In the Hour of Trial (4)

So far, we have looked at the first three verses of James Montgomery’s “In the Hour of Trial.” To recap:

  • In verse 1, we were taken to the scene of Peter’s denial; we implored that when we face temptation, Jesus would keep us from falling because of it.
  • In verse 2, we used Jesus’ willingness to turn aside from the pleasures and treasures of the world in obedience to the Father as encouragement and an example to do the same.
  • In verse 3, we resolved to face life’s struggles in the proper way, understanding that they are for our ultimate benefit.

Now, as we arrive at the final verse, we look at the hope we have as we face the end of life. As with verse 3, this verse is the subject of some alteration. The main difference is in the first quatrain of the verse, in the description of the process of dying.

Montgomery’s original (1853):

When, in dust and ashes,
To the grave I sink,
While heav’n’s glory flashes
O’er the shelving brink,

Thring (1880):

When my last hour cometh,
Fraught with strife and pain;
When my dust returneth
To the dust again;

Montgomery’s version is more vivid, with concrete images of dying. We can well imagine the state Jacob was in when he believed Joseph to have been killed, when he said “Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his waist, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. He said, “For I will go down to Sheol to my son mourning.” His father wept for him” (Gen 37.34–35). We are also reminded of Job’s condition after losing all of his possessions and children, and even his own health.

Solomon, in Ecclesiastes, referred to our later days as “the evil days” (Eccl 12.1). He described all the things that start to go wrong as we age and approach the grave. When things start to go downhill, it is easy for us to become discouraged, perhaps because our “best” days are behind us. But in spite of this decline, there is still work to do. The older are encouraged to teach and admonish the younger, and to be examples to them (Tit 2.1–8). There are tasks within the Lord’s church which generally require more mature Christians, such as men serving as an overseer of the congregation (1 Tim 3.1–7).

Montgomery’s quatrain, taken as a whole, shows a contrast. On one hand, we have the sorrow of life as we approach the grave. On the other, we have the hope of heaven, of which we have glimpses (“flashes”) as we look toward the “shelving brink” (the cliff) of death. We don’t know exactly what lies beyond the grave, but we do have a few things said through divine inspiration. Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4.6–8, “For I am already being offered, and the time of my departure has come…From now on, there is stored up for me the crown of righteousness.” The book of Revelation—parts of it, at least—is a really big glimpse into the glory of the eternal city.

This is where I am uncertain as to whether I prefer Montgomery’s original words or the revised lyric. There is a lot right with Montgomery’s words. Again, these are very concrete images. I can (and did) literally draw a picture to illustrate this quatrain. The version that appears in Thring is much more generic:

  • “When my last hour cometh.” I’m dying.
  • “Fraught with strife and pain.” It’s not going to be a pleasant experience.
  • “When my dust returneth to the dust again.” Genesis 3.19 reference to reiterate the point that I’m dying.

Additionally, the revision removes the reference in the first quatrain that contrasts the pain of life with the glory of heaven. Instead the message is “I’m dying a miserable death. Yes, I’m dying.” On those merits, the original is clearly to be preferred. However, the advantage of the revision is its simpler and more straightforward language. I don’t have to ponder over the “shelving brink,” for instance. At this point, a weightier consideration is that we are more used to the revised version than the original, so there would be a moment of disorientation if we suddenly reverted to singing the original.

On Thy truth relying,
Through that mortal strife,
Jesus, take me, dying,
To eternal life.

Moving on to the second quatrain, we find out how we make it through the “mortal strife” (i.e., the “trials of life”). We have to rely on the truth that we have been given by God. We have to rely on the promise that we will never be forsaken. On the promise that God will not give us anything greater than what we can bear. On the promise that there is something greater than this life waiting for us.

If we do that, we can say as Stephen did, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7.59). We can look eagerly, as Paul did, to being with Jesus eternally (Phil 1; 2 Cor 5).

Yes, this life is filled with trials. If God blesses us with length of years, we will face many “hours of trial.” But we can endure to the end, knowing (and acting on the facts) that He is faithful, that Jesus has endured the same thing as us, and that the Scriptures provide what we need to keep from stumbling. And therein lies our challenge.

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