A close source pointed me to an article by Marylynn Rouse in Christian Heritage London, about the 250th anniversary of Amazing Grace. She comments, ‘It’s not often that a pop song in the charts can claim to have been around for 250 years. John Newton’s hymn Amazing Grace featured in hit parades all over the world in the 1960s and 70s, but was written for New Year’s Day 1773.
‘Newton was then curate-in-charge (senior minister) at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul in Olney, Buckinghamshire. He took for his text 1 Chronicles 17:16,17 – And David the king came and sat before the Lord, and said, Who am I, O Lord God, and what is mine house, that thou hast brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in thine eyes, O God; for thou hast also spoken of thy servant’s house for a great while to come, and hast regarded me according to the estate of a man of high degree, O Lord God.
‘Newton began his sermon by saying “The Lord bestows many blessings upon his people, but unless he likewise gives them a thankful heart, they lose much of the comfort they might have in them.”
‘His objective then was to arouse in his listeners “a thankful heart”.’
As we begin a new calendar year, it’s worth pairing two great themes in Isaiah chapter 40, Comfort, and in chapter 60, Glory.
With the Babylonian conquest in 586BC, Isaiah’s first readers had lost their city, the temple (the symbol of God’s presence) and their king. We can only begin to imagine their reaction to Isaiah’s words in chapter 40, for he was now telling them that the time of God’s judgment was over. God had not forgotten them: they would have a future.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
There’s a timelessness about these words, for they speak to us all as we face life with its difficulties, challenges, and suffering. In the midst of our cries from the heart, ‘Comfort’ speaks of God’s tenderness.
The theme continues in verse 11: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom…’
Isaiah knows that in tough times only a big God can sustain us. And our God is a big God. Only he can overrule our world when it is falling into chaos around us. Only he can say to us with any degree of credibility, ‘Comfort’.
Isaiah continues by awakening us to God’s awesome majesty and kindness, with questions such as, ‘What is God like?’ Can we compare him to the great ones of the world? Some try to pose as gods! Nebuchadnezzar, the great emperor of ancient Babylon, tried it for a while. So did Augustus Caesar and other Roman emperors. So too, do some autocrat leaders today.
To which Isaiah responds: Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to nought and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing…
We search the universe in vain for an adequate comparison to God’s majesty. There is nothing we might worship – be it science or technology, intelligence or wisdom, military might or political power, or even the sun or the stars – that can be compared with him. Yet our world today has walked away from the very thought of God.
‘Is God kind and compassionate?’ we ask. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Isaiah says. The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable (40:28).
No matter how heart-breaking our situation, no matter how perplexing, we remain in the hands of a kind and limitless intelligence. He knows what he’s doing. Events that trouble us don’t mean that God’s hands have slipped from the helm. We may not always understand his ways, but we have every reason to trust him.
Indeed, God is good and caring: He gives power to the faint, and gives strength to the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, and note this: they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (40:29).
Walk and not faint. That’s what we need when life is tough and incomprehensible.
In times when resentment, bitterness and pain make it hard to believe and hard to pray, hard to sing and hard to read the Bible, we need to turn afresh to Isaiah 40.
Which brings us to Isaiah chapter 60: Glory. Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising… I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it (Isaiah 60:1-3, 22b).
The darkness of this world will one day give way to light, gloom will give way to glory. Isaiah 60 prepares us for the coming of God’s king in all his glory. It speaks of the city God has planned for his people – the new Jerusalem where, as Revelation 21:1-4 tells us, there will be no more pain or suffering, crying or death. Above all we will know the deep joy of God’s presence with us.
But this city lies on the other side of a cosmic divide. Isaiah’s words will only be fulfilled through the personal intervention of God himself. Only then will we be delivered from the pain of our present world.
Miraculously, the exiled Jewish people in Babylon returned to Jerusalem in 520BC. It is a picture of a far greater promise – forgiveness and new life for all God’s people in a city where there will be a perfect freedom we can only dimly understand. It will involve the manifestation of God’s King in all his majestic power and glory. And, come what may, it will happen. No human authority, no evil power is greater than God’s.
As we begin a new calendar year, how important it is that, as we look forward, we also look back with thankful hearts to the greatest blessing of all that God has given humanity – the coming of his king amongst us and, through his death and resurrection, the offer of a full and free pardon and forgiveness for all who turn to him. We can face the future with hope and goodwill in our hearts.
No wonder on a New Year’s Day, two hundred and fifty years ago, John Newton penned the words, Amazing Grace…
With thankful hearts may you know the blessing of God’s joy and peace in this New Year!
A prayer. O God, who by the leading of a star revealed your beloved Son to the Gentiles, mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may after this life enjoy the splendor of your glorious presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.