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Reflections on “Come, Thou O Traveler Unknown”

From “A Collection of Spiritual Hymns” (1876)

I love hymns. Good hymns speak truth to the soul and give new voice to scripture. I started this blog to share some my experiences and observations of hymn tunes and texts.  As I write these words I am discerning something new. More school? A job? A new direction? In my confusion I turn to hymns to seek grace and comfort.

I read “Come, Thou O Traveler Unknown” by Charles Wesley for the first time in the United Methodist Hymnal, #387. The editors of the hymnal decided to print all 14 verses and selected four to set to the hymn tune CANDLER. The poem is appropriate for times of suffering and spiritual confusion.

Borrowing imagery from Jacob’s encounter with God (Genesis 32:22-31), Wesley’s text describes an account of wrestling with the nature and mystery of God (“I ask Thee, who art Thou?”, stanza 2). The “traveler” that meets the speaker is identified by “Thee,” “Thou,” and the “unutterable Name,” an identity that becomes clearer as speaker struggles. Glimpses of Christ emerge as “the Man that died for me” (stanza 3) and the “God-man” (stanza 7). The speaker repeatedly asks to know the “name” and the “nature” of the traveler. Finally, a breakthrough arrives in stanza 9:

‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The speaker has recognized the force he has been wrestling as the God of Love and “Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend” (stanza 11)

In contrast to coming to a fuller recognition of God, the speaker’s identity is defined largely by suffering (“My misery and sin declare / I need not tell Thee who I am”, stanza 2). However, as the wrestling match continues,  assurance develops:  “when I am weak, then I am strong” (stanza 6). After the revelation in stanza , the speaker receives mercy and “unspeakable” grace. The speaker’s deep suffering continues, but is met by strength (“All helplessness, all weakness I / On Thee alone for strength depend,” stanza 13). Through an encounter with Love, the speaker can now body proclaim, “Lame as I am … Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome” (stanza 14).

In the spirit of Wesley’s contemporary Isaac Watts, this text interprets an Old story (Jacob wrestling with God) in light of the gospel. Attesting the greatness of the text, Watts himself admitted “That single poem … was worth all the verses I myself have written.”

Like Jacob, we all wrestle. I wrestle with myself and with God. I feel left alone. I am confused about the identity of the “God-man.” Sometimes all I feel sure of is my own weakness (“confident in self-despair,” stanza 8).  But in the midst of the struggle, a presence is revealed that is so strange and so comforting, I am led to say “I will not let Thee go” (stanza 4).  Perhaps paradoxically, this text may suggest that which struggling with faith is faith, the faith by which we encounter God. “Through faith,” Wesley writes, “I see Thee face to face … In vain I have not wept and strove”  (stanza 9).

I love this text. I love celebrating with Wesley that “Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.” God has many names and identifies, but an encounter with Love makes all the difference.

How does this text stir your soul?

Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown
by Charles Wesley

1) Come, O thou Traveler unknown,
Whom still I hold, but cannot see!
My company before is gone,
And I am left alone with Thee;
With Thee all night I mean to stay,
And wrestle till the break of day.

2) I need not tell Thee who I am,
My misery and sin declare;
Thyself hast called me by my name,
Look on Thy hands, and read it there;
But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?
Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

3) In vain Thou strugglest to get free,
I never will unloose my hold!
Art Thou the Man that died for me?
The secret of Thy love unfold;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

4) Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal
Thy new, unutterable Name?
Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;
To know it now resolved I am;
Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

5) ‘Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue
Or touch the hollow of my thigh;
Though every sinew be unstrung,
Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;
Wrestling I will not let Thee go
Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

6) What though my shrinking flesh complain,
And murmur to contend so long?
I rise superior to my pain,
When I am weak, then I am strong
And when my all of strength shall fail,
I shall with the God-man prevail.

7) My strength is gone, my nature dies,
I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,
Faint to revive, and fall to rise;
I fall, and yet by faith I stand;
I stand and will not let Thee go
Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

8) Yield to me now, for I am weak,
But confident in self-despair;
Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,
Be conquered by my instant prayer;
Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,
And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

9) ‘Tis Love! ’tis Love! Thou diedst for me!
I hear Thy whisper in my heart;
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
Pure, universal love Thou art;
To me, to all, Thy mercies move;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

10) My prayer hath power with God; the grace
Unspeakable I now receive;
Through faith I see Thee face to face,
I see Thee face to face, and live!
In vain I have not wept and strove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

11) I know Thee, Saviour, who Thou art.
Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;
Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.
But stay and love me to the end,
Thy mercies never shall remove;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

12) The Sun of Righteousness on me
Hath rose with healing in His wings,
Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee
My soul its life and succour brings;
My help is all laid up above;
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

13) Contented now upon my thigh
I halt, till life’s short journey end;
All helplessness, all weakness I
On Thee alone for strength depend;
Nor have I power from Thee to move:
Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

14) Lame as I am, I take the prey,
Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;
I leap for joy, pursue my way,
And as a bounding hart fly home,
Through all eternity to prove
Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

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