This hymn text was written by William How (1823-97), the son of an English lawyer. He was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1847. He served many parishes in England, but became known as the “Poor Man’s Bishop” because of his work in East London.
This text is based on Proverbs 6: 23: “Your commandment is a lamp, and the law is a light.” This hymn is addressed to Christ. Recall John 1: 1: “In the beginning was the Word. . .” This term Word is translated from the Greek word logos, which means “revelation” or perhaps “ultimate truth” and can be applied also to the study of mathematics, as mathematics was always seen as revealing the ultimate perfection of God. (Nothing else in the universe was seen as being as perfect as math; theologians and philosophers might be wrong, scientists may develop a wrong hypothesis or theory, we may not work a math problem correctly, but the essence of numbers and their relationships can never change, no matter where and when they occur; hence, a reflection of God.) One can see this further on in the first stanza: “O Truth unchanged, unchanging. . .” The first stanza expresses thanks for revelation through Scriptures (“from the hallowed page”) that has remained unchanged through the centuries (“Shines on from age to age.”)
The second stanza contains a nautical reference: “It is the chart and compass That, all life’s voyage through, Mid mists and rocks and quicksands Still guides, O Christ to You.”
The third stanza is a prayer that we offer to God, that we might be witnesses (“a lamp of purest gold”) to bear His light “before the nations,” as presumably people of the past had done (“as of old.”)
As a general comment, this hymn text is typical of Victorian-era hymnody. Queen Victoria (reigned 1837-1901) was crowned when “the sun never set on the English nation,” for English territories ranged from Asia (India) to southern Africa and to many of the geographies in between. Throughout the nineteenth century, England gradually lost these colonies as the balance of power shifted from Europe to the nascent American nation. Rebellions of indigenous peoples and conflicts with other European nations eventually would reduce England’s territory back to its small island. This, of course, was a blow to their national morale, and many of the Victorian hymns express a conservatism which seems to long for better times (when England still ruled the world), but still couched in spiritual terms. These hymns frequently emphasize God’s unchanging nature, as a comfort to a people whose society was undergoing constant change. (Consider the words from the great evening hymn “Abide With Me”: “O, Thou that changest not, abide with me.” These are similar expressions from a Victorian writer.) There is a longing for and even romanticization of the past, evident in this hymn from the phrase “Your true light as of old.” Yet, as these hymns express God’s immutability (unchanging nature), they are good for us today as well, in a society in which “change is the only constant,” to use a cliché. The internet and other technological innovations have sped our rate of technological sophistication and development. New business models and new paradigms are in constant evolution, or at least so we are told And yet, it is good for us to realize that God and His Word offers unchanging spiritual nourishment in ephemeral times.