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History of Hymns: "Make Me a Captive, Lord"

"Make Me a Captive, Lord"
George Matheson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 421

George Matheson

Make me a captive, Lord,
And then I shall be free.
Force me to render up my sword,
And I shall conqueror be.
I sink in life’s alarms
When by myself I stand;
Imprison me within thine arms,
And strong shall be my hand.

Few hymns capture the paradoxical nature of the Christian faith as well as “Make me a captive, Lord.” The text piles on apparent contradictions that only make sense to Christians.

Stanza one contains three profound paradoxes of the Christian: When I become a “captive” to Christ, then “I shall be free;’” If I “render up [the] sword” of my own desires, then “I shall [be a] conqueror” and; When I am most vulnerable or “sink in life’s alarms,” I become “strong” when “imprison[ed]” in the shelter of God’s arms.

Perhaps the life of the poet George Matheson (1842-1906) had something to do with his extensive use of the poetic device of paradox. Though nearly blind by age 18, he became a brilliant student at Glasgow University.

He served faithfully and effectively as a minister in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and wrote several books on theology as well as devotional materials. He also left us with one volume of poetry, Sacred Songs (1890).

Matheson was also awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree by the University of Edinburgh in 1879 and the LL.D. from the University of Aberdeen in 1902.

Perhaps the context for this hymn comes from the paradox that a nearly blind man in 19th-century Scotland became, according to hymnologist William Reynolds, “[w]idely known and greatly respected [as well as] one of the outstanding Scottish Presbyterian ministers of his day.”

Matheson’s hymn appears in his collection Sacred Songs under the title “Christian Freedom” with the heading “‘Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ,’ Ephesians 3:1.” The chapter begins, “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles . . . ” (KJV)
Paul’s writings are full of paradoxes. Saul, a persecutor of Christians, was chosen by God to be an apostle of the faith. Paul, a Jew, was the apostle to the Gentiles. The epistles to the Christian communities found in the New Testament are replete with the language of paradox.

In Ephesians 2, we find that uncircumcised Gentiles who were “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (v. 12) are “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and the household of God” (v.19). This was not a result “of works, lest any boast” (v. 9), but “by grace . . . through faith…the gift of God” (v. 8).

It is the paradox of faith, rather than by any merit of our own, that the Gentiles become through Paul’s ministry part of the “household of God.”

In the second stanza, a “weak and poor” heart is strengthened with “matchless love” of Christ. Stanza three acknowledges that we have no power until we “learn . . . to serve.” The only way that we have power is if it is “driven” by the “breath . . . of heaven.”
The final stanza continues in the paradoxical vein: “My will is not my own till thou hast made it thine.” Our will “only stands unbent” when it has rested in Christ’s “bosom . . . and [finds] in [Christ] its life.”

The language of paradox is perhaps the best way to explore the mystery of faith. We cannot explain faith. The sanctifying grace of God is not the result of any merit of our own. We can, however, claim the reality of faith in our lives as we live into the depth of its paradox.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.