Today, for special music at the Feast of Trumpets in Chiang Mai, I directed our Legacy Institute choir in a performance of “For All The Saints Who From Their Labors Rest,” a piece that has always made me think of the resurrection of the blessed into eternal life and the return of Jesus Christ at the head of his heavenly army. Today I would like to comment a little bit about the lyrics of this song, my thoughts on it from a musical perspective, and some personal memories the song has for me. Therefore, without any further ado, let us begin.
The song “For All The Saints Who From Their Labors Rest” is a four-part adaptation of a very beautiful hymn called “Sine Nomine” (meaning “Without Name,” or “Untitled” in Latin) by Ralph Vaughn Williams, with lyrics by William Walsham How. The song itself, as versified, has five verses. Let us examine its lyrics now. The first verse of the song goes: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest; alleluia! Alleluia!” This verse clearly defines the intended singing and listening audience of the song–those who have confessed the name of Jesus, singing in honor of the blessed dead who will be resurrected by Christ at the last trumpet into eternal life, and our own hopes of joining them for all eternity.
The second verse goes: “Though wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might; Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight; Thou, in the darkness dear their one true light; alleluia! Alleluia!” This verse makes reference to a few verses of the Bible showing that Jesus Christ is our rock (see 1 Corinthians 10:4) and our mighty fortress (see Psalm 18:2), as well as the captain of our salvation (see Hebrews 2:10). Again, we are in spiritual warfare against the demonic forces of this world, and our general in command of the heavenly armies of which we are soldiers and officers-in-training is Christ Jesus Himself, the Lord of Hosts.
The third verse goes: “Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold, fight as the saints who nobly fought of old, and win with them the victors’ crown of gold; alleluia! Alleluia!” This verse refers to the fact that we look back to the example of the faithful believers of the past (see Hebrews 11 and 12) and who have been promised the crown of glory (see Revelation 2:10, 2 Timothy 4:8) given to the dead in Christ whose salvation is assured. We too hope to join them in that heavenly army when we too have been confirmed as remaining strong in the Christian life until the very end, lest we lose our salvation and our reward because of unrighteousness.
The fourth verse goes: “And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong; alleluia! Alleluia!” This particular verse refers to the fact that we all need encouragement in our long warfare against evil in this world. When we hear the song of triumph, we are reminded of our promise of ultimate victory and are able to fight bravely and with might again against our enemies, whose victory often comes through causing despair in others. For as long as we keep fighting, we win. This song, ironically enough, seeks to provide that same encouragement to Christians through its own lyrics and music.
The final verse of the song relates directly to the resurrection, in saying: “But lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in a bright array; the King of glory passes on His way; alleluia! Alleluia!” Here again we see the scene of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, and Revelation 19, the scene of Christ the triumphant King with His resurrected and victorious saints triumphing over evil and establishing the rule of Jesus Christ over the whole earth. That is what this day, the Feast of Trumpets, is all about, and so we hope to be part of that resurrection with our brothers and sisters in the faith from all of history, fighting alongside our Lord and Savior to win His kingdom. May that day speedily come!
Having discussed this song and its lyrics, I would now like to spend a little bit of time looking at some of the quirks of the music and versification of “For All The Saints Who From Their Labor Rest.” Though it is a beautiful song, the versification is a bit puzzling for two reasons. First, the song begins on the second beat of four, making it awkward to lead the song as written. In order to solve this problem, I directed the song as a 3/4 first measure and then switched to a 4/4 for the rest of the song. It was an awkward change to remember in my head, but at least it was preferable to beginning the song on the second beat, which would have been more awkward.
In addition, the song as versified also featured one additional and puzzling quirk. In the first two verses, the third line began on the downbeat of a measure and had lyrics on slurred notes on the third and fourth beats of the measure. In the third, fourth, and fifth verses the third line began on the upbeat to that measure and there was no lyric on the fourth beat of the following measure. Given, therefore, that all the verses had the same number of syllables, it was not necessary to change the way the verses were sung between the first two and the last three verses, except that the phrasing in the first two verses focuses on the first syllable of the phrase and in the last three verses focuses on the second syllable of the lyric. The result is that the different versification is done for the purposes of preserving the accent on the proper syllable, which shows some attention to detail even if the result is somewhat awkward in songleading.
In choosing this song to sing I had a particular picture in mind. When I think about the resurrection on the Feast of Trumpets I am often reminded of a late friend of mine from Central Florida named Richard Bowen. He was a friendly bachelor in the Tampa congregation of the church where I attend, fairly new in the faith (at least as far as I knew), until he found out he had cancer in the area where the stomach and esophagus meet. He fought the cancer bravely for a couple of years, losing a lot of weight in the process, but he died on the Day of Trumpets (after I had had an odd dream about the resurrection that morning). Though I only knew him for a few years, he was an awesome guy, and I look forward to his being healthy and happy when he is raised again to life. The fact that he died and will be resurrected on the same day (in the Hebrew calendar) makes it all the more poignant. And indeed there are many other saints who rest who we can (and should) think about on this day. Someday, perhaps, people may think of us on that day as the blessed dead awaiting the eternal life that we are assured.