This hymn is one of the least well-known in the hymnbook. It’s also one of my favorites. Like the more popular Be Still My Soul, this hymn reminds us that constant peace is available through the Savior no matter what the circumstances. I have loved that message of rest and comfort ever since I was introduced to this hymn, but it wasn’t until I started looking more closely at the lyrics that I began to appreciate its gorgeous imagery.
The hymn’s title comes from the very first line:
Lean on my ample arm,
O thou depressed!
Throughout the hymn, the Savior speaks to us personally and closely. He is not depicted addressing us out of heaven, but as our intimate companion, walking next to us. This, in fact, is why he can request that we “lean” on his arm—the only way you can lean on someone is if they’re walking beside you.
As the hymn progresses, however, we learn a bit more about our surroundings:
And I will bid the storm
Cease in thy breast.
Whate’er thy lot may be
On life’s complaining sea,
If thou wilt come to me,
Thou shalt have rest.
We are tossed on “life’s complaining sea,” and that upheaval is reflected in the “storm … in [our] breast.” Jesus promises that he can “bid the storm / cease” and give us “rest.” The metaphor of stilling a storm, of course, comes from the New Testament (see Matt 8:23–27; 14:22–33). The God who commands all of nature can certainly grant the same peace to an anguished or turbulent heart.
Thus, we’re not invited to lean on Jesus’ arm because he is simply walking beside us, but because we are like Peter, and the Savior is reaching out to grab us as we take a few impetuous steps on the water. His “ample arm” is not just a convenient (but ultimately unnecessary) luxury; it’s our lifeline, the only thing between us and the storm.
If possible, the second verse contains even more moving imagery than the first:
Lift up thy tearful eyes,
Sad heart, to me;
I am the sacrifice
Offered for thee.
This is a scene I imagine taking place at the foot of the cross. If we “lift up” our eyes, we will be confronted with the image of Jesus’ “sacrifice / offered” in our behalf. I find it interesting that out of all the possible moments of the Savior’s ministry that could have been used to illustrate peace, this hymn draws on two of the disciples’ most difficult and tempestuous experiences. In spite of the frightening and discouraging outlook, the Lord extends this promise:
In me thy pain shall cease,
In me is thy release,
In me thou shalt have peace
In one sense, this assurance is deeply troubling and almost ironic—how can He offer us peace, rest, and release, when he himself is currently portrayed in captivity and experiencing intense pain? It’s precisely this incongruity, I think, that I find most tender about this hymn. Jesus is speaking to us from the moment of his most intense suffering. Rather than saying “I’ve been through that in the past,” he’s saying “it’s okay; I’m going through it, too.” The second verse is an image of divine empathy rather than sympathy. We often try to encourage others by offering hope, by playing up the happy ending. We see this, for example, with Be Still My Soul, whose lyrics address us from the perspective of the “joyful end” when “grief and fear are gone.” By contrast, Lean on My Ample Arm is sung when the grief and fear are radically present, and assures us that we can have peace even then.
This message is at its most explicit here in the culminating line:
In me thou shalt have peace
As Latter-day Saints, we’re used to hearing the word “eternal” used to refer to the afterlife. It’s noteworthy, I think, that this hymn uses the adverb (“eternally”) rather than the noun (“in eternity”). Its most basic definition is: “in a way that continues or lasts forever; permanently.” The peace offered to us is available during our trials, not just when they end. The Savior offers us constant, unending peace, no matter our circumstances. When we, like the Savior, are feeling the weight of the cross we’ve taken up, peace is available even then, and it’s available precisely because of the cross He willingly bears.
All we have to do is lift up our eyes, and notice our surroundings. If we look closely we’ll see Christ right there.