Lawrencetide: We have chosen LSB 707, Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways, as the seasonal hymn for the AD 2023 Lawrencetide portion of the long Trinity season. Lawrencetide begins with the August 10 commemoration of Lawrence (225-258), Deacon and Martyr, and ends with the September 29 Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. During this time, we remember God’s gift to Lawrence of deep compassion for the poor, and His grace that enabled the Deacon to continue steadfast in the Confession of the Church to the point of suffering an excruciatingly painful death, all in good cheer. Thus, our overall emphasis in Lawrencetide is on sanctification, love of God, and good works which follow from His grace and mercy toward us.
Hymn author: Isaac Watts (1674-1748)1 – Born in Southampton, England on July 17, 1674. His father made and sold clothes, and was put in prison three times for Nonconformity, namely for not subscribing to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the practices of the Church of England. Isaac studied Latin, Greek, French and Hebrew at grammar school and was offered financial assistance for university, but declined as he did not wish to conform to Anglicanism. He attended a Nonconformist academy and eventually entered the ministry, revitalizing a declining London congregation and establishing it as an influential voice.
For much of his life, Watts suffered from frequent bouts of illness, and from 1712-1716 was completely incapacitated.2 During that time, moved in with the family of Sir Thomas Abney (1640-1722), businessman and Lord Mayor of London, where he tutored the Abney children, wrote and carried out pastoral duties. After Thomas’ death, Watts remained with the Abney family until his own death on November 25, 1748 at Stoke Newington (now situated in the Borough of Hackney in northeast London).
Watts was a prolific poet, and published several books of devotional poetry. He divided his poetic work into that intended for private reading, and that intended for public singing. Of note, the Nonconformist congregations were largely Calvinist, and congregational singing was limited to translations of the Psalms. Watts was displeased with these in that in his view, the translations lacked beauty, didn’t point to Jesus, and the singing itself was dull and thoughtless.3 In his public hymns Watts aimed to respond to this. Faithful to the Reformed tradition, he grounded his compositions in the Psalms (including “Scriptural hymns in the Book of Revelations,” c.f. LSB 812), added poetic flair, and connected them squarely to Jesus, and God’s ongoing care for His people.4 He largely focused on doctrinal points of broad agreement between the church bodies. In addition to his hymnody, Watts wrote extensively on education, philosophy and theology, including sermons, catechetical resources for parents, and theological texts, some of which were used in Nonconformist seminaries. He was awarded the Doctor of Divinity by the universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen in 1728, in recognition of his scholarly work.
In addition to this hymn, the LSB contains 13 additional hymns by Watts, many of which we sing frequently and are very familiar to us. These include LSB 387, 425/26, 431, 437, 669, 705, 733, 812, 814, 816, 832, 867 and 903.
Hymn tune composer: William Henry Havergal (1793-1870)5 – Born in Chipping Wycombe (now High Wycombe), England on January 18, 1793; originally desired to enter medicine but studied for the ministry at Oxford and was ordained in 1816. He served a succession of congregations as curate then rector. Throughout the years of his ministry, Havergal was active in the Church Missionary Society. He wrote hymns, sacred songs and carols, and published volumes of his sermons, often using the proceeds to fund charitable organizations. Of note, at the age of 14, Havergal began playing organ at his church. An accident at age 36, in which he suffered a concussion and nearly went blind after being thrown from a carriage, intensified his interest in music. Havergal took a special interest in the Psalmody, and published new psalm tunes, as well as harmonizations of older ones. He retired in 1867 at age 74 and died in Leamington Spa, England two days after the Feast of the Resurrection on April 19, 1870.
In addition to his tune Evan to accompany this hymn, LSB uses Havergal’s tune Patmos as one of the options to accompany his hymn Take My Life and Let It Be (LSB 783). Additionally, the LSB uses Havergal’s settings of a number of other hymn tunes, including LSB 532, 535, 687/779; 733, 873 and 883.
Hymn history:6 The text of Oh, That the Lord Would Guide My Ways was first published in Watts’ 1719 book The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament, and Apply’d to the Christian State and Worship.7 The hymn is a paraphrase of several verses of Psalm 119, and originally included six stanzas. It was first adopted into the LCMS hymnody in the 1912 Evangelical Lutheran Hymn Book (ELHB 342), and has appeared in every LCMS hymnal since: the 1941 The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH 416); the 1982 Lutheran Worship (LW 392); and our current hymnal, the 2006 Lutheran Service Book (LSB 707). The hymn has been grouped in the hymnal sections as follows: Sanctification (ELHB, LSB); New Obedience (TLH), and Love and Obedience (LW). The LCMS hymnals all include stanzas 1, 4, 5 and 6 of the original text. The omitted stanzas are as follows:
O send Thy Spirit down to write
Thy Law upon my heart!
Nor let my tongue indulge deceit
Nor act the liars part.
From vanity turn off my eyes
Let no corrupt design
Nor covetous desires
Within this soul of mine.
In his hymn text, Watts included references to the Psalm 119 verses which he paraphrased in the stanzas:
- Stanza 1 – Psalm 119:5, 33
- Stanza 2 (original) – Psalm 119:29
- Stanza 3 (original) – Psalm 119:36, 37
- Stanza 4 (LSB stanza 2) – Psalm 119:133
- Stanza 5 (LSB stanza 3) – Psalm 119:176
- Stanza 6 (LSB stanza 4) – Psalm 119:35
The text in the ELHB contained some alterations from the original by Watts, all in stanza 3 (original stanza 5):
- My soul hath gone too far astray à Assist my soul, too apt to stray
- My feet too often slip à A stricter watch to keep
- Yet since I’ve not forgot Thy way à And should I e’er forget Thy way
The texts in the ELHB, TLH and LSB are identical. There were a few minor changes in LW, all reflecting modernized use, though these were reversed in LSB. The text (and therefore the tune) is written in Common Meter (86 86), frequently used in hymnody and other poetry.
Tune:8 The tune was originally published in 1847 as a piece of sheet music to accompany a sacred song written in 1786 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) as his gift to a family at whose home he had spent the night.9 Havergal dedicated the tune to the descendants of Burns’ host family. The etiology of the tune name Evan is unknown. LSB 707 is the only appearance of this tune in our hymnal.10
Vocabulary: statutes – things written as decrees; grace – God’s unmerited favor
Read Psalm 119:5 and 33. How does the stanza paraphrase these verses? Read Psalm 37:23-24; Proverbs 16:9; Jeremiah 10:23-24; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:8-10. Who is the One doing the work in us? Read Matthew 5:17-20. Who perfectly kept the Father’s statutes and did His will? How does
Vocabulary: sincere – not falsified (Latin sincerus: clean, pure); dominion – sovereignty/control (from Latin dominus: lord)
Read Psalm 119:133. How does the stanza paraphrase this verse? Read Psalm 119:105; 2 Timothy 3:15-17. How does God order our footsteps? Where do we find His promise to do so? Read Psalm 51:10. Who alone can make our hearts sincere? Read Romans 6:15-23. As redeemed ones in Christ, Who has dominion over us? Read Romans 7:21-25. Why then do we need to pray that our Lord not allow sin to control us? Read Romans 4:25; 2 Corinthians 5:21. Who is the only One who was without sin? What are the implications of His Passion, Death and Resurrection for us?
Vocabulary: apt – having a tendency to do something
Read Psalm 119:176. How does the stanza paraphrase this verse? Read Psalm 23 (note v. 3); Isaiah 53:6; Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 18:12-14; John 10:11. How are sinners described in the text? Who restores them? What did He do to make this possible? How does He continue to do so?
Vocabulary: command – authoritative order
Read Psalm 119:35. How does this stanza paraphrase the verse? Read Psalm 119:32, 39; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15; Galatians 5:25; Ephesians 5:1-2; 1 John 4:19, 5:3. Who makes it possible for us to walk in His commandments, and keep us from offending Him? By what means did He compel St. Lawrence? By what means does He compel us?
How does this hymn point to Jesus? How does this hymn point to God’s ongoing care for His people? How does this hymn fit the Lawrencetide emphasis?
- Information from David R. Schmitt, “Watts, Isaac,” in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, Jon D. Vieker, Lutheran Service Book, Companion to the Hymns, Volume 2 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019) pp. 735-737
- A precise diagnosis has never been established, but his symptoms over the years included high fevers, weakness, hallucinations, poor digestion, psychological issues, and eventually a stroke at the age of 65. He grew to a height of 5 feet and was said to have a large head. See John Hamilton, Isaac Watts and his family (Orston: Heart of Albion Press, 2022), pp. 20-23, accessible at https://www.hoap.co.uk/isaac_watts_and_his_family.pdf (accessed 10 July, AD 2023).
- Frank J. Pies, “Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways,” in Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske, Jon D. Vieker, Lutheran Service Book, Companion to the Hymns, Volume 1 (St. Louis: CPH, 2019) pp. 966-968. As Lutherans, we behold Jesus in the Psalms; see for example the quotes from Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) on the Psalms in Edward Englebrecht, ed. Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament (St. Louis: CPH, 2014), pp. 606-611. Compare for example with John Calvin’s (1509-1564) Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, in which he sees the book as primarily a book of law in its second and third uses, along with its being a guide to right prayer and praise. To be fair, he does see some Gospel in the Psalms: “There is no other book in which there is to be found more express and magnificent commendations, both of the unparalleled liberality of God towards his Church, and of all his works; there is no other book in which there is recorded so many deliverances nor one in which the evidences and experiences of the fatherly providence and solicitude which God exercises towards us are celebrated with such splendor of diction…” Calvin’s preface accessible at https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom08/calcom08.vi.html. (accessed 14 July, AD 2023)
- The use of the Gloria Patri following the Psalms in the Reformed congregations was inconsistent at best. For this and the quote from Watts on the use of psalms in Revelation, see Travis Fentiman, “The Predominant Exclusive Psalmody of the English & Scottish Reformed Churches from the Reformation through the Puritan Era, with A Review & Correction of Rev. Dr. Mark Jones’s “17th Century Exclusive Psalmody and Hymnody,” accessible at https://reformedbooksonline.com/the-predominant-exclusive-psalmody-of-the-english-scottish-churches-from-the-reformation-through-the-puritan-era-with-a-review-of-mark-joness-article/ (accessed 11 July AD 2023). Note also that in his hymnody, Watts was responding to the influence of deism, namely belief in a creator who does not intervene in the universe.
- Information from David R. Schmitt, “Havergal, William Henry,” Companion, Volume 2, pp. 384-385.
- Information from Pies, “Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways.”
- A later edition of the book, published in Newburyport, MA in 1791 for use in congregations in America, has been digitized and is accessible at https://archive.org/details/psalmappliedchriswatt/page/n1/mode/2up (accessed 13 July, AD 2023).
- Information from Pies, “Oh, that the Lord would guide my ways.”
- The song is titled O Thou Dread Power, and the words are accessible at https://www.robertburns.org/works/136.shtml (accessed 13 July, AD 2023).
- Interestingly, the tune has been used in the Scottish Psalter to accompany a number of the metered Psalm texts, including Psalms 23 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NniulOVabaQ, accessed 13 July, AD 2023), and 80 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v_emzzA5SU8, accessed 13 July, AD 2023).