Hymn Histories : O love that wilt not let me go
Written by : George Matheson in 1882
Tune : St. Margaret
Composer : Albert L. Peace
Probably most of us find that we have hymns or Christian songs that we know off by heart – having a tune makes the words much easier to remember somehow. As we continue to look at the stories behind some hymns and Christian songs, some old and some new, we see how these stories, often borne out of pain and longing, can speak to us now today in all that is happening in our lives.
George Matheson was a Church of Scotland minister in Innellan in Argyll. Having become blind at the age of 19 he was rejected by his fiancée and had to struggle to excel. He found himself, at the age of 40, sitting in his study on the eve of his sister’s wedding facing a life alone. The weight of his pain was heavy on him and he suffered a real ‘dark night of the soul’ as he put it. As he sat that evening crying out in desperation to the Lord, these words of the hymn poured out. He said, ‘I had the impression of having it dictated to me by some inward voice rather than of working it out myself.’
I have always loved the story of the third verse most of all.
O Joy, that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to Thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain
That morn shall tearless be.
Because on that night, as he wrestled with his darkness what he first wrote was, ‘I climb the rainbow through the rain’. How much more does the word climb reflect our own experience – perhaps in pain from bereavement, with money problems or the worry of job loss, struggling with our own dark night of the soul.
It can seem hard to climb that rainbow, to hold on to God’s promise that He will never leave us. But, as we do, how much more brightly do the following lines shine that we can ‘feel the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be’. As we listen to the hymn, let’s remember that we believe as George did that God’s love will not let us go, that His light will guide us on our way, that His joy will seek us through pain – and that makes all the difference.
Footnote: You may be interested to know why the word ‘climb’ was changed to ‘trace’. When George Matheson submitted his hymn to the Hymn Board of the Church of Scotland he was asked to change the word because ‘trace’ was deemed a more suitable sentiment.