"Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child" (Luke 2:4).
This article explores the story behind and the scripture allusions in the hymn, "Once in Royal David's City."
Hymn Text Writer
Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) was an Anglo-Irish hymnodist and poet. Mrs. Alexander's hymns and poems though her lifetime number nearly 400 (Ref. 2). She is best known for her hymns, "All Things Bright and Beautiful," There is a Green Hill Far Away," and the Christmas carol, "Once in Royal David's City" (Ref. 3).
As an adult, Cecil Frances Alexander wrote primarily for children. She felt that the truths of Christianity could best be taught through hymns (Ref. 4 below). In 1848, Cecil Frances Humphreys (her name before she married) wrote a series of hymns to teach children about the Apostles Creed (Ref. 4, Ref. 5). She wrote "Once in Royal David's City" to explain to children the phrase from the Apostle's Creed that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:34-35 KJV, Ref. 4, Ref. 5).
Hymn Tune Composer
Henry John Gauntlett (1805-1876) was an English organist and songwriter (Ref. 6). He was also, in turn, a lawyer, author, organ designer, and organ recitalist (Ref. 7). He composed over 1,000 hymn tunes. His most famous tune is "Irby," the tune to which we sing the Christmas carol, "Once in Royal David's City" (Ref. 6).
I suggest that you refer to the attached hymn sheet music (Ref. 8) for the following discussion of Scripture and the four verses of hymn text.
"Once in royal David's city" (hymn, verse 1). In the Bible, the words, "city of David," refer to two locations. In the Old Testament, the city of David referred to the area of Jerusalem that David captured as described in 1 Chronicles 11:4-8. David built houses there and lived there (1 Chronicles 15:1). David was buried in the city of David (1 Kings 2:10).
In the New Testament, Luke refers to David's ancestral home, Bethlehem, as the city of David (Luke 2:4, 1 Samuel 17:12). Luke also tells what the angel said when the angel appeared to the shepherds and announced Jesus' birth. "For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11). After the angel had spoken to the shepherds, the shepherds were clear that the location they were to go visit was in Bethlehem (Luke 2:15).
"He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all" (hymn, verse 2). The words, "He came down to earth from heaven" refer to the incarnation of Christ. The Gospel of John says, "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
"He feels for all our sadness, and he shares in all our gladness" (hymn, verse 3). Jesus was fully God and fully human (John 1:1, John 1:14, Colossians 2:9, Ref. 9). As a human being, Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15-16). For example, Jesus knew grief and sorrow (Isaiah 53:3, John 11:33-35). Jesus knew joy (Hebrews 12:2).
"He leads his children on to the place where he has gone" (hymn, verse 4). Jesus said, "Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all" (Luke 18:17). The Gospel of John tells us, "But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
The hymn's words, "He leads his children," speak to me both of Jesus leading and we who believe in Jesus Christ following him (Ref. 10). Jesus said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6). We know that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven (John 14:2-3). Once we put our trust in Jesus Christ, he leads us and we follow him through life to his eternal home.
Listen and watch The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, UK sing "Once in Royal David's City." Click here for the YouTube link - Ref. 11. To see and follow the lyrics for the six verses sung in the video, click here - Ref. 12.
Thank you, Jesus, for coming down from heaven to earth to become a human being. Thank you, Jesus, that you know our emotions and that you strengthen us when we are weak. Thank you, Jesus, that when we believe in and accept you, you lead us through life to your eternal home.
4. Robert K. Brown, Mark R. Norton, "The One Year Book of Hymns," Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1995
12. (the link begins on the next line) https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/once_in_royal_davids_city.htm
"Teach me thy way, O Lord, and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies." (Psalm 27:11)
Today's lesson explores the Bible verses behind the excellent hymn, "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord."
Hymn Author and Composer
Benjamin Mansell Ramsey wrote the text for "Teach Me Thy Word, O Lord" based on Psalm 27:11 and several additional Scripture verses. Mr. Ramsey also composed the tune, "Camacha," which we use today when singing this hymn.
Benjamin Mansell Ramsey (1849 - 1923) was an English organist and amateur composer (Ref. 1). He also was a well-known music teacher near Bournemouth, England. Mr. Ramsey composed songs, piano pieces, and carols. He also wrote works on music theory (Ref. 2).
Wikipedia reports that Mr. Ramsey also conducted an amateur orchestra in the 1880s, and was involved in establishing the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra in 1893 (Ref. 1). He is best known for his hymn tune, "Camacha," and the text he wrote for "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord" in 1919.
For those of you who are interested in geography, Bournemouth is located on the south coast of England (see map, Ref. 3).
I suggest that you refer to the attached hymn sheet music for the following discussion of the Scripture verses and the hymn text (Ref. 4).
"Teach me Thy way." Mr. Ramsey skillfully wrote this hymn around the Biblical phrase, "Teach me Thy way." He included the phrase, "Teach me Thy way," 13 times in verses one through four. In the Old Testament, the Way of the Lord referred to keeping God's commandments (Deuteronomy 5:33, Ref. 5). In Joseph Benson's Commentary, the phrase "Teach me Thy way, O Lord" means "What course I shall take to please thee, and to discharge my duty, and to save myself from ruin" (Ref. 6). David, the Psalmist, asked God to teach him God's way in Psalm 27:11 and Psalm 86:11. Psalm 25:4-5 is similar. David’s request to God, "Teach me Thy way, O Lord," is an excellent example for us to follow (Ref. 5).
"Thy guiding grace afford" (hymn, verse 1). These words call to my mind Jesus' promise in John 16:13, "But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth." Jesus promised us as believers that the Holy Spirit will guide us. The Greek word for guide in John 16:13 is hodégeó, which literally means "to show the way" (Ref. 7, Ref. 8). Now we can see the close connection between the prayerful hymn words in verse 1, "Teach me Thy way, O Lord" and "Thy guiding grace afford." As believers in Christ, we need the Holy Spirit's guidance to teach us God's way and truth in each of our life's circumstances.
"Help me to walk aright, more by faith, less by sight" (hymn, verse 1). This hymn phrase likely refers to Paul's statement in 2 Corinthians 5:7, "For we walk by faith, not by sight."
"Make Thou my pathway plain" (hymn, verse 3). Psalm 27:11 begins with the words, "Teach me thy way, O Lord" and ends with the words, "and lead me in a plain path, because of mine enemies" (KJV translation). The transliteration of the Hebrew word for plain is mishor (Ref. 9). In Psalm 27:11, mishor means literally a level place (free from obstacles) and figuratively, a place of safety, comfort, prosperity (Ref. 9). In the literal sense, a plain is a level area or plateau as compared to a mountainous area, for example, 1 Kings 20:22-25. In the figurative sense, David's prayer to make his pathway plain (Psalm 27:11) was to request that God would make his way safe (Ref. 10).
Mr. Ramsey wrote in verse 3 of the hymn, "Shine through the cloud and rain, through sorrow, toil, and pain; Make Thou my pathway plain, teach me Thy way!" With these words, we pray that God will make our way safe and that God will comfort us through these difficult times.
"Until the race is won" and "Until the crown is won" (hymn, verse 4). Mr. Ramsey likely drew inspiration from 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 which alludes to both of these phrases. "Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away."
Let us resolve to run the race with endurance that God has given us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).
Listen. I suggest that you listen to one or both of the following Youtube videos to hear examples of how the hymn can be sung.
Traditional hymn in 3/4 time - The Metropolitan Tabernacle, London congregation singing "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord" - Click here.
This contemporary, 4/4 time solo arrangement of "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord" in 4/4 time will uplift you. Click here.
Apply. In what aspect of your life today do you need God to remove obstacles and to make your pathway plain or safe? Pray and ask God to teach you his way and to give you his guidance.
"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?" (Jeremiah 8:22)
Consider. Would you like to receive the balm that heals us unlike any other? Jesus Christ is the only balm that can heal our sin sickness. Only Jesus can make us whole. "There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul" (African-American spiritual).
Biblical Background. Gilead was a mountainous part of ancient Palestine, east of the Jordan River now corresponding to northwest Jordan (Ref. 1, Ref. 2). Gilead was known for its healing balm (Jeremiah 46:11). We first see balm (mastic) mentioned in scripture as precious merchandise coming from Gilead (Genesis 37:25). Joseph's father, Israel (Jacob), sent balm as a present to Joseph as lord of the land of Egypt (Genesis 43:11).
The prophet Jeremiah asked these questions, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? (Jeremiah 8:22). Judah had turned away from the Lord and had completely ignored repeated warnings of judgment (for example, Jeremiah 5:20-31). Spiritual balm, God's salvation and healing, was available; however, the people were not seeking God. Spiritual balm through the priests and prophets was ineffective because "the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule on their own authority" (Jeremiah 5:31).
About the Spiritual, "There is a Balm in Gilead." "There is a Balm in Gilead" and other African-American spirituals came out of the period of slavery in America (1619-1865; Ref. 4). This spiritual is evidence that African-American Christians knew and trusted Jesus for salvation and healing despite their condition on earth. African-American Christians answered Jeremiah's question with a resounding "Yes, there is a balm in Gilead" (Ref. 5).
The message of "There is a Balm in Gilead" still applies today. Despite whatever condition we are in, or whatever misery or difficulty we are going through, Jesus can heal our wounds and make us whole.
Apply. In what area of your life do you need the healing balm of Jesus Christ today?
Listen. I encourage you to listen and enjoy these two beautiful and moving presentations of "There is a Balm in Gilead."
"There is a Balm in Gilead" - Adventist Vocal Ensemble (well known on BBC).
"There is a Balm in Gilead" - East Carolina University Chamber Singers.
Daily Bible Verse (click)
Mr. Whitney V. Myers. Christian. For more information, please visit the Author Page.
I plan to provide postings every two weeks on Sunday evenings at 9 pm eastern U.S. time.
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23Sept18 - "Teach Me Thy Way, O Lord - Hymn Story and Scriptures"