This month rugby fans around Britain have gathered for the Autumn International matches. One of the features of matches played in Cardiff is that the Welsh supporters sing hymns, especially “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah.” In the past male voice choirs would stand together on the terraces to ensure the singing was high quality. Most of those who sing the hymns don’t attend church services yet the power of the words seems to move them.
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah was written by William Williams Pantycelyn, who was born in 1717. He is Wales most famous hymn writer and was called “the sweet singer of Wales.” Williams was one of the leaders of the Calvinistic Methodists during the 18th century revival and wrote more than 900 hymns in either Welsh or English. A memorial plaque at Pantycelyn farm, where he lived, records that during his life he travelled 111,800 miles on foot or by horse visiting societies of Christians in every part of Wales. The tune Cwm Rhondda was written soon after the 1904-05 revival. The words and tune brought great strength and encouragement to the mining communities of the South Wales Valleys where life was hard.
Life is a journey and Williams hymn is a prayer based on the journey of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. They spent 40 years in the desert and felt a deep need to know the presence of their God, Jehovah, being with them on their difficult journey. They were small and weak, but he was great and powerful. The words of the hymn resonate with us today because, although outwardly our lives are very different, inwardly we have the same need to know that this all-powerful God is with us. “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land; I am weak, but thou are mighty; hold me with thy powerful hand: bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more.”
The last verse speaks of dying. As the Israelites had to cross the River Jordan to enter the Promised Land so all of us will one day face death, the last enemy. Then, more than ever, we will need God to be with us and the victory Jesus won by his death and resurrection to be ours. “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside; death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side: songs of praises I will ever give to thee.”
The name of Robert Jermain Thomas is known to very few people in his native country of Wales, but amongst Christians in Korea he is a hero. He grew up in rural Wales and graduated from London University. He was an excellent linguist learning Russian and taking just 4 months to master Mandarin. He left the independent chapel in Llanover, near Abergavenny, to go as a missionary with the London Mission Society to China. He and his young wife, Caroline, arrived in Shanghai after a 5 month sea voyage. Within a short time he was devastated when his wife suddenly died.
While in China Robert heard of Korea, which was then known as the Hermit Kingdom with no contact with outsiders. He made a secret visit in 1865 taking with him Chinese Bibles. Those who received the Bibles risked death if they were discovered. In 1866 Robert returned to Korea aboard the General Sherman, an American trading ship, taking more Bibles with him. Near Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea, the ship ran aground and was set on fire by Korean fire rafts. Standing on the burning deck Robert flung the Bibles into the water hoping they would float ashore and be read by the people. He died at the hands of a Korean solider. He was just 27 years old.
Many would see his death as the waste of a young life in a futile cause, but the reality was very different. Robert’s death made a great impression on many who witnessed it. Some took the Bibles and used them as wallpaper in their houses. Some read the strange words on the walls of their houses and became Christians. Today there are millions of Christians in Korea. Most of the largest evangelical churches in the world today are in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Korean churches have sent thousands of missionaries to many countries around the world to preach the same message Robert Thomas brought to them.
The value of our lives is not to be judged by how long we live, but by what we have lived for. In 1956 a young American missionary, Jim Elliot, and 4 other young missionaries, died at the hands of the Auca Indians in Ecuador. As he set off for Ecuador, knowing the dangers which lay ahead, Jim had said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”