For All the Saints
Christ Reflected in His People
Hebrews 12 begins by proclaiming:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us….”
Certainly, the cloud of witnesses portrays saints who have left this earthly life and whose souls are now found in heaven with the LORD. Perhaps the number includes all those named in Hebrews 11 – and perhaps we are meant to know it includes even more. Yet, the designation “witnesses” could be considered in two different ways. The saints could be thought of as witnesses in the sense that they are looking upon believers in this present world who are running with endurance their own earthly races. Or, it could be the other way around. Perhaps, readers could be looking heavenward themselves, to those prior saints who “witness” in the sense of giving us the testimony of their former lives. In that manner, the “cloud” would be testifying or witnessing to us as to what running the race of life with greater endurance as a Christian should look like. They witness to us about how our faith should be demonstrated in the manner in which we live.
That second way of understanding “the cloud of witnesses” is how I tend to read Hebrews 12:1 – and though Hebrews 12:1 might not have been planted in the mind of Anglican Priest William Walsham How when he penned the lyrics to For All the Saints in 1864 – to me, that sentiment permeates his words. The lyrics beckon singers to consider for themselves how to serve the Lord best in their own day, as a part of the church militant, to the glory of God, through the encouragement of looking upon those citizens already enrolled in the church triumphant.
The hymn begins by directing our voices to bless the name of Jesus for those saints who now enjoy their eternal rest – saints who had confessed the name of Christ to the world during the time of their mortal lives:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee, by faith, before the world confessed,
Thy name O Jesus, be forever blest.
Yet, of course, one’s admiration of former saints cannot exist apart from Christ and His redeeming work – so, Christ is central to the hymn, also. Jesus is magnified in the lyrics, especially in titles attributed to Him – titles which are associated with the union He has with His true people. In the few words of the second verse, Jesus is named as the Rock for His saints; their Fortress; their Might; and the Lord who is their true Light.
As the verses of For All the Saints continue on, the constant reminder exists of the interrelationship between the present church militant and the present church triumphant:
O may Thy soldiers faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
As found in the Trinity Hymnal, published by Great Commission Publications, the hymn contains six verses, although my understanding is that William Walsham How’s lyrics originally contained eleven. But in all the verses I have read there is always a relationship being proclaimed between the church militant and the church triumphant. As the hymn closes, we sing a reminder that there is a “yet more glorious day” – a day when saints in heaven and saints on earth will find eternal rest together as the one glorified people of God, which is to the glory of our Triune God:
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
My heart becomes filled when I reflect upon the lyrics of this hymn! But it should also be remembered that lyrics are meant to be sung to a melody or tune. I don’t mean this as a slight to any of the tunes – past or present – to which For All the Saints have been sung, but the tune now most associated with this hymn, Sine Nomine (without name), is part of what has made this song so meaningful to me. This tune was written by Ralph Vaughn Williams at the beginning of the 20th Century. At that time, Williams led an effort to edit the English Hymnal, and as part of that undertaking he contributed his own newly composed melodies to four hymns – For All the Saints being one of them, and Sine Nomine being the new tune. I’m not musically gifted. I cannot really explain why a certain tune sounds to my ear as if it so well fits a given lyric, but I cannot imagine a better tune. It sounds to me as if it is a victory march, so that when one imagines countless host from all places streaming through gates of pearl while singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost – the earthly soul is spiritually elevated.
As a man growing ever closer to my earthly end, I’ve told others that I would love this hymn to be one sung at my funeral. I suppose part of the reason for saying that is because, in my sinful nature, I not so humbly would love to be remembered by those remaining in the earthly realm after me as one of those saints now enjoying rest from the labors of having well confessed Christ to this world. Yet – there is a far more exhortative reason for singing this hymn. The hymn moves hearts to glorify God – and as it does, it greatly encourages us as earthly saints to live well in this world in whatever time God gives.
For All the Saints fills my heart with joy every time I hear it. I hope it does that for others, as well, until the Lord returns at last.