Guide me O thou great Jehovah: William Williams

Bible Study

Guide me O thou great Jehovah: William Williams

Bible Study by David Wright

This is the only hymn in most hymnbooks that was originally written in Welsh. It has been translated more than once, by Peter Williams and then by the author.

William Williams is not only the chief hymn-writer of Wales, but also one her greatest poets. He was born in 1717, the son of a farmer of Cefn-y-coed. He studied medicine at Llwynllwyd Academy, but left to enter the Anglican ministry. He became a curate at Llanwrtyd, Breconshire, but the Bishop of St David’s was unwilling to make him a priest because of his evangelical views and activities. He therefore left the Established Church and joined the migrant evangelistic work of Howell Harris (whose preaching had earlier led to his decision to seek ordination) and the Rev. David Rowlands. Williams wrote 800 hymns in Welsh, and over 100 in English before his death in 1791.

This hymn takes the Exodus from Egypt to the promised land of Israel as a ‘type’ or metaphor of the spiritual pilgrimage of the individual Christian through his earthly life. The words are probably based on Psalm 105, a poetic summary of the Exodus, rather than with the book of Exodus itself. There are also many allusions to the New Testament within the three short verses. It would be difficult to find another hymn that included so much, in less than a hundred words.

The whole hymn is a prayer for guidance. The Christian is a pilgrim through, ‘this barren land’ (verse 1, line 2). This is not the green hills of Wales; it was originally the arid desert of the wilderness of Sinai, and is now the materialistic world.

We can ask the almighty God to hold our hand (verse 1, line 4) because he has promised this: ‘If I dwell in the uttermost parts . . . even there . . . thy right hand shall hold me’ (Ps 139:9-10, AV). The original ‘Bread of heaven’ (verse 1, line 5) was the manna of the wilderness journey: ‘He satisfied them with the bread of heaven’ (Ps 105:40, AV). But Jesus offered, ‘the bread of life’ which, unlike manna, satisfies for ever: ‘I am the bread of life’, said Jesus, ‘he that cometh to me shall never hunger’ (John 6:35, AV). Thus, we can pray, ‘Feed me, till I want (i.e. I am in need) no more’ (verse 1, line 6). This line is now sometimes rendered, ‘Feed me now and evermore’, or ‘Feed me from the living store’.

The crystal fountain with the healing stream (verse 2, lines 1-2) also links both with Moses and with Jesus. The Children of Israel had complained of thirst; Moses had prayed and been told to strike a rock, whence a river flowed (Psalm 105: 41 and Exodus 17). Jesus promises, ‘He who believes on me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35, AV). The wilderness wanderings were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night (verse 2, line 3; Psalm 105:41). So we, too, can ask God to lead us.

The River Jordan was the boundary of the Promised Land (verse 3, line 1). Ahead lay the ‘land of milk and honey’. The account of the crossing of the River Jordan may be found in Joshua 3. As God led his people through the water of the River Jordan, so we can pray to be brought safely through death to heaven. The ‘songs of praises’ (verse 4, line 5) can be sung on both sides of the ‘river’.

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