12 December 2014

Hymns for Advent (13): ‘The Lord will come
and not be slow’ (No 140), by John Milton

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, where John Milton was an undergraduate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As part of my spiritual reflections for Advent this year, I am looking at an appropriate hymn for Advent each morning. This morning [12 December 2014], I have chosen ‘The Lord will come and not be slow’ (Irish Church Hymnal, No 140), by John Milton (1608-1674).

This hymn is being sung as the Closing Hymn at Choral Evensong in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday afternoon [14 December 2014], the Third Sunday of Advent.

Milton is one of the great English poets of the 17th century, alongside George Herbert, John Donne and Richard Crashaw. He wrote at a time of religious flux and political upheaval, and he is best-known for his epic poem, Paradise Lost, which earned him an international reputation in his own lifetime.

However, his influence on English hymn-writing has been very slight. Apart from this hymn, ‘The Lord will come and not be slow’ (Irish Church Hymnal, No 140), based on Psalm 136, and ‘How lovely are thy dwellings fair! (No 333), based on Psalm 84, his paraphrases of the psalms have remained unused for the most part by the compilers and editors of hymnals. Yet he was influential in expanding the tradition of using metrical psalms in worship.

William Hayley has called Milton the “greatest English author.” His poetry and his prose reflect deep convictions and they address religious and contemporary political issues, including censorship, religious freedom and divorce. Samuel Johnson – to whom I shall return tomorrow [13 December 2014] – praised Milton’s Paradise Lost as “a poem which, considered with respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind.”

Johnson’s praise is true praise indeed, for the Lichfield writer was a committed Tory and the recipient of royal patronage, and he dismissed Milton for his politics, describing him as an “acrimonious and surly republican.”

Later, Milton had a great impact on the Romantic movement in England, and Wordsworth called upon him to rise from the dead and aid in returning England to its former glory.

Snow blankets the First Court in Christ’s College, Cambridge … John Milton was a student here when he wrote his poem ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Milton was born in London on 9 December 1608. He was an undergraduate at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where I have been a guest and where I have preached, and he graduated BA at Cambridge in 1629.

His poem, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ was written in Cambridge in 1629 when his Puritan contemporaries were stepping up their opposition to the celebration of Christmas Day. But, with Christmas Day approaching in December 1629, and conscious of both his own birthday and his birth, Milton, who was still at Christ’s College, was moved to write an ode about Christ’s birth.

He considered ordination as an Anglican priest, and stayed on at Cambridge to receive his MA in 1632. However, he never proceeded to ordination. After receiving his MA, Milton retired to his father’s home in Hammersmith, and spent six years in self-directed private study there and at Horton in Berkshire. He then travelled though France, Switzerland and Italy, returning to England as the Civil War began to unfold.

Back in England, Milton continued to write, supporting himself as a school teacher. By the mid-1650s, Milton was blind, yet he married a second and a third time. At the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he went into hiding. A warrant was issued for his arrest and his writings were burnt. He was arrested and jailed briefly, and subsequently lived out his days in London and in ‘Milton’s Cottage’ in Chalfont St Giles.

In his later years, he never went to any religious services and responded with sarcasm to accounts of sermons from Nonconformist chapels. He died on 8 November 1674 and was buried at Saint Giles in Cripplegate.

He wrote this Advent hymn in April 1648, drawing on a selection of verses in Psalms 82, 85 and 86. It was included in his collection, Poems, etc., both English and Latin, upon Several Occasions, published in 1673, a year before his death. It first appeared in hymn form in 1859.

The tune in Irish Church Hymnal, ‘St Stephen,’ is a melody by William Jones (1726-1800), and was first published in Ten Church Pieces for the Organ in 1789. It was originally intended to accompany singing a metrical version of Psalm 23, and was first used in his church at Nayland in Suffolk.

Christ’s College, Cambridge, where I have preached and been a guest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Lord will come and not be slow (No 140), by John Milton

The Lord will come and not be slow,
his footsteps cannot err;
before him righteousness shall go,
his royal harbinger.

Mercy and truth, that long were missed,
now joyfully are met;
sweet peace and righteousness have kissed,
and hand in hand are set.

Surely to such as do him fear
salvation is at hand;
and glory shall ere long appear
to dwell within our land.

Rise, God, judge thou the earth in might,
this wicked earth redress;
for thou art he who shall by right
the nations all possess.

The nations all whom thou hast made
shall come, and all shall frame
to bow them low before thee, Lord,
and glorify thy name.

For great thou art, and wonders great
by thy strong hand are done:
thou in thine everlasting seat
remainest God alone.

Tomorrow:Almighty God who art the author and giver of all wisdom’(Samuel Johnson, Bernard Rose)

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