I was reminded recently of one of my favorite hymns as I read the first reading at Mass. In particular these lines stood out:
[An] angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud [Jesus], “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven who also had a sharp sickle……“Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:14-19)
Ah, yes, the Battle Hymn of the Republic:Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on - –
We live in a time that does not usually appreciate these fearsome images of God. These are dainty times where many have tried to tame God. And yet the image from the hymn above is thoroughly biblical as you can already see. This first verse of the Battle Hymn also recalls Jeremiah
God will thunder from his holy dwelling and roar mightily against his land. He will shout like those who tread the grapes, shout against all who live on the earth. The tumult will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD will bring charges against the nations; he will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,’” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 25:30-31)
Yet again Scripture is alluded to by the hymn in reference to the terrible swift sword which is from Isaiah: In that day the LORD will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea (Isaiah 27:1). And the Book of Revelation 19:15 also speaks of the word coming forth from the Lord’s mouth like a sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. And in the fateful lightning the hymn alludes to Luke 17:24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.
Yes, the Lord is coming in judgment on and for his people. Injustice will be avenged and holiness disclosed.
The author of these words, Julia Ward Howe, lived in times that were anything but dainty or delicate. She lived in time of war, the Civil War. And she , like many of that time, possibly including President Lincoln, had come to see that horrible war as God’s judgment on a land that had enslaved, and cruelly and unjustly treated a whole race of people. Many decades before Thomas Jefferson had written, Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free (Notes on the State of Virginia). Yes, many abolitionists and others saw the Civil War in terms of God coming to render justice for the oppressed and to punish and purify by fire a land that strayed far from justice.
Julia Ward Howe had been stirred to write the hymn when, just outside of Washington DC, she heard the troops marching to the tune “John Brown’s Body.” The rhythm of that hymn stayed with her and that night she lodged at the Willard Hotel in Washington and recounts how she was was inspired to write:
I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper (Julia Ward Howe, 1861).
She describes it as a moment of inspiration. The words seem to flow from her effortlessly as is the case with inspiration. We have been blessed by these words ever since. It is true, these words do not remain without controversy. Some object to such warlike imagery associated with God. Even more objectionable to some is the human tendency to have God take sides in a war or to attribute any war to his inspiration. And yet, for one who has read Scripture, it is hard to wholly dismiss the notions advanced in this hymn even if they are offensive to modern ears. The Battle Hymn remains a masterpiece of English Literature and the music is surely masterful as well.
Other verses contain Biblical quotes and allusions as well. Perhaps a brief look at them.
Verse two says,
A powerful word painting here. The campfires of the bivouacked troops burning like candles before an altar to God’s glory and justice. The righteous sentence perceived by the flickering light recalls Daniel 5 where the hand of God wrote a sentence on the wall near the lamp stand at King Bleshazzar’s feast: MENE, TEKEL, PERES. The King trembled and all with him as the words appeared in the flickering candlelight. The righteous sentence of God announced that the King had been “placed in the scales and found wanting.” His kingdom was about to end. Of this sentence, Scripture says, From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet—when you, O God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land (Psalm 76:9-10)
And also in those signal fires, those watch fires, is recalled the question of Isaiah the Prophet: Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night?” The watchman says, “Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.” (21:11-12). As if to ask, “How much longer must justice tarry, how much longer?”
In all this, God’s “Day” of judgment marches on. The Scriptures often refer to the Day of the Lord as the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (eg. Mal 4:5-6).
Verse Three says,
- I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
- “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
- Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
- Since God is marching on.”
“Contemners” are those who despise God and his justice, who hold his law in contempt. Against these is the fiery Gospel. The Scripture says the Lord Jesus will judge the world by fire (eg. 2 Peter 3:7) and that his word comes forth from his mouth like a sharp sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty(Rev 19:5). The author allows the bayonets of the soldiers to allude to Word of the Lord whose fiery gospel judges the world. And in the second line the Lord promises grace to those who fight for justice.
The last two lines of this verse are the reference to Genesis: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, while you strike at his heel (Gen 3:15). It also refers to the reiteration of this in Rev 12. The Lord is destroying Satan’s power and ending the injustice of slavery, and ultimately all injustice.
Verse Four says:
- He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
- He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
- Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
- Our God is marching on.
A clear reference is made here to St. Paul who writes of the trumpet blast, For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52) and of the judgment we must face: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
The third line of jubilation is a reference to Malachi which promises a joyful judgment day to the Righteous: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out leaping like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty (Mal 4:1-4).
Verse Five says,
- In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
- With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
- As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
- While God is marching on.
The lily is a symbol of purity in the Scriptures. In the Song of Songs is the beautiful praise by the Bride for her groom: I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies (Song of songs 6:3). A sea a clear and calm as glass is described as surrounding the throne in heaven (Rev 4:6; 15:2). We are transfigured by Christ’s glory for we are made members of his body (Eph 5:30). Hence, when the Father sees Christ he also sees us, transfigured as it were in Christ’s glory.
We too are called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. We are to carry our cross as he did (eg. Lk 9:23) and if necessary to die for others. As his cross made us holy, our cross can help to make others free. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24). Clearly Howe is appealing here to Northern Soldiers to be willing to die in order to free the slaves.
The Final verse says in a kind of doxology:
- He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
- He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
- So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
- Our God is marching on.
Christ is Lord of History (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). He will come in Glory accompanied by his angels: They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Mat 24:30-31). The world has doubted and scorned him and his teachings, yet he is Wisdom to those who believe and whom he makes mighty by it, as Scripture says, Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children (Luke 7:35).
In the end, the wicked shall be his footstool as Scripture says, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. (Heb 10:13-14)
Ah, what a hymn. It is remarkably Christological and Biblical. Some consider it controversial. But that’s OK, the Bible is too, and this hymn is rather remarkable stitching of Bible verses and allusions. For this reason, it is not only the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is also the Bible Hymn of the Republic.