All Glory Be to Christ

Shockingly, other kids used to make fun of me.  Who would have thought a kid who could recite all the monarchs of England from 1066 to the present and who learned Riemann integration before how to throw a football would draw so much ire?  Doesn’t everyone use a straightedge to aim their putts in minigolf?  In high school I frequently used expressions no one else does, e.g., “What in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s name is going on?”  This would prompt the question, “Who’s Bonnie Prince Charlie?”  I shall now tell you.

You may have heard of the Glorious Revolution in 17th century England, in which the Catholic James II was peacefully deposed.  Unsurprisingly, James II (James Stuart) fled the country.  His son James (royalty come up with such original names) tried unsuccessfully to retake the crown in 1715.  Then his son, Charles Edward Stuart, in 1745 and 1746 led what is called the Second Jacobite Rebellion in an attempt to retake the crown, failing miserably at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.  Because the Stuart line of kings belonged to the Scottish highland clan Stuart, his followers were largely Scottish, and most of the battles of his campaign were fought in Scotland.  So they called him Bonnie Prince Charlie.

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Bonnie Prince Charlie

Following Bonnie Prince Charlie’s defeat at Culloden, the British government started enforcing a number of policies to “tame” the wild highlanders of Scotland, including banning the kilt (except as a military uniform) and relocating highlanders to other areas.  This progressively worsened into an event now called the Clearing of the Highlands, in which many Scottish Highlanders were driven out of Scotland to the American colonies.  Friends and extended families were separated, the Scottish clan system shattered, and sheep filled the highlands.  But as the highlanders scattered they took an old Scots song with them which we know as Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne.”  This song commemorated partings, and has ever remained a poignant reminder of this sad period in Scottish history.

In a shameless act of cultural appropriation, Dustin Kensrue of Kings Kaleidescope took this tune and wrote a new song:

Unfortunately the link to Kensrue’s comments on how the lyrics were written is broken, and I cannot seem to find this article anywhere on the internet.  Unable to determine authorial intent, I shall cast it to the wind.  I will study the hymn both through the historical lens of the clearing of the highlands and through a theological lens, showing the complementary nature of these views.

Should nothing of our efforts stand
No legacy survive
Unless the Lord does raise the house
In vain its builders strive

A common theme in the Bible is that God acts in all events in creation, with nothing outside His control or escaping His notice.  This is the doctrine of divine providence.  One of the Hebrew words for God, Elohim, essentially means ruler, clearly communicating the doctrine of providence throughout the Old Testament.  From God’s sovereignty, God’s omnipotence, God’s omniscience, and God’s omnipresence, we cannot escape the conclusion that He indeed governs the entirety of creation, and nothing that is exists without His sustaining hand.  From Acts 17:28 to Proverbs 21:1, from John 3 to Revelation 20, from John 1 to Proverbs 8 to Genesis 1, from Job 38-41 to Proverbs 16:9, God’s governance and power are clearly displayed in Scripture.  Our song refers explicitly to Psalm 127:1, “Unless the Lord builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the Lord guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain.”  In this the song takes comfort: God’s will cannot be thwarted.  Should nothing of our efforts stand, God did not need them to stand, nor did He ever intend for them to stand.  God’s might transcends that of humanity.  But as the contrapositive notes, if God needs our efforts, if God wants to bless our legacy, nothing can resist Him, and we will be successful.

This doctrine beautifully fits our historical context.  Imagine a Scots family, crowding against the bulwark, peering out for one last time upon the shores of their home, as their ship speeds westward, wind and rain pouring down.  Pretend with me that this is a Scottish protestant family, probably presbyterian.  (Many Jacobites were Catholic, but this was less true of the highlanders in general.)  The power of their clan has finally been shattered, the legacy handed down for hundreds of years has been lost, their land is no longer theirs, and to America they must emigrate.  Nothing of their efforts stood; but the Lord still provides for them.  He provides in their passage to America.  Through all hardship, He is still their God, and they are still His people.  God always works for the good of His church (or kirk if we maintain cultural consistency), and thus even in this apparent suffering God is causing the family’s greatest good.  Put the song in their voice.

There is a subtle twist of historical irony in Kensrue’s choice of Psalm 127:1—we know that God did not build house Stuart, leaving unfulfilled its desired goal of retaking the English crown.  That is actually the beauty of the Jacobite campaign.  It was a campaign for a lost cause, vainglorious and tragic, romantic because it was doomed, heroic but futile, the stuff of faerie and myth, pulling at some of our deepest human emotions.  But there are also houses He does raise: Hanover in Britain, and the American culture the Scots helped create.  Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but God is ever constant, ever powerful, ever at work in history.

To you who boast tomorrow’s gain
Tell me what is your life
A mist that vanishes at dawn
All glory be to Christ!

Starting with a clear allusion to James 4:13-14, the hymn builds towards pure doxology.  Contrasted to God’s omnipotence and sovereignty, human frailty is almost laughable (Psalm 2).  It should draw us to worship and depend on the one true God.

Our Scots family would have been familiar with those who boasted in tomorrow.  Whether Bonnie Prince Charlie after his victory at Prestonpans, or the apparent invulnerability of the entrenched Scottish clan system, they had seen real examples of presumption.  Fittingly, those examples proved themselves just as transient as the mist on the moors.  The grass withers, the flower fades, but His Word is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  Therefore, all glory be to Christ!

All glory be to Christ our king!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing,
All glory be to Christ!

The chorus is doxology, looking forward to both the millenial and eternal kingdoms.

His will be done, His kingdom come
On earth as is above
Who is Himself our daily bread
Praise Him the Lord of love

Our Scots family now prays, drawing heavily from the Lord’s prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).  But they include a twist: John 6:32-35 is alluded to.  They do not ask for daily bread, instead recognizing that God’s ultimate provision for them is not found in the physical, but rather in God’s provision of salvation through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  And God has already given them sufficient daily bread through the grace of salvation.  For this reason, in all hardship, through all partings, no matter what circumstances, God is worthy of our trust, and He shows His love to us in all things.

Let living water satisfy
The thirsty without price
We’ll take a cup of kindness yet
All glory be to Christ!

Now we see allusions both to John 4:10 and the original lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne”: “We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.”  But the lyrics of Burns’ beautiful poem have been sanctified: that cup of kindness is made to be the gift of salvation from Christ!  This is, of course, the ultimate cup of kindness: that Jesus Christ bore the cup of God’s wrath while we were yet His enemies, that we may be reconciled to God through faith in Him by grace displayed in the remission of our sins.  This, the gospel, is the center of the faith displayed in hard times of our Scots family, it is the basis of all trust and provision of God.  And this is the basis of the doxology of the hymn:

All glory be to Christ our king!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing,
All glory be to Christ!

The fourth verse then views the gospel in its eschatological implications:

When on the day the great I Am
The faithful and the true
The Lamb who was for sinners slain
Is making all things new.

Behold our God shall live with us
And be our steadfast light
And we shall ere his people be
All glory be to Christ!

This is promised to us as Christians.  This is promised to national Israel.  Revelation 22 clearly portrays a new creation and new earth, free from sin and its curse, free from pain and suffering, free from brokenness and failure, a creation with no sun, lit instead by the Son, commencing after the Lamb returns.  And we shall taste this in the millenial kingdom alluded to towards the end.  As Ezekiel writes of that kingdom, “And the name of the city from that day shall be, ‘The LORD is there.’ ”  Our God shall live with us, and we shall reign with Him.

This is the hope of the gospel, the hope of Hebrews 11 faith.  This is the hope of the future glory to which our present sufferings cannot compare.  This is the hope that brought comfort to the believers driven from their homes during the Clearing of the Highlands.  This is the completion of that redemption started in our current salvation, the final healing from the effects of sin, the culmination of God’s plans for creation.  It is a hope that unites us as the church of Jesus Christ.

It is quite possible that Kensrue was unaware of the historical context of the tune he picked for “All Glory Be to Christ.”  However, including the context of 18th century Scottish history deepens the meaning of the song for several reasons.  The song is clearly centered on Christ, and since Christ’s work is that of redemption, the song is centered on the gospel.  By adding historical context, we see that the gospel has not changed.  The truth once for all handed down to the saints has been the basis of faith for all believers from the first century until now.  By including an example of those who clung to this faith (Scottish Christians), we are reminded of tangible examples of God’s faithfulness in the past, which encourages us as we struggle in the present or look forward to an apparently bleak future.

But more importantly, this song does not take on the dimension of a song of trials until it is placed in the context of suffering.  That is accomplished beautifully by the historical context of the music.  The truths of the song, the biblical doctrines contained therein, are then leveraged for comfort, which is their proper use.

I still get mocked sometimes.  I get mocked for knowing old Irish, Scottish, English, and Australian folk music.  People rarely understand why I care about British history, but this post helped explained that.  The information is actually useful and edifying.  The knowledge deepens my understanding of God and the Bible.  Perhaps you will feel the emotions this history stirs up in me.  Now you know why I nearly cry every time I sing,

All glory be to Christ our king!
All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing,
All glory be to Christ!

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All Glory Be to Christ

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