History of Hymns: “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”
“Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending,”
by Charles Wesley;
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 718
Lo, he comes with clouds descending
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand, thousand saints attending
Swell the triumph of his train.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears on earth to reign.
Do you find it hard to stay in the moment and be truly present with the task or people in front of you? I often find this difficult, as I constantly remember the “already” and dream about the “not yet.” This is normal; our past informs who we are, and our hopes for the future define the choices we make today. As communities of Christians, we follow a liturgical year that is a constant ebb and flow of waiting and celebrating and waiting again. Starting with Advent, we await the coming of the Christ-child; we celebrate at Christmas, which still includes waiting for the Epiphany, which leads us to Lent and the preparations for Holy Week, in which we know what will happen, but we wait nonetheless.
Hymn singing is a powerful tool that keeps us in the moment, using images from the past to shape our communal hopes for future. Many of the great hymn writers use the tension of time to propel us into the gospel narrative and bring to our current moment the truths of the gospel message.
Charles Wesley’s (1707-1788) hymn “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” uses events of the past to remind us who we are in our faith, to set a vision of what the future holds, and to state who our God is. First published in John Wesley’s (1703-1791) book of 1758 titled Hymns of Intercession for All Mankind, it is included under the heading “Thy Kingdom Come.” The book’s title page includes a scriptural reference from 1 Timothy 2:1, “I exhort therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” (KJV)
The hymn is a complete reworking of a text by John Cennick (1718-1755), whose hymn “Be Present at Our Table, Lord” is a familiar table blessing. Some hymnals actually combine stanzas of Cennick’s hymn with Wesley’s, creating a six-stanza hymn. The version in The United Methodist Hymnal is identical to that in Hymns of Intercession. In comparing the two versions, we can see the facility with which Charles uses the English language and how he effortlessly mirrors the images of the book of Revelation, on which the text appears to be based:
“Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.” (Revelation 1:7, KJV)
The United Methodist Hymnal includes the hymn in the section “A New Heaven and a New Earth.” Certainly, the final stanza does make clear this exhortation: “Hallelujah! Everlasting God, come down!” In high-liturgical churches, the hymn may not be appropriate for Lent, as it includes the word “Hallelujah.” However, the images of the inner stanzas rely heavily on Lenten themes. Lent calls us to realize our position as a “favored sinner,” to behold Jesus “robed in dreadful majesty” while considering “the dear tokens of his passion” as he was “pierced and nailed… to the tree.” Perhaps, the most challenging line of the hymn asks us to consider the “cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshipers; with what rapture, gaze we on those glorious scars!”
The interplay of tune and text in this hymn is interesting. Properly, the text’s poetic meter (number of syllables per line) is 87.87.47. This is an exceedingly rare meter to set musically (hymnary.org lists only two true tunes of this meter that are neither well-known nor easy to sing), so the tunes to which this text are set are usually 87. 87. 87, with a repeat of the fifth line of text. This works for well-known tunes such as CWM RHONDDA (“Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah”) and WESTMINSTER ABBEY (“Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation”).
The tune HELMSLEY, to which this text is most commonly set, is slightly different and is particularly well-suited to this text. The tune has a musical sequence that coincides with the fifth four-syllable line of text. In music, a sequence is a short melody that is repeated at a different pitch level. In this case (“Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”), the melody is repeated once a step lower and then a step higher. This makes the meter of the tune more like 87. 87. 4447. Such repetition intensifies the text that is repeated. Stanzas one and four of this text include the word “Hallelujah”; stanza two has the words “deeply wailing”; and stanza three, “with what rapture.”
When sung together, this text and tune help the worshiping community observe with wonder the events of Jesus’ crucifixion. Well-placed tune-driven repeats of text create a sense of excitement and urgency. This drives us toward the hoped-for day when we sing “Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee, high on thy eternal throne; Savior, take the power and glory, claim the kingdom for thine own. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Ever-lasting God, come down!”
This article is a complementary piece to another article on this same title.
Click here to read another analysis of this same hymn from C. Michael Hawn.
For further reading:
For a scanned version of Hymns of Intercession for All Mankind, see: https://archive.org/details/intercess00wesl.
For Cennick’s hymn text and a short history of the versions of Wesley’s hymn, see: https://hymnary.org/text/lo_he_comes_with_clouds_descending_once.
About this week’s writer:
Michael Dougherty is the Director of Traditional Music and Worship Team Leader for Hyde Park United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.