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"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say"
Horatius Bonar; melody by Ralph Vaughan Williams
From the time I was only a boy, I can recall those words of Jesus that should bring us the greatest comfort. He raised his eyes to heaven and cried out to the Father in a burst of praise and thanksgiving, because the Father had hidden his secrets of love from the shrewd and the powerful in the world, and revealed them to little ones, the simple. And then Jesus called those same little ones to him, no matter how old they might be. I guess if you trust to your own power to raise yourself from the depths, you won’t be little enough to feel the love and the ever-reliable hope that stir in the heart, when Jesus says to us, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Why should those words be so deeply engraved in my memory? It wasn’t just that they are among the most beautiful in Scripture. I believe I heard them again and again at the stations of the Cross, when the sisters at our Catholic school brought us to the church to hear them and pray them, and then they take on a special power. We’ve all got to bear crosses in life, whether we believe in Jesus or not, but only Jesus can make them light. That’s not because he promises us good luck and fair weather. It’s deeper than that, unimaginably so. The psalmist says he’d rather spend one day at the door of the house of the Lord, than a thousand in the palaces of kings. Maybe we can say that we’d rather carry the cross with Jesus than breeze through the years without a thought of where we’re going and why.
The Reverend Horatio Bonar, the author of our Hymn of the Week, like so many other of his fellow ministers in that golden time of English hymnody, was a deeply learned man, fluent in Greek and Latin, and probably several of the modern languages — though in those days, people took things like French or Italian or German for granted, in somebody who had graduated from a university. Yet Reverend Bonar wore his learning lightly. He didn’t pay much mind to literary fashions, and his hymns don’t fight any old controversies all over again. What we get from him are hymns that are so simple, a child can understand them, yet they are not childish — not really meant for children, in fact. They are the distilled feelings and thoughts of a man who has dwelt lovingly upon the promises of the Lord; a man into whose soul, throughout all the changing times and moods of life, those promises have penetrated, quietly, like dye. Do you know the hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”? That is Bonar’s, too.
In “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” we’ve got three stanzas, each one given over to some trouble that besets the poet — that besets us in our imagination, as we sing. These troubles increase in urgency, as their cures increase in wonder. It is one thing to be weary; Jesus gives us a place of rest. It is more serious to be parched with thirst; Jesus gives us the “life-giving stream” of his own blood, the living waters he promised to the woman at the well. Worst of all is to be lost in darkness. Jesus then gives us the light, because he is himself the light, the Star to guide our path, the very Sun. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet,” said the psalmist. But we can say, “Christ is our light,” and in that light we walk, “till traveling days are done.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, "Come unto me and rest; Lay down, thou weary one, lay down Thy head upon my breast." I came to Jesus as I was, Weary, and worn, and sad; I found in him a resting place, And he has made me glad. I heard the voice of Jesus say, "Behold, I freely give The living water; thirsty one, Stoop down and drink, and live." I came to Jesus, and I drank Of that life-giving stream; My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, And now I live in him. I heard the voice of Jesus say, "I am this dark world's light; Look unto me, thy morn shall rise, And all thy day be bright." I looked to Jesus, and I found In him my Star, my Sun; And in that light of life I'll walk Till traveling days are done.
The Choir of Manchester Cathedral, under the direction of Christopher Stokes, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.” Don’t miss the lovely descant on the last verse.
ord & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.