd Grant Brockhouse explains some of the biblical themes and history of the well known Lenten hymn:

Forty Days and Forty Nights

There would hardly be an Anglican Church that would not sing this hymn at the beginning of Lent, the Season of the Church’s year which begins on Ash Wednesday. It is not really great poetry and so the original nine verses by George Hunt Smyttan 1822-1870 have been shortened or adapted and altered in various hymn books over the years. Smyttan was ordained in 1848 and in 1850 became the Incumbent of Hawksworth in Nottinghamshire. There he ministered for 20 years, dying in 1870. The hymn was first published in The Penny Post of 1856. Francis Pott (1832-1909) adapted it for Hymns Ancient and Modern of 1861 and further alterations were made by Michael Forster b 1946.

This is no great theological poem but simply a look at the physical circumstances of Our Lord’s temptations in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. It’s a comment on Mark’s short version of the temptations (Mark 1:12,13) and is not really concerned with Jesus’ inner spiritual conflict. The two opening verses provide this picture of Jesus in the wilderness.

Forty days and forty nights

Thou wast fasting in the wild;

Forty days and forty nights,

Tempted and yet undefiled.

Sunbeams scorching all the day,

Chilly dew-drops nightly shed,

Prowling beasts about thy way,

Stones thy pillow, earth thy bed.

In the Old Testament we are told that Moses fasted 40 days and 40 nights (actually twice over) because of the sinfulness of the people as they wandered through the desert on the way to the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 9:9). He thus abated the anger of God. Similarly, the prophet Elijah fled for 40 days and 40 nights (1Kings 19) to the mountain of God before God sent him back to his people to get them to change their sinful ways. Now the phrase 40 days and 40 nights may be a symbolic understanding of a lengthy period of time possibly considered to be the longest a human being could exist without eating before dying. Notice also that on the Mount of Transfiguration it is Moses and Elijah who converse with Jesus. Jesus thus follows in this tradition of the leaders of God’s people pleading for their salvation. The first verse also reminds us that Jesus, although tempted, never sinned (Hebrews 4:15).

Two thousand years ago there were indeed lions in the wilderness of Judaea. Not so now but back in those days there were wild beasts in the country. Lions and Syrian brown bears were commonplace. Mark’s short account of the temptations mentions that angels ministered to Jesus while he was amongst ‘wild beasts’. (Mark 1:13)

Let us thine endurance share,

And awhile from joys abstain,

With thee watching unto prayer,

Strong with thee to suffer pain.

It is interesting to see that the second line of this verse has been changed by Michael Forster to ‘And from earthly greed abstain’. Similar in meaning? Perhaps, but to my mind there is a move away from the solemnity and joylessness of Lent to a general abstinence of greed. Whatever it is we can, though, fully understand the identification with Our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane while Peter, James and John slept even though Jesus had asked them to remain praying (Mark 14:32-42; Matthew 26:36-46; Luke 22:39-46).

Smyttan’s original 3rd verse was thus: 

And if Satan, vexing sore,

Flesh or spirit should assail,

Thou, his vanquisher before,

Grant we may not faint nor fail.

While we can here envisage the enemy of Christ, especially in the three recorded temptations experienced by him in the wilderness in the person of Satan, Forster changes the enemy to a more generalised ‘evil’. ‘Then if evil on us press, flesh or spirit to assail, Victor in the wilderness, help us not to swerve or fail’. Have we as Christians now decided that our enemy is just a generalised ‘evil’ rather than a personalised Satan? Hmmm!

So shall we have peace divine,       So shall peace divine be ours;

Holier gladness ours shall be,          holy gladness, pure and true:

Round us too shall angels shine,     come to us, angelic powers,

Such as ministered to thee.               such as ministered to you.

I like the traditional words much better although the meaning of the penultimate verse is the same. As mentioned earlier St Mark states that angels came to Jesus after he had been tempted (Mark 1:13). It is natural to desire those heavenly beings also to help us to overcome our daily temptations.

Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,

Ever constant by thy side,

That with thee we may appear

At the eternal Eastertide.

One of the reasons that this hymn, however manipulated, is so beloved by Anglicans is that, perhaps, even at the beginning of Lent, we can see the resolution of our daily struggles, through Lent or indeed life, focussed on the supreme celebration of Easter, the Resurrection of Christ. Organists sometimes enjoy this since the usual tune ‘Aus der tiefe’ or ‘Heinlein’ is in a minor key and rather naughtily they can finish on a major chord, therefore musically emphasising the positive nature of Jesus’ Resurrection!

Grant Brockhouse

After our last edition in our study series, we received some adverse feedback regarding the link we added and which in some instances threw up a number of advertisements unrelated to the choral piece intended. Please accept our apology for that. In view of the “prowling beasts about our way” in the cyber world, our practice henceforth will be to advise you to look up your own version of the hymn if you wish to hear it. (Ed.)

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