James Montgomery (1771–1854) is considered by many to have been one of the foremost hymnists of the first half of the 19th century. He was both a lyricist and an editor of hymnals, perhaps best known on the latter front for The Christian Psalmist (1825), wherein he penned an essay that offered a commentary on quality in the writing of sacred verse. He is generally credited for some 400 texts; some sources list more than 650, but in scanning the list, many appear to be variations of the same base text.
There are several of Montgomery’s texts which endured in the repertoire of God’s people. One such is the hymn, “In the Hour of Trial.” The title itself comes from Revelation 3.10, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth” (NKJV). The focus of the text, especially in the first verse, is Peter’s denial of Jesus at the latter’s trial. Thus, the title takes on a double meaning. On one hand, it can refer to the literal hour in which Jesus was being tried by the Jews. On the other, the primary meaning is our own “hour of trial,” when we face temptation.
The version that we see today is not entirely Montgomery’s original. In particular, the second half of the first couplet (“Jesus, plead for me”), the first line of verse 2, (“sordid treasures”) and the bulk of verses 3 and 4 are paraphrased from the text published in the 1853 Original Hymns. These alterations are generally attributed to Mrs. Frances A. Hutton.
Like many hymns that have stood for 150+ years, this hymn is rich in references and allusions to Scripture. As such (and given that I’ve written as much on the first verse of this hymn as I did all five verses of “God of the Living, in Whose Eyes” combined), I’m going to comment on each verse in a separate post. For now, consider the first verse.
In the hour of trial,
Jesus, plead for me,
As already mentioned, this first verse is focused on the narrative of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Montgomery picks up the narrative in Luke 22.31–32, when Jesus tells Peter that Satan has asked to have Peter, but that He had prayed for him, so that Peter’s faith wouldn’t fail. The line was originally, “pray for me,” to match the phrasing of Scripture, but it has been variously worded as “stand by me,” “help Thou me” and “plead for me” because of issues with the idea of Jesus “praying” for us. If we understand what the act of prayer entails, I’m not sure that Jesus “pleading” for us versus Him “praying” for us is a distinction with a difference. It is true that John 16.26–27 emphasizes that disciples can pray directly to the Father, apart from Jesus praying on their behalf. However, we also have Romans 8.34 and Hebrews 7.25 which speak of Jesus as an intercessor, though it is possible in the context of both passages that the intercession has more to do with Jesus’ death and resurrection as a “once for all” sacrifice than as a literal act of intercessory prayer (see also 1 John 2.1).
Regardless of the mechanism of the intercession, Jesus (and God generally) works for our faithfulness, and we can be confident in the effectiveness of that working. In Romans 8.38–39, Paul wrote, “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Lest by base denial
I depart from Thee.
In the second couplet of this verse, the possibility is allowed that we may deny Jesus and depart from Him. Montgomery takes us to Jesus’ trial, where Peter was outside in the courtyard during the proceedings. The accounts record Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in that hour. Possibly in mind here (by the use of the adjective, “base”) is Peter’s cursing and swearing in Matthew 26.74. We may not verbally deny Jesus as Peter did, or in whatever language Peter might have used, but denying Jesus in word or deed requires an abandonment of the godly principles and standards that we have been following.
In James 1.14, the writer noted that “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed.” The question we might ask from this verse is: from whom or what are we drawn away? The answer is that we are drawn away from God. We depart from Jesus when we allow ourselves to be led by our desires instead of by the righteousness of God.
When Thou seest me waver,
with a look recall,
The third couplet calls to mind Luke 22.61: “The Lord turned, and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the Lord’s word, how he said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows you will deny me three times.'” To me, this is one of the most powerful and emotionally charged images of all of Scripture. Jesus is in the midst of a trial that will lead to His death. Peter is outside (yet apparently within line of sight of the proceedings) and likely out of Jesus’ hearing. Even ignoring Jesus being God (and thus being all-knowing), He probably would have still heard the rooster’s crow. Think about the certainty of Jesus’ words, that even just on hearing the rooster crowing, He knew what had transpired in the courtyard.
But then, this look had a dramatic effect on Peter. When Jesus looked at him, Peter remembered Jesus’ words, and he wept bitterly. This look caused Peter to recall those words, but it also recalled Peter from the brink of complete abandonment of Jesus. We can make comparisons between Peter and Judas through these events, but that’s a discussion for another time.
For us, we don’t have Jesus physically looking at us as He looked at Peter 2,000 years ago, but Jesus does look at us through His word. When we have devoted ourselves to reading and meditating on the word of God, those words can bring us back from the brink of us completely abandoning Him. Sometimes that “look” happens by proxy, when someone else presents the word to us and we are recalled by that message. It is possible that there are also providential circumstances that serve the same purpose (don’t we frequently pray for such for those who are walking in sin?), but we cannot identify conclusively identify an event as being God’s providence the way that we can identify the recalling effect of God’s word.
Nor, for fear or favor,
suffer me to fall.
In the final couplet, the entreaty is for Jesus not to “suffer” (i.e., allow) us to fall. We’ve already looked a couple of times at Romans 8, where the security of the believer is discussed. In John 10.28, Jesus said of His sheep, “I give eternal life to them. They never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Notice also Matthew 7.24–25, where Jesus compares the one who hears Jesus’ words and does them to one who builds a house on a rock. When we hear Jesus’ words and do them, the storms of life and temptations will not be able to bring us down.
One of the securities that we have as believers is that God restricts the temptations that can even enter our path. In 1 Corinthians 10.13, we have the assurance, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” God does not allow temptations that are greater than our ability to bear, and He always provides a way for us to endure temptation without sin.
We know that Jesus will do His part in our “hour of trial.” The question is, will we do ours?