Music: The Advocate
Bishop J.C. Ryle wrote that:
Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can produce. It sticks in men’s memories when texts are forgotten. It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for ever; but praise shall never die.
He also said that there were three elements in a good hymn – sound theology, true experience and good poetry. It is no surprise to me then to find that he included the hymn I want to explore with you now in his 1868 book ‘Spiritual Songs’. It is a hymn written by the daughter of Rev. Sidney Smith, minister of Colebrooke Church, Aghalurcher, in Ireland. Her name is Charitie Lees Bancroft (1841-1923) and she wrote this hymn in 1863, four years after the 1859 Irish revival. She titled the hymn ‘The Advocate’, but it is better known today as ‘Before the Throne of God Above’. Let us consider it now:
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea.
A great high Priest whose Name is Love
Who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands,
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands
No tongue can bid me thence depart.
I love this first verse because it sings Scripture. Hebrews 4:14-16 urges us, ‘Since then we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession…Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’. John, the apostle of love, tells us that ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him’ (1 John 4:8-9). Isaiah, the great evangelist prophet, pictures God engraving us on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:16). And Paul in that tremendous section at the end of Romans 8 expresses that unshakeable foundation of our confidence writing, ‘Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us’.
In the second verse you get a real sense of the true experience that Bishop Ryle points us to as the mark of a good hymn:
When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.
Sometimes we think of guilt and temptation as contradictory forces in our lives, but true experience teaches us that often temptation and guilt conspire against us to ensnare us. If our guilt is given the final word on who we are then we will act in a way that falls short of God’s best for us as His redeemed children. It has been the experience of Christian people down the ages that as they look up to Christ Jesus they find freedom both from guilt and sin. The second part of the verse looks to the objective grounds of this freedom: Jesus’ death and God’s pardon.
In the final verse of the hymn Charitie Lees Bancroft urges us to do what we have just been singing about doing, ‘Upward I look and see Him there’. We look up and behold the risen Lamb:
Behold Him there the risen Lamb,
My perfect spotless righteousness,
The great unchangeable I AM,
The King of glory and of grace,
One in Himself I cannot die.
My soul is purchased by His blood,
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ my Saviour and my God!
This is the most beautiful vision of spiritual union with Christ. For salvation is not a gift Christ gives, rather it is the gift Christ is. For Christ the unchangeable I AM, the King of glory and of grace, is our risen sacrificial Lamb, more than that our spotless righteousness, and united in Him we cannot die. This is the great mystery of our faith, ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27).
There is so much more I could write about this hymn, but I have already gone on too long. So I think the best thing I can do now is leave you to sing along to it and pray that God confirms the words in your heart!