Hymn: O God of Bethel Philip Doddridge Rejoice and Sing 71
O God of Bethel, by Whose hand
Thy people still are fed;
Who through this weary pilgrimage
Hast all our people led!
To thee our humble vows we raise,
to thee address our prayer,
and in thy kind and faithful hands
we lay our every care.
Through each perplexing path of life
Our wandering footsteps guide;
Give us each day our daily bread,
And raiment fit provide.
Oh, spread Thy covering wings around,
till all our wanderings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode
Our souls arrive in peace!
This was written by Doddridge, and first appeared in print in 1745. It reflects the story of Jacob’s vow with God told in our Bible reading today. The tune in Rejoice and Sing, Salzburg, is by J Michael Hadyn and was part of a group of tunes used for metrical psalm singing, and dates from 1795. The pairing between the tune and words was made by the Revised Church Hymnary, and Congregational praise and Rejoice and Sing have followed this pattern. It was sung for many years in the opening worship of the Annual Assembly (known as the “May Meetings”) of the Congregational Union of England and Wales.
Genesis 28: 20-22
Then Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.’
Many members of our churches in their 60s and upwards will remember singing this hymn often, those in their 40s and 50s less so, and those in their 20s and 30s may have never sung it. How did a hymn that was a staple of tradition for well over 200 years lose popularity? I’d like to suggest three reasons: one is that as the knowledge of and familiarity with the Bible stories, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures, has decreased in many congregations then the hymns which reflect those stories have less meaning; another reason is the language and speech patterns have come to sound rather archaic in a the current age; and another reason is that none of the tunes it is usually sung to are particularly special to a lot of folk. Of course, those are only my opinions!
Yet, this is a hymn which helped many generations of our ancestors on their spiritual journey. Can it help us on ours in the 21st century? Philip Doddridge was most notably minister of a church in Northampton, and taught in a Dissenting Academy which moved around Northamptonshire. He lived in an age when it was legal to worship as a Nonconformist, but various civil rights were denied, and it was certainly not very fashionable. Reading the Genesis passage, we find a story of God’s protection, and in this hymn we discover a prayer for God’s guidance and protection, based upon the firm conviction that God’s promises are sure. Our times are radically different to those Doddridge in the first half of the eighteenth century, yet there are many parallels with our age, and we need God’s guidance and protection. If we rediscover the story from Genesis, this hymn can still speak to us today.
Near to us, though
Eternity cannot hold you;
Receive us by your grace
Our heavenly Father –
Under the protection of your love is where we long to
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins is the minister of Elstead & Farnham URC in Surrey and Clerk to the General Assembly of URC.