Awake, we’re told over and over in this hymn. We’re told twice in the title alone, and the tune, as with most hymns about Zion, is upbeat and powerful. We sing vigorously, an attitude about as far from sleep as possible. And yet it’s clear all of us (those of us singing, anyway), are quite literally awake. So why are we urging ourselves and other saints to awake?
What does it mean to be asleep?
Sleep is associated with refreshment and rejuvenation, certainly, but it’s also tied to fatigue and exhaustion. We sleep when we’re tired, and while we sleep, we’re usually completely unaware of the world around us. When we sleep, we dream, a word often associated with hopes and striving, but it can also represent unattainable ideas and goals, or even a state out of touch with reality.
In this hymn, sleep represents captivity and an inability to progress. The first verse urges us to “call on the Lord in mighty prayer that he will Zion’s bondage break.” There are times the saints of God have been in literal bondage; the children of Israel in Egypt immediately come to mind, but the people of Alma, held captive by the Amulonites in the Book of Mosiah qualify, too. They cried to their God that He would release them from their bondage, and He heard them and set them free.
In both cases, the promised deliverance only came after the people took action. It wasn’t enough for them to wish they were free; they had to exercise faith and ask God for His aid. Idle wishing for an escape from our trials is like, well, daydreaming. We may as well be asleep for all the good it does us. Instead, we call each other to action. We remind each other that while we rely on the Lord for all that we have, His blessing to us are conditional on our asking for them. We exercise faith through our actions, and the promised blessings come as we do so.
It’s right there in the fourth verse: Awake to righteousness; be one. We take action, we follow the principles we have been taught, and as we do so, we unite ourselves with others who do so. And if we do not – if we decide to blaze our own trial and stick to our own teachings rather than those revealed truths – the Lord says to us, “ye are not mine.” He will have a united and true people. He has given us the tools and teachings to do so, and has promised that we will find power in so doing. Our faith strengthens us, of course, but we draw power from the Father and the Son, who build us up and make us able to accomplish tasks beyond our own power.
We are reminded in the second verse that the “God of Jacob does not sleep.” He may not, in a literal sense (I won’t pretend to know), but in a symbolic sense, meaning that His attention is distracted from us, He assuredly does not. We are His work and His glory, and we are continually before Him. He dedicates His whole self and work to helping us to achieve what He has, perfection and eternal glory. He does that through calling us to action. Our action is essential to our progression; after all, we can’t hope to achieve anything by sitting around waiting for it to happen. So we are urged to awake, arise out of our too-deep sleep, rubbing our eyes and shaking off the last vestiges of dreams that call us back to bed. We get up, we remember our purpose here, and we move to action, helping others in their path along the way.
In short, we awake, we saints of God.