Sunday, March 19, 2006

To me, to all, thy bowels move (Thy nature and thy name is love)

Once again I missed the sermon this morning because I was catechising the children, but I gather that even after the sermon there's a lot more to be explored in the Wrestling Jacob hymn—indeed far more than could be covered in a sermon and probably more than I can put into a short blog commentary. I hope you'll agree (by the time we get to the end of today's entry) that it's not entirely surprising that two of our Lent preachers chose this hymn for their topic—and one of them had to be told to think of another one instead. Apparently Isaac Watts was quoted as saying that this single poem of Charles Wesley's, Wrestling Jacob, was worth all the verses he himself (Watts) had written. (Watts quoted by John Wesley, brother of Charles).


The topic for today, then: Come, O thou traveller unknown.

Words by Charles Wesley, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1742.

There are fourteen verses in the original poem. I shall append the whole lot complete at the end of this entry. Four were included in the English Hymnal, BBC Hymn Book and Songs of Praise, five in the New English Hymnal and Hymns A and M, six in the Public School Hymnal, seven in the Congregational Hymnal. Any advance on seven? I haven't found anything. So none of us has ever sung more than half of this hymn (actually I doubt most of us have ever sung more than about a third).

1 The background:

Genesis 32:24-32. Jacob trying to appease Esau his brother sends on his servants and kinsfolk ahead of him, south towards Seir, with gifts (what gifts! See Genesis 32.13). Jacob himself remains on the north side of the Jabbok river and spends the night there entirely alone.

Except that he is not alone.

He is visited by an unknown stranger who wrestles with him the whole night until the break of day.

Jacob struggles all night with the stranger and towards the break of day, the stranger, finding he is not winning the fight, touches Jacob's thigh and puts it out of joint.

Then there follows this exchange of conversation between Jacob and his mysterious companion:

Stranger: Let me go, for the day breaketh.
Jacob: I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.
Stranger: What is thy name?
Jacob: Jacob.
Stranger: Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.
Jacob: Tell me, I pray thee, thy name?
Stranger: Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?

Then the stranger blesses Jacob and is gone. Jacob then gives a name to the place: "Peniel", says the author of Genesis, adjusting the name Penuel to get an etymology that has something to do with God's face. "For I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved," says Jacob, to explain the act of naming.

And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh (verse 31).

Even for the writer of Genesis we can see that the traditional motif of the struggle with a mythical beast or demon that will vanish at dawn, and the need to know his name in order to achieve power over him, has been transformed into an allegorical struggle with God. The need to know a person's name in order to have power over him has been transformed into the need to know a person's name in order to bless him. But the God of the Old Testament will not reveal his name. This is an uneven struggle in which one participant is in a position to give the blessing and the other is not.

The stranger does not stop to be blessed by Jacob, but he also implies that Jacob already knows who he is. He does not need to be told. "Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?" says the stranger. The story reminds us of the disciples on the road to Emmaus: "did not out heart burn within us?" they ask when they recognise the Lord at the moment when he blesses the bread, and find that they have been debating the theology of the crucifixion with the man himself (Luke 24:32).

Jacob earns the title Israel (God persists) because he did not yield in the struggle, but endured to the break of day against a God who persists in testing him to the bitter end.

2 Charles Wesley's reflections

Wesley responds to the Jacob story with a reflection on the Christian struggle, perhaps his own in particular. It is said that John Wesley, Charles's brother, broke down in tears as he tried to expound this hymn shortly after Charles's death: he broke down at the third line "My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee." We may assume that for John this line was not just about Charles's life-long lonely struggle with the God of love, but here John saw his own struggle too. His brother has been sent on before into the far country beyond the river, and now he is left to wrestle alone with the stranger god.

In our Christian life, we encounter a God who does not reveal his name or his nature. We struggle with him throughout our life—indeed the struggle seems to be a struggle to keep hold of him, to prevent him from slipping away from our grasp. It is the fear of being abandoned by God that haunts the Christian in this hymn, the fear of being alone. Time and again we are close to exhaustion, but even in exhaustion and despair we refuse to give up and let go. As we struggle we come to realise in our hearts who it is that we are engaged with, and the realisation yields peace and security at last.

Who is it? The answer is an inspirational Christian take on the Jacob story: the identity of that strange God can only be love. "Thy nature and thy name is love": this refrain features as the last line of each one of the last six verses. That is what we discover-- but we don't discover it because he tells us. We discover it because it dawns on us in the course of a life that is both compelling and demanding.

Finally we become fully aware of the truth of who it was we were engaged with as day breaks: day break in Wesley's poem is the moment of the dawning of truth. 'The morning breaks, the shadows flee, pure universal love thou art' (verse 9). To know the truth is to end the struggle, but not in failure or submission but in success, since the struggle was itself a struggle to find out the name and the nature of the object of one's encounter.

But then there is the lameness, the crippled thigh: God has lamed us in the struggle, and we are now wholly dependent upon God for strength (but joyful with it). "Contented now upon my thigh I halt, till life's short journey end; all helplessness, all weakness I on thee alone for strength depend."

3 Exegesis

Besides that brief summary of what I take to be the general purport of the poem, I now want to offer a small amount of detailed exegesis on particular bits that seem to me to be particularly fine or striking, verse by verse.

Verse 1

Come, O thou Traveller unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

The speaker is, as it were, Jacob. "My company before is gone" refers to the occasion on which Jacob has sent his servants and family on ahead. "And he rose up that night and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. And Jacob was left alone." Genesis 32:22-4.

The traveller unknown is the stranger who wrestles with Jacob all night "And there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day" Genesis 32.24.

Wesley picks up on the determination and persistence theme in Genesis: he announces his intention to persist in the struggle till dawn from the first: "With thee all night I mean to stay..."

Verse 2

I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

The speaker (ourselves now) dissents from the Genesis version: in Jacob's case the stranger had to ask him his name.

Here, by contrast, God does not need to ask us who we are, nor what our name is.

For firstly our condition declares who we are in terms of nature: our nature is misery and sin.

And secondly our name was given by God himself. "Look on thy hands and read it there": God has our name written on his own hands, perhaps (I suppose) because he made us.

"But who, I ask thee, who art thou?" This introduces the real struggle: we want to find out about God. That is the task. It is not a struggle for God to come to know us, but it is a struggle for us to come to know God.


Verse 3

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

The exclamation mark in line 2 is important to the dialogue. It's missing in the NEH.

Again the Jacob story and the Christian one are intertwined. Now it is the stranger who is trying to escape (but that is also hinted at in Jacob's story, for it is the stranger who says "Let me go for the day breaketh" and Jacob demands that he bless him first). Here Wesley envisages us demanding that Christ identify himself: we will not let him go until he has given up the secret of his love.

Art thou the Man that died for me? This has no counterpart in the Jacob story: it alerts us to the fact that we are reading Jacob's wrestling as our wrestling with the Christian faith. And it reminds us of those intimations in the Gospels (and in Christian mythology) that one may meet Christ in the most unlikely characters who turn up at our door unannounced, the poor and the outcasts. Here it is the stranger whose identity is both compelling and worrying. Who are you, stranger? Are you the man who died for me? I know and yet I don't know. I have to find out what the secret is.

Verse 4
Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Verses 3, 4,and 5 all end "till I thy name, thy nature know". It is important to have the full set of verses at this stage of the poem, since the length of the struggle (a whole night or a whole lifetime) is measured by this repetitive exchange. The stranger never replies: he just wrestles endlessly to get free. The monologue is the Christian's struggle through the darkness and loneliness: struggling with a silent stranger who never replies. But the Christian never gives up: he demands and demands. He tells the stranger that he will not give up until he knows. It is the determination to continue and never to give in that is captured by these demanding verses. Tell me, I still beseech thee, tell!

"Thy new unutterable name" is crucial to the OT/NT parallel that is being set up. In the Old Testament God had an unutterable name ("I am", or words to that effect) and the unutterability or unknowability of his name is part of the theme in this passage of Genesis. Humans cannot know God's name, nor can they see his face and live. Jacob knows that he has been face to face with God well enough to name the place Peniel on account of it, but he does not discover the name.

But here instead the "new unutterable name" of God is his new testament name. That name is love, though he never tells us so.

Deus caritas est. That fact is for us to deduce. He will not tell us so.

And it is the name of the new covenant because Jesus gave us a new commandment, the commandment to love, on the night before he died. It is that new unutterable name that Wesley suggests we struggle to discover in the stranger who wrestles with us all night until dawn breaks.

Verse 5
’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

"Or touch the hollow of my thigh" alludes, of course, to Jacob's story, where the stranger puts Jacob's thigh out of joint and then the sinew shrivels up and he is lamed.
Wesley goes on "Though every sinew be unstrung..." In other words, he means to say, it is vain to try to overpower me and test my faith by physical trials. Even if every sinew were dislocated, I would still persist. The perseverance is endless. I will not let thee go, not whatever you do to me.

Verse 6
What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

The theme of resisting depsite physical exhaustion continues in this and the following verse.

The shrinking flesh alludes to Jacob's thigh: "Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the thigh, unto this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank." (32:32).

Here the pain in the flesh is conceived as complaining and urging the man to stop the struggle, but he continues none the less. "I rise superior to my pain".

Indeed, he now sees that the more his strength fails the closer he is to winning the fight, and when all of his strength fails that is when he will prevail. In other words the destruction of physical strength is part and parcel of acquiring an understanding of the nature of love. There is no accidental connection between frailty in the body and strength in the understanding of God's love.

Verses 7-8
My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.


Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

These two verses complete the process of declining strength in the physical sense and increasing strength in faith.

In verse 7 we get the first hint that faith is what keeps him going as he becomes totally weakened in bodily strength: "I fall and yet by faith I stand". He is still clinging on, but not by any physical strength now.

In verse 8 he no longer has any self-confidence. He is confident in self-despair: that is he is confident precisely because he has given up hope in himself.

Notice that the punctuation of this line is correct here, without a comma, and not in the NEH ("but confident, in self despair").

This is the move that relinquishes self altogether. It is not by confidence in oneself that one will discover the truth about God. And notice that by the end of this verse he is able to suggest what the name is: no longer does he ask what the name is; now he asks whether the name is Love. The suggestion comes from himself, not from the silent stranger. And now is the moment of truth dawning:

Verse 9
’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Here he discovers the answer. This is the end of the long dark night of struggling.

"To me, to all, thy bowels move". All hymn books that include this verse rewrite this line. The options are to replace bowels with mercies (NEH and most others) or "heart" (Public School Hymn Book). Of the two "heart" is clearly much better. The bowels are the bowels of compassion, because traditionally love and tender feelings were placed in the lower intestines, whereas the heart was the location of the intellect. This is the Aristotelian anatomy, and was normal into the Middle Ages; but it has since been replaced by a more modern anatomy in which the intellect is placed in the head and the tender feelings are placed in the heart.

So to have one's bowels move is to be moved by emotion, to love. That is fine (we do use the idea of being moved by something in just this way). But there's a problem with simply replacing bowels with "heart" to cope with the fact that we no longer think we love with outr bowels, because we don't normally speak of our heart moving ("To me, to all, thy heart doth move" is not obviously meaningful). But then nor does it mean anything to say "To me, to all, thy mercies move", since the whole point was to express an exclamation of having discovered that God feels love towards me and towards all.


I don't see an easy answer to this, except to learn to read the text as it should be read, as referring to the bowels of compassion, and to learn to read that word as a term for the emotions, in just the way that we use "guts" to refer to courage, and yet find no difficulty in also speaking (in other contexts) of our guts as the location of various unpleasant bodily functions.

Verses 10-14
My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

These four verses are usually omitted by the hymnals. They are important because they express the joy and the weakness combined. The Christian is completely drained of physical strength. He "halts upon his thigh" (an allusion to Jacob who "halted upon his thigh" 32:31). He can't actually move away, he is now dependent upon God. But notice the repetitive refrains of discovery: Thy nature and thy name is love. For this discovery, achieved in a long dark night of loneliness, he now leaps for joy.

Wesley also rejects the implication (in Jacob's story) that the stranger leaves him alone again in the morning.

No.

For Wesley what we discover is that we are not alone: we remain unable to move away because we are now reliant on God for strength. And God no longer tries to escape from our grasp.

Wesley also invites us to approach death with enthusiasm. "And as a bounding hart fly home". Of course this longing for death ("till life's short journey end" implies that one is nearly there by this stage) is not much to the taste of modern hymn books, so we wouldn't expect to find them offering us any of the joyful attitude with which this hymn concludes.

But notice the reminiscences in verse 12 of Wesley's own hymn Hark the Herald Angels sing: "Hail the sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings". Here it is personalised: The sun of righteousness on me hath rose with healing in his wings.

So the birth of Christ is located here in the discovery of the name and nature of that unknown traveller with whom we wrestle in our inner being.

4 The words

Here are the full words unspoiled:


Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy bowels move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succor brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Acknowledgements to the Cyberhymnal web site for information without which this Blog entry would have been impossible.
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