When Trinity Church gathers for corporate worship this Sunday, we’ll be singing a new song. Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah was written in 1745 by a Welshman named William Williams. It’s poetically beautiful, theologically deep, scripturally saturated, and worshipfully faithful in its prayer while still remaining profoundly honest about the anxieties, fears, and doubts that God’s people experience this side of resurrection.
Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah is what we might call a “biblically thick” song. It’s dense, full of scriptural allusions and echoes. Most of its images are pulled from the Old Testament—particularly Israel’s wilderness wanderings—and they’re intended to help us recall God’s faithfulness in the past while simultaneously prompting our prayers for his provision in the present and stimulating our hope in his promises for the future. So singing this song well requires not only that we become familiar with the melody and rhythm, but even more importantly that we become familiar with the rich biblical categories, metaphors, and resonances that make up the substance of the song. In other words, we could sing this song extraordinarily well (beautifully and on pitch) and not sing this song well at all (failing to understand and internalize what we’re actually praying to God).
So in preparation for our gathering on Sunday, I’d like to explore this song a bit and offer a suggestion for how we might sing it together. Rather than walk through the song line-by-line and explain the references and theology behind each verse, I want to give an example of how your heart might pray this song, how I want my heart to pray this song. Hopefully this sample prayer will not only draw out some of the biblical connections but will also help us present our sung petition to God with a fitting and heartfelt understanding, desperation, thanksgiving, and hope.
A Prayer In Song
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.
Covenant Lord and lover of my soul, you have made me yours and granted me to be a citizen of your kingdom. But for now, I am still a pilgrim, hoping for my homeland, holding onto your promises, living by faith and not by sight in the midst of a creation marred and distorted by sin. I need your faithfulness. I need your wisdom. I need you.
I am weak, but Thou art mighty; hold me with Thy powerful hand.
I am frail in body, in heart, in commitment, in worship. Temptations to sin, oppression for following Jesus, and suffering in a broken world seem to press in on all sides, and I feel powerless to stand faithfully. But in my weakness, I know that you are strong. Preserve me in your grace. Hold me in the powerful, loving hand that was pierced for me, and help me know that there is no safer place I could ever be.
Bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore; bread of heaven, feed me now and evermore.
You gave manna from heaven to feed Israel in the wilderness. But in Jesus you have given me a better bread that feeds my heart's deeper hunger with a more permanent satisfaction. This day and always, nourish me with the soul-filling gift of yourself, for in Jesus I truly have everything I need.
Open now the crystal fountain, whence the healing waters flow;
Father, you provided water in the desert to refresh your people. But Jesus promises to be living water, that all who drink by faith might never thirst again. Refresh my heart with your gospel! Heal my grumbling, fickle, joyless spirit! Let me not be content to drink from false fountains that leave me more thirsty than before, but take me again and again to your Son where I might drink my fill and have my spiritual thirst quenched eternally.
Let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.
You were present with Israel in their wanderings—a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When Christ ascended as king, he sent your Holy Spirit—a rushing wind and tongues as of fire—to be present with me and in me on my pilgrim journey. There is nowhere I can go where your Spirit will not be with me, convicting and sanctifying and ministering and pointing me to Jesus. Make me aware of your presence and receptive to the work your Spirit would accomplish in me.
Strong Deliverer, be Thou still my Strength and Shield. Strong Deliverer, be Thou still my Strength and Shield.
You delivered Israel from their bondage in Egypt, and through the cross you have delivered me from my bondage to idols and sin and death and granted me the freedom of knowing and belonging to you. In Jesus, you have truly been my shield, receiving and absorbing all the condemnation, shame, and death that I deserved so that no matter what accusations or attacks are mounted against me, I am secure in your love. Strengthen me with that hope, that I might remain steadfast and faithful.
When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
All my life takes place on the edge of Jordan, like the Israelites on the river bank looking over into the promised land of rest. A truer rest is promised me in Jesus—a rest that I taste now, a rest that I will fully enter into when your kingdom comes in glory. But I’m still on this side of Jordan, and that is sometimes a very fearful thing. Calm my anxieties and comfort my fears with your gospel as I await the day when I will dwell in your presence, face-to-face forever.
Death of death, and hell's destruction, land me safe on Canaan's side.
Where did death die? In Jesus’ death! Where was hell destroyed? In the destruction of Christ! All the death and hell that I had earned was thrust upon the shoulders of your beloved Son—and he overcame them in his resurrection—that I might have eternal life in joyful fellowship with you. Jesus entered the darkness of Golgotha so that I could enter the light of your presence! Jesus stepped into the condemnation of the grave so that I could step into the acceptance of your grace! I will surely land safe in Canaan, you will surely bring me home to your promised kingdom, because at the cross Jesus dealt with every obstacle and threat that could ever keep me from you.
Songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee; songs of praises, I will ever give to Thee.
Because of your faithfulness, I will praise you. Because of your grace, I will praise you. Because of your promises, I will praise you. Because you have invited me to behold your glory, I will praise you as long as I have breath, and I will praise you in resurrection joy with a song that stretches out into the far reaches of forever.
And so the prayerful plea becomes a cry of confidence. I look forward to singing with you this Lord’s Day.