The hymn I’m offering today is not as well known, but we did actually sing it at my church last year on All Saints’ Sunday. It’s basically a question-and-answer song, with two verses of questions and three verses of answers. So, like many classic hymns that have survived to this day, it is not only an expression of praise to God but also a set of lyrics with excellent teaching value.
1. Who are these like stars appearing,
These before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
Who are all this glorious band?
Alleluia! hark, they sing,
Praising loud their heav’nly King.
Drawing from images throughout the Bible, this hymn begins by asking the question “who are these?” Uncountable multitudes of people are surrounding God’s throne, wearing crowns, and singing “alleluia” to Him. These are the saints – God’s people – particularly the departed saints in heaven, but let’s wait for the hymn to answer it’s own question.
2. Who are these of dazzling brightness,
These in God’s own truth arrayed,
Clad in robes of purest whitness,
Robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
Ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence comes all this glorious band?
The questions continue in verse 2, now focusing on the white garments worn by this great and glorious band of people. The white garments, also a common image in the Bible, refer to purity, holiness, or righteousness. It’s that gift from God of complete forgiveness and cleansing from sin which is promised to all who call upon him by faith.
3. These are they who have contended
For their Savior’s honor long,
Wrestling on till life was ended,
Following not the sinful throng:
These, who well the fight sustained,
Triumph by the Lamb have gained.
Verse 3 begins the answer to the questions of the first two verses. The great crowd is here described to be those who have “contended for their Savior’s honor.” They are people who didn’t follow the crowd into sin, but fought the good fight, and gained victory by the Lamb of God – Jesus Christ.
4. These are they whose hearts were riven,
Sore with woe and anguish tried,
Who in prayer full oft have striven
With the God they glorified:
Now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.
Now the crowd of people is described to be people whose hearts were united with God – weeping over the things that grieve Him, and praying steadfastly for His will to be done. And now, departed this life, they need not weep, for their efforts have reached their conclusion.
5. These, like priests, have watched and waited,
Off’ring up to Christ their will,
Soul and body consecrated,
Day and night they serve him still,
Now in God’s most holy place,
Blest they stand before his face.
This final verse gives us several more theological insights into what sainthood means in the end. First there’s a reference to the general priesthood that all Christians share in Christ: they have offered their wills, souls, and bodies to God as a sacrifice, to be united with Christ’s. As a result of that union, they continue to serve Christ “in God’s most holy place,” which is the heavenly throne room where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. They “stand before his face,” which is a description of what has classically been called the beatific vision. They have received the final great and perfect reward of being able to see God. This is the end, the goal, the telos, for all God’s people; this song not only celebrates the victory of Christ in his departed saints, but also reminds us of where we are also destined to go!