Pleasant are Thy Courts Above
Henry Francis Lyte (1834)
How do you know when Scripture is a living presence, a flowing spring welling up in the hearts of the faithful? When they compose hymns that do not merely repeat a verse, but that meditate upon it and allow it to resound with other verses and other scenes in Scripture, so that the result is a subtle commentary on the text, and a moving and thoughtful work of art. That’s what we have in Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn, “Pleasant are Thy Courts Above,” sung best to the lilting and utterly lovely melody Maidstone.
The hymn is founded on psalm 84, “How lovely are they dwelling places, O Lord of hosts!” So lovely, indeed, that the psalmist says he is fainting for them, and just as the swallow — and think, swallows are migratory birds — finds a nesting place, so he too longs for his true nest, “even your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.” But that means he is not there yet. Is the world then a bitter place? Not so, says Lyte. He startles us by saying that even here, even in “this land of sin and woe,” where we long not to remain forever, the courts of the Lord are pleasant. It is a sweet thing to sing to God here on earth, and to praise his holy name:
Pleasant are Thy courts above
In the land of light and love;
Pleasant are Thy courts below
In this land of sin and woe.
O my spirit longs and faints
For the converse of Thy saints,
For the brightness of Thy face,
For Thy fullness, God of grace.
The second stanza takes up the motif of the swallow finding her nest, and applies it, with a light touch, to the birds of God that fly round his altars, that is, the angels. They are happy, but happier still are the souls that are on the journey to the Father, and find, at last, their rest in his bosom. At this, Lyte turns our attention to another bird in Scripture, the dove that Noah sent from the ark while the waters were still high. That dove went forth and found no repose, so she came back to the ark, until the waters receded enough for her to return with an olive branch in her beak; and the third time Noah sent her forth, she did not return. We are like that dove, except that the things of earth never will satisfy us, never will bring us the fullness of God and his grace. The ark now is no temporary thing. It is the very city of God:
Happy birds that sing and fly
Round Thy altars, O Most High;
Happier souls that find a rest
In a heavenly Father's breast!
Like the wandering dove that found
No repose on earth around,
They can to their ark repair
And enjoy it ever there.
Again taking his cue from the psalm, Lyte says we are on a journey, but we need not fear, because God is with us all the way, just as he made springs burst forth in the desert for the children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land. The waters are those of baptism, and the manna from the skies is the Eucharist. These give us food and drink, and so we go on, in that wonderful verse, “from strength to strength,” till we fall in adoration at the throne of God:
Happy souls, their praises flow
Ever in this vale of woe;
Waters in the desert rise,
Manna feeds them from the skies;
On they go from strength to strength
Till they reach Thy throne at length,
At Thy feet adoring fall,
Who hast led them safe through all.
In the final stanza, Lyte applies the prayer to himself, and we who sing it apply it to ourselves too. We want the prize — to dwell in the house of God; and Lyte is thinking now of Saint Paul, at the end of his life, who says to Timothy that he has fought the good fight and run the race to the finish, so that now he looks forward to a crown of glory. Every step of that journey, every inch of the race, is enabled by God’s love for us, his being our “sun and shield,” his guidance when we stray, his guardianship when we are tempted to sin. All his gifts flow down upon us like sweet rain, both grace and glory:
Lord, be mine this prize to win;
Guide me through a world of sin,
Keep me by Thy saving grace,
Give me at Thy side a place.
Sun and shield alike Thou art;
Guide and guard my erring heart.
Grace and glory flow from Thee;
Shower, O shower them, Lord, on me.
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