As a young man, Scotsman George Matheson (1842–1906) exhibited a quick mind and a fervent devotion to the Lord. He began to train for the ministry, but his already poor eyesight had begun to fail completely. He raced through studies at the University of Glasgow and graduated at the age of 19, but was fully blind by the following year. His sister learned Greek and Hebrew alongside him to help him complete his degree. Shortly after this, George began pastoral ministry as an assistant, then became pastor in the Scottish village of Inellan in 1868.
According to many sources, George was engaged to be married, but his fiancée, upon learning of his blindness, broke off the engagement. George remained a bachelor for the rest of his life.
In 1882, George’s sister got married. Alone in his home on the night of the wedding, George began to reflect on the nature of true love. God’s love, he realized, was one which would pursue him and would never let him go. In his written account of that evening, he cryptically refers to something which had happened to him and was weighing on his mind. In the middle of his grief, George turned his mental agony into worship. In only about five minutes’ time, he wrote a four-stanza poem exploring four different images for God’s unfailing love.
This love, Matheson explains, is greater than anything human. Our only response is to give back to God the life we own Him anyway. Our life, borrowed from Him, is like a little stream feeding into the immensely greater ocean of His life and love.
Light provides the second metaphor for the poem. Our lives are a faint, flickering torch ignited by the sunshine blaze of God’s love. Our only response, once again, is to give that torch back to Him.
Matheson then refers to God’s love in terms of joy that pursues us through our pain. Joy is the rainbow that we trace through rainclouds, serving as a promise (as the rainbow is in Scripture, Gen 9:12-17) that the future will be brighter. We may know the truth about God, but God also speaks to our hearts to help us feel the reality of His promises. “Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Ps 30:5).
The hymn concludes by addressing the cross. The poet has now surrendered to God’s love, looking upon the crucified Christ and responding with a rejection of selfish ambition. What is it that “from the ground…blossoms red”? Hymnologist Albert Bailey explains: “Then behold! a miracle: out of the dead earth springs a red flower! It is the symbol of passionate love and of self-sacrifice, endowed with the fadeless splendor of immortality.” (Albert Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns, p. 460).
The traditional tune comes from Glasgow organist Albert Peace, who wrote it while reading Matheson’s words only a few years after they were written. Reflective as it is of the late 19th century, the chromaticism of the harmonies tends to make the tune sound dated and to obscure the brilliance of the poetry. In 2016, composer Elaine Hagenberg wrote a new tune for this classic text which beautifully captures the passion of Matheson’s poem. While not intended for congregational singing, this piece provides a fresh expression of a powerful poem expressing a sure faith in God through the most difficult of circumstances.
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to Thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in Thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
—George Matheson, 1882