On a simplistic reading, this hymn is about using our trials to come closer to God. But I think that’s actually far too simplistic and misses the mark of what is, personally, my favorite hymn, a hymn based on one of the most gorgeous stories in the Old Testament.
Nearer, My God, To Thee was written by Sarah Flower Adams as a personal favor to a Unitarian minister. When the minister visited their family one evening, he mentioned that he was having trouble finding a hymn to accompany his next week’s sermon on Genesis 28:11-19. Sarah volunteered to compose a poem for the occasion and what emerged has become one of the most poignant religious anthems in Christendom.
Genesis 28 is the story of Jacob’s nighttime vision of a ladder reaching into heaven, and it inspires four out of the five verses of this hymn. Jacob is the “wanderer” who finds himself traveling across the wilderness. On one occasion, when “the sun [had] gone down,” he lay down for the night in a place filled with boulders (his “rest a stone”). While asleep, he had a vision of a ladder reaching heavenward (“steps unto heaven”) on which angels were ascending and descending. At the top of the ladder was the Lord, who renewed the Abrahamic Covenant with this fledgling patriarch before sending him on his way eastward.
It is Jacob’s curious behavior after his dream, however, that I find particularly interesting and on which I want to dwell in this post. Genesis 28 recounts:
“And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’ And he was afraid, and said ‘How dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ And Jacob … took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it. And he called the name of that place Beth-el.” (Gen 28:16-19)
When Jacob first happened upon this place, there was nothing to mark it as particularly sacred. It was just “a certain place” (Gen 28:11) he happened to come to by chance. But in the morning, after the dream, he views the landscape with new eyes. What looked like a mere boulder field was, in fact, “none other but the house of God,” and the disparity between its appearance and its reality startles him.
This, I think, is a profound metaphor for the nearness of God’s grace. At any moment we might find ourselves in a profoundly sacred space, a space filled with angels and covenants and “steps unto heaven,” if only we had eyes to see. God’s power often irrupts into our lives without warning, for no apparent reason. God’s grace is at the same time so ubiquitous and so potent that it’s almost shocking when it reveals itself to us, and frightening in how often we fail to see it.
But Jacob’s response is more than a simple expression of surprise. After his startled exclamation, Jacob sets up a pillar and anoints it, what the hymn refers to with the lines “Out of my stony griefs / Bethel I’ll raise.”
It’s almost as if Jacob is trying to echo the ladder he saw in his dreams. In the course of his horizontal journey, he learns that there is a possibility for vertical ascent, as well. And so when he awakes, his first task is to make visible that verticality–to mark this space as sacred, to name it, anoint it, and alert other wanderers to its importance. Our task, like Jacob’s, is to take the mundane, to glimpse God in it, and then to get to work rendering visible God’s grace in the world.
Thus, the first message of this hymn is that a desire for nearness with God calls forth a certain kind of response to the world.
But if there is a second message in Jacob’s story, it is that our spiritual journey operates at a level other than the visible. Blessings and trials are all external, visible things. But there’s something deeper that runs through such vicissitudes, something constant that disregards the external realities of our lives.
The sense is not that we take our trials and learn lessons from them and turn them to good (though we certainly must!). I think this hymn is more nuanced than that. Rather, the message is that in spite of our trials, apart and separate from them, our focus remains the same. Trials or blessings don’t change anything; they merely operate at the visible level. Our “song” ought to be the same whether we’re blessed or not, because the refrain of our lives operates in a different sphere.
We sing as if we were Jacob, receiving the vision, raising Bethel, and making the Abrahamic covenant anew. We begin as “wanderers” in “darkness,” bearing “stony griefs,” and we progress to become angels, “cleaving the sky,” flying “upward” as we ascend the ladder to fulfill our wish of growing “nearer” to God. But regardless of whether we are being raised by a cross (verse 1) or carried upwards by the wings of angels (verse 5),
Still all my song shall be
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer to thee!