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Incarnation Hymnody: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

This entry is part of 6 in the series

"Incarnation Hymnody"

You can read more posts from the series by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Today’s post continues our series on “incarnation hymnody.”  Today: the ancient “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” and Charles Wesley’s “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.”

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“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” is an ancient song and an interesting example of singing texts with a different understanding than the text’s author intended.  Because the hymn is not as common as some, I here reproduce the text from its original English publication, Lyra Eucharistica:1

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth, our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture—in the Body and the Blood—
He will give to all the faithful his own Self for heavenly Food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth from the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six-winged Seraph; Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord most high.

A typical hymnal, in noting the source of the text, will point to the 4th-century “Liturgy of St. James,” originally composed in Greek.  The liturgy is still used today, and “Let All Mortal Flesh” is drawn from what is known as a Cherubic Hymn contained therein:

Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself. For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful. And the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.2

In the context of the Liturgy of St. James, the Cherubic Hymn clearly has reference to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.3  This is indicated by the language of Christ coming “forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful” in connection with the placement of the Cherubic Hymn in the liturgy: it occurs directly before the priest “brings in the holy gifts,” that is, the bread and wine.4  Indeed, outside Protestant circles, “Let All Mortal Flesh” is well-nigh invariably connected with the Eucharist.5

The clearest eucharistic connection in “Let All Mortal Flesh” is, of course, found in the second stanza:

King of kings, yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture—in the Body and the Blood—
He will give to all the faithful his own Self for heavenly Food.

Rather than appropriating the historical connection this text has with the eucharist, however—Christ’s “incarnation” in the bread and wine—Protestants tend to keep the focus on the incarnation of Christ in his first advent.6 So, while an advocate of Christ’s real presence in the communion elements might understand the stanza thus:

as of old on earth he stood . . . in human vesture—in the [physical, first-advent] body and the blood—[so, through a similar “incarnation,”] he will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food [i.e., through the eucharistic “body and blood”].”

Protestants who deny the real presence of Christ in the elements can sing the stanza with something like this understanding:

as of old on earth he stood . . . in human vesture [i.e., as an actual historical figure come to procure salvation for the faithful]—in the body [broken for our salvation] and the blood [poured out for our salvation]—[so, in the present day] he will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food [in the sense in which Protestants understand John 6:52-58].

The imagery of Christ descending to earth is quite striking: the advance troops of angels lead the way, rank upon rank of them, and Christ the divine Light7 comes to dispel the forces of darkness which have held sway over the world.

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I suspect that “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” is, by virtue of its title, often categorized with hymns such as “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in early Advent as being from the perspective of an Old Testament saint waiting in anticipation for the coming of Messiah.  If we had nothing but the title of the hymn to go by, this might be a good categorization, suggested by the plea “Come!” and the adjective “long-expected.”  But take a closer look at the stanzas:

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s Strength and Consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.

Born Thy people to deliver, Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Notice that Jesus is not only described as “long-expected,” but also as “born to set thy people free” — past tense!  “Come” in the first stanza’s first line actually connects grammatically with the verb “release”8 to give us “Come [and] release us from our fears and sins.”

One of the themes running through this short hymn is that Christ was born for the Gentiles as well as the Jews.  Indeed, this notion opens the hymn: “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free, from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.”  That “thy people” is contrasted (not equated) with “us” is made clear with the expansion evident in the second half of the first stanza: “Israel’s Strength and Consolation, [but what is more,] Hope of all the earth Thou art, Dear Desire of every nation, Joy of every longing heart.”

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About Chuck Bumgardner

I seek to be a student of the Scriptures — New Testament in particular — and also have a deep love for the praise of God through music in the church. I have at the present time the privilege of overseeing the music and leading the singing in my local church, a ministry which brings me great joy and provides a God-ordained outlet for my musical energies. I've enjoyed serving in music-related areas in the church since high school — some 25 years now — as a vocalist, choir member, choir director, and congregational songleader. In addition to serving as a member — and for a time as an assistant pastor — in various local churches, I've also had the privilege of traveling during my college years to many churches throughout the United States and Canada as part of a vocal ensemble. I hunger to see, both in my own church and beyond, an increased appreciation for the great historic music of the church in which theologically rich texts are wedded to music which provides an appropriate setting for those texts, and through which our affections are turned toward God. I'm also eager to see new contributions to the rich heritage of Christian music which share in the same characteristics.



Endnotes:

  1. Lyra Eucharistica: Hymns and Verses on the Holy Communion. Ancient and Modern; with Other Poems, ed. Orby Shipley, 2d ed. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869).  The capitalization follows the 1906 English Hymnal in which the text was popularized. []
  2. Too see this in context, look under the second major section of the liturgy. []
  3. Bradshaw notes that “Let All Mortal Flesh” reflects well a shift in eucharistic practice toward the end of the fourth century, a shift which involved “an attitude of great awe and fear directed toward the eucharistic elements” and which was a response to the post-Constantine influx of nominal Christians into the church. Paul F. Bradshaw, Early Christian Worship: A Basic Introduction to Ideas and Practice (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), 64-66. []
  4. Note Albert Edward Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns: Backgrounds and Interpretations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 287-88. []
  5. Its original publication was in a Roman Catholic book of “hymns and verses on the holy communion,” and it is categorized under “Holy Communion” in the popular Anglican English Hymnal of 1906. []
  6. See the discussion of this in, e.g., “Hymns of the Faith: ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” an online transcription of radio broadcast where Ligon Duncan, Derek Thomas, and Bill Wymond interact over this hymn. []
  7. perhaps “Light of light” is meant in the same sense as is found in “O Come, All Ye Faithful”: “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal.” []
  8. This is more evident in the original punctuation of Wesley’s text.  Today’s hymnals tend to put a semicolon after “Born to set thy people free”, but in the original text (look at hymn X in Wesley’s A collection of hymns for the nativity of our Lord), there is a comma. []

3 Responses to Incarnation Hymnody: "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"

  1. My wife and I discovered Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence when we got /Sun Of My Soul/ the Soundforth guitar CD a couple years ago. We fell in love with the music immediately, so looked up the words online and were pleased to find they were substantial (no pun intended–we were ignorant of the St. James association and assumed a proper Protestant meaning was intended). One of our favorites!

  2. Yes, there was enough to say about the text, that I avoided comment on the music … but since you mentioned it…

    PICARDY is a French folk song melody from around the 17th century, but it is certainly taking cues from a much older tradition of chant.  A beautiful wedding of text and tune!  To my understanding, the text as we have it today was matched with PICARDY for the first time in print in the English Hymnal of 1906 by none other than Ralph Vaughn Williams, who had a knack for finding (or writing!) just the right tune for a given text.

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