William Walsham How (1823-1897) studied at Oxford, after which he took Holy Orders. His career as an Anglican priest would commence with several rural appointments until in 1879 he was consecrated Suffragan Bishop for East London, and in 1888 Bishop of Wakefield. Howe was actively involved in the evangelistic missionary organization, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, having written a number of volumes including a Commentary on the Four Gospels, Plain Words for Children, Three All Saints Summers, and several volumes of sermons. Howe, who also penned the famous hymn “For All the Saints,” edited Church Hymns of 1871, and in total wrote about sixty hymns.
John Julian, in his 1907 Dictionary of Hymnology, asserts that How combined “. . .pure rhythm with great directness and simplicity. . . [his] compositions arrest attention more through a comprehensive grasp of the subject and the unexpected light thrown upon and warmth infused into facia and details usually shunned by the poet, than through glowing imagery and impassioned rhetoric.” Indeed, his texts are at once scripturally profound and simple.
O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high, O Truth, unchanged, unchanging, O light of our dark sky; We praise Thee for the radiance that from the scripture’s page, a lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.
We recall here the first chapter of John in which we are told “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Christ is the logos, the Word, which permeates the universe and who became incarnate in flesh. In fact, this is the Gospel of John’s only nativity narrative, eschewing as it does the historical accounts of the other Gospel writers. John intended for the philosophical Greeks to understand that Christ only was the light. The stanza echoes the Old Testament lesson this morning from Deuteronomy in which God commands, “. . . you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you life down, and when you rise.” God’s Word, then, both in the Old and New Testament, should form the basis for the Christian life.
The Church from our dear Master received the word divine, and still that light is lifted o’er all the earth to shine. It is the chart and compass that o’er life’s surging sea, mid mists and rocks and quicksands, still guides, O Christ, to Thee.
We recall Psalm 119: 105, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Secular society would have us pulled various directions, blowing as with the wind. Howe here employs a nautical metaphor—Christ is the chart and compass that guides us through the many temptations of life. This stanza reminds us that scripture is sufficient, that it was received from “our dear Master,” the Word divine, and it alone imparts light.
O make Thy Church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold, to bear before the nations Thy true light as of old; O teach Thy wandering pilgrims by this their path to trace, till, clouds and darkness ended, they see Thee face to face.
This stanza uses eschatological imagery which reminds us of the Christian’s final goal of attaining eternal life. The Church is of “purest gold,” presumably having been filtered of its dross through the heat of earthly trial. Interestingly, Howe’s ecclesiology acknowledges both the “Church” and the individual. He never leaves a thought without bringing it back to personal application. Although here we pray for the Church Universal, we also ask Christ to guide us, the “wandering pilgrims.”
This hymn reminds us of one of Martin Luther’s solas: Sola Scriptura. Scripture is sufficient for our knowledge of God. Certainly we want to think theologically and critically about life, the universe, and God—He does not call for us to be unthinking dolts. Yet, we do not have to ponder these great mysteries, since scripture is sufficient. Having the faith of a child with the knowledge of God provided through scripture alone is all a Christian really needs.