History of Hymns: “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending”
By C. Michael Hawn
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.
God appears on earth to reign.
This poem comes as close as poetic verse can in scaling the heights of splendor, majesty, and mystery as described in Revelation. “Lo! He comes with clouds descending” by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) appears as hymn thirty-nine of forty hymns in John Wesley’s collection, Hymns of Intercession for All Mankind (1758) under the sectional title “Thy Kingdom Come!” in four six-line stanzas. While this hymn is in a variety of sections in hymnals —most notably Advent, but also in Ascension, Christ’s Return and Judgment, End Time, and others—the context in which it appears in John Wesley’s collection offers a very different understanding of the text.
While it is common to cite the collection that first included a hymn, we do not often place a hymn explicitly in the context of the collection and what its use and placement indicate about the theological perspective and insight of the editor, in this case John Wesley (1703-1791). This collection bears examination as it is unusual in the compilations prepared by the Wesleys, at least to some degree, and sets the context of our hymn. The hymns in Hymns of Intercession for All Mankind address in amazing detail various categories of intercessory prayer. The bold categories are my own, while the subcategories are those designated by John Wesley in the collection:
Hymns for the world, the Church, and its leaders:
For all Mankind (Hymn 1)
For Peace (Hymn 2)
For the Church Catholic (Hymn 3)
For the Church of England (Hymns 4, 5)
For the Ministers of the gospel (Hymns 6, 7, 8, 9)
Hymns for the nation and various national leaders and governmental organizations:
For his Majesty King George (Hymn 10)
For the Prince of Wales (Hymn 11)
For the King of Prussia (Hymns 12, 13, 14)
For the British Nation (Hymn 15)
For the Magistrates (Hymn 16)
For the Nobility (Hymn 17)
For the Parliament (Hymn 18)
For the Fleet (Hymn 19)
For the Army (Hymn 20)
For the Universities (Hymns 21, 22)
Hymns addressing pastoral intercessions, usually a single stanza:
For all that travel by land or by water (Hymn 23)
For all women laboring of child (Hymn 24)
For all sick Persons (Hymn 25)
For Young Children (Hymn 26)
For all Prisoners and Captives (Hymn 27)
For the fatherless Children (Hymn 28)
For Widows (Hymn 29)
A final section of intercessions, many controversial by twenty-first century perspectives, that expose the false, even heretical, theology of a variety of groups viewed outside the Christian faith:
For our Enemies, Persecutors, and Slanderers (Hymn 30)
For our unconverted Relations (Hymn 31)
For the Jews (Hymn 32)
For the Turks (Hymn 33)
For the Heathen (Hymn 34)
For the Arians, Socianians, Deists, Pelagians (Hymn 35).
Following this list, “Lo! He comes in clouds descending” concludes the collection as one of five hymns under the category of “Thy Kingdom Come!,” one of the first petitions of The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:10, KJV). Charles Wesley, having enumerated a comprehensive list of intercessory needs, establishes that God, in Christ, is the cosmic “monarch” of all earthly kings, nations, institutions, individuals in need, and all religions and theologies, and philosophies found on earth, even if they do not recognize God.
Given the subject of these poems, it is hard to imagine that most would have had any liturgical use, though they might be seen as a primer for intercessory prayer or even a lyrical theological treatise on the judgment of Christ or the second coming. Of the final five hymns, four, including our hymn, appear in selected hymnals with varying degrees of success, the other hymns being:
“He Comes! He Comes! the Judge Severe” (Hymn 37)
“Rise, Ye Dearly Purchased Sinners” (Hymn 38)
“Lift Your Heads, Ye Friends of Jesus” (Hymn 40)
But none have struck a chord like “Lo! He Comes”!
The hymn appears virtually unchanged in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) with two exceptions: The first is a minor substitution in stanza four of “Hallelujah” for “JAH, JEHOVAH” from Psalm 68:4. The second is the repetition of a word or words in the fifth line of each stanza, for example, “Hallelujah!” in stanza one. The original resulted in a rather awkward meter: 184.108.40.206.4.7. By repeating the word or words in the fifth line of each stanza, the meter was evened out (220.127.116.11.8.7), allowing it to be used with several standard tunes, most notably for American hymnals REGENT SQUARE and HELMSLEY, the latter appearing in The United Methodist Hymnal. HELMSLEY, often attributed to Thomas Olivers (1710-1778), is a hamlet in Yorkshire, England. J. R. Watson, editor of the Canturbury Dictionary of Hymnology, notes, “HELMSLEY is entitled OLIVERS in Wesley’s Select Hymns: with Tunes Annext (Second Edition, 1765) and is thought to be an arrangement by him of a piece entitled ‘Miss Cathley’s Hornpipe’.”
Whatever the source of HELMSLEY, it is a magnificent pairing with this majestic text and is certainly fitting for a cathedral. Neil Dixon in the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology suggests that the incipit (opening line) was adapted from “Lo! He Cometh, Countless Trumpets” published by the Moravian John Cennick (1718-1755) in his Collection of Sacred Hymns (1752), a hymn in the same meter as our hymn and on the same theme, even with some phrases in common. Charles Wesley’s borrowing or closely adapting another’s work should not be confused with our twenty-first understanding of plagiarism, but understood as a common eighteenth-century poetic technique of “imitation.”
In stanza 1, the “thousand, thousand saints attending” are reminiscent of Charles’s Wesley’s “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing” published nearly two decades earlier in his Hymns and Sacred Poems (1740). Indeed, reference to “thousand” is a favorite hyperbole (poetic exaggeration) of hymn writers from the days of Wesley’s older contemporary Isaac Watts (1674-1748) through the nineteenth century gospel song era. In this case, the hyperbole is exponentially increased—“thousand, thousand”—to indicate the magnificent spectacle of innumerable “saints [who are] attending” and who “swell the triumph of [Christ’s] train.” This is truly a picture of the Monarch of monarchs appearing in unparalleled splendor! The paradox of the entire scene appears in the second line of the opening stanza: “Once for favored sinners slain!”
Stanza two enhances the scope of this royal scene: “Every eye shall now behold him,” a direct quotation from Revelation 1:7: “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” (KJV). As in this verse of Scripture, the stanza reminds us of the paradox of the one who is coming:
Those who set at naught and sold him,
pierced and nailed him to the tree,
deeply wailing . . .
Christ’s passion is brought even more to the forefront in stanza 3:
The dear tokens of his passion
still his dazzling body bears . . .
The final stanza places this magnificent scene in the cosmic realm:
Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
high on thy eternal throne . . .
This throne cannot be contained on earth, but extends to the cosmos. Indeed, the final line is a petition: “Everlasting God, come down!”
J. R. Watson notes that this is truly a “sublime” hymn—an eighteenth-century designation reserved only for the finest of artistic works. (For example, “sublime” was used by some critics to describe parts of Handel’s Messiah.)
It is a magnificent hymn, with a powerful tune, but like many sublime hymns it treads a narrow line between being too wildly enthusiastic (as in Cennick’s version [cited earlier] and being too restrained. Charles Wesley’s version deals with this problem finely and with sensitivity (Watson, 2002, 199).
It is interesting to note that a hymn that suggests Advent in some hymnals today would not probably have been seen in that light in the Wesleys’ day. While the Book of Common Prayer (1662) contained collects for Advent, there were no standard hymnal collections in use by the Church of England; metrical psalm singing rather than hymn singing was dominant at that time. While the shape of the Christian Year was similar, the relative weight given to various seasons differed from what we recognize today, following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). While probably not an Advent hymn in its time, neither is our hymn simply another “Second Coming” hymn in its original context.
Rather than being included in a collection designated for a key festival of the Christian Year such as the Wesleys’ collections Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord (1745), Hymns for Our Lord’s Resurrection (1746), Hymns for Ascension-Day (1747), or Whitsunday [Pentecost] Hymns (1746), the context of the somewhat curious collection Hymns of Intercession for All Mankind (1758) suggests a posture of intercessory prayer in which people of all ranks and positions—from the most common to the most elevated, the young and old, the bereft and blessed, believers and heretics—all find themselves prostrate before a cosmic spectacle in which the once-crucified Messiah now sits upon a throne of radiance beyond anything that we can imagine, surrounded by countless—“thousand, thousand”—sinners that are now saints.
Undoubtedly, the context of the British monarchy and the scope of worldwide colonial influence in the eighteenth century both influence the metaphors that shape this text along with biblical images. However, Wesley, an ardent supporter of the British monarchy, knows the One to whom he owes supreme allegiance. Thus, the paradox of this hymn is that even eighteenth-century England in all of its might, splendor, and influence does not compare to the cosmic Monarch of the risen Christ.
This article is a complementary piece to another article on this same title.
Click here to read another analysis of this same hymn.
For further reading:
Dixon, Neil. "Lo! He comes with clouds descending." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.Canterbury Press, accessed October 20, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/l/lo!-he-comes-with-clouds-descending.
Watson, J. R. An Annotated Anthology of Hymns. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
_____. "Thomas Olivers." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed October 20, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/t/thomas-olivers.
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Director of the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.