Rudyard Kipling wrote this hymn.
This was enough to recommend itself to me when I first heard this hymn in 2005, because beneath this rural Arizonian exterior there is a devoted Anglophile. The text is the first three verses of Kipling’s poem “Recessional,” written in the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. It was later included in the English Hymnal in 1906 under its present title.
There is something about this hymn that seems like a secret, satisfying handshake between Rudyard Kipling and Mormons. In some ways this hymn is incredibly specific to Victorian England–references to navies and captains and kings holding down the “far-flung battle line.” Even the musical structure of this hymn seems slightly militaristic, stolid, marching toward the end phrase.
But, ah! the end of each verse unfolds into real melodic beauty at the same time Kipling brings us back to the source of our power.
“Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.”
Speaking of forgetting, I often think of the children of Israel singing the third verse as an anthem as they wandered in the wilderness, chanting is as a kind of talisman against forgetfulness of the Lord Jehovah and His mercy in delivering them. This last verse is us pleading with the Lord, the Old Testament Jehovah, to spare us from His wrath.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire.
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.
But the second verse is the real heart of the hymn. We are stripped of all worldly power: no captains, no kings to protect us. And yet when we are pared down to our most naked and vulnerable, “still stands [His] ancient sacrifice, an humble and a contrite heart.” Christ’s sacrifice still remains as our greatest protection when all other channels to happiness have failed us.
The only thing the Lord requires from us is everything. In exchange for our time, our goods and our most closely guarded sins, He promises us peace, protection and an understanding of our place in His kingdom.
All we need to do is remember who we are, lest we forget it and turn away from Him.
Lest we forget.
Lest we forget.