Abide With Me: A Hymn For the Dying

When I search my mind for a favorite hymn “Abide With Me” rises quickly to the surface. CyberHymnal.org gives us this information about the circumstances surrounding the writing of this hymn by Henry Lyte in 1847:

Lyte was inspired to write this hymn as he was dying of tuberculosis; he finished it the Sunday he gave his farewell sermon in the parish he served so many years. The next day, he left for Italy to regain his health. He didn’t make it though—he died in Nice, France, three weeks after writing these words. Here is an excerpt from his farewell sermon:

“O brethren, I stand here among you today, as alive from the dead, if I may hope to impress it upon you, and induce you to prepare for that solemn hour which must come to all, by a timely acquaintance with the death of Christ.”

I know of no greater hymn which so honestly puts into words the experience and struggle of those dying under the curse of disease, a thing I have not experienced but have seen. The lyrics in full may be read here, and below is my favorite rendition of this song. Please take time to listen and to read the words.

You might wonder why I would love this hymn so much, when its’ topic is dying. But it is not just about dying- it is about dying in and dying for the Lord. “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8).”

Jesus can “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery (Hebrews 2:15).” He did this “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross (Colossians 2:14).” “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law (1Corinthians 15:56);” He has removed that bitter sting and broke that power which stood against us, condemning us, and He gives and will give us victory over these things. The bible testifies that a day will come when death will be destroyed, and resurrection life will be ours. For the Christian, death needs not be a topic of dread, but of anticipation.

Yet for all the good death will bring to us, anyone who has witnessed death knows- it is usually not as glorious as Hollywood makes it out to be. Disease has no pity; It has no respect for human dignity. It is a cruel tormentor, ugly and stealing from its victims, wasting them, and crippling with pain. Not always, but surely this is often the case. It is not so much the death, but the dying that can surely cast a Christian low, even in agony.

See? Is not the above what makes us so uncomfortable? Death and disease are curses that will not have the last word for God’s people- but they are a curse none the less that we will groan beneath. Death puts us so ill at ease that when it confronts us we don’t have much to say about it. At its apex comes a thing so horridly unnatural, and so blatantly not what man was meant to be, as the spirit departs and leaves behind an empty shell- one that the bible would call “a seed” or a “bare kernel (1Corinthians 15:37).”

This is why I love the song “Abide With Me.” It is a song to sing when the night falls quickly, the helpers flee, earthly joys grow dim, and decay overwhelms. You could sing it as the dust settles and the carnage of a bloody battle is unveiled. You could sing it at the bedside of your ailing grandparent, or in the deep darkness of depression, or in the face of a grievous diagnosis. This isn’t flowery words, or faking it through desperate pain. It is the reality of human experience in its’ weakest, rawest form. Best, it relies heavily on the love, grace, and presence of an endlessly loving, ever faithful, death conquering Savior.

Perhaps a day will come when it is the only word you have strength to pray: “Abide.” In this hymn we are reminded of a God who doesn’t just come to “visit you” but rather to live in you. We are reminded that God has “tears for all woes, a heart for every plea,” the grace to “foil the tempter’s power,” and is a solid, steady rock for us, when all else is giving way.

The last two verses are my favorite. The first:

“I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.”

There are foes, but in Him you have peace in the place of fear when they come knocking. There are tears, but abiding in Christ will wash all bitterness away from them. There is illness, but the weight is lifted in the presence of Almighty God. If you lay, unable any longer to get out of bed and it seems death is a mocker- you remember that the grave will not hold you! You fall on Everlasting Arms and in Him triumph. Those are thoughts that I think could bring a happy smile to the saddest of trials.

The last:

“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.”

The sustainer of your soul and of your life can set the cross of our salvation before your eyes and shine through what would otherwise be the finality of gloom. But Christ and His kingdom have the last word! Your short time here fades away and you are delivered at last to the One who was truly with you all along- but now you see Him face to face.

This is a song to memorize, to store away in your arsenal of tools to pull out when trouble descends. It is a hymn to be sung through whispers and tears, or to hold in your heart and run through your mind if words can’t come out your lips. Other times, you may use it as a tool to comfort others.

I can’t help but end with this most famous verse: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me..(Psalm 23:4).” His presence is the ultimate comfort and confidence.

May I finally add, this hymn, or prayer to abide with Jesus, is not only for the dying. As the song says “In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.” Ecclesiastes 7:2 says “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” We will one day go the way of every man, lest the Lord come first, and we ought to consider our lives in light of our dying (or rather in light of eternity); We ought to prepare, and be acquainted with God’s word on this topic, and let those words of hope and promise settle down in our hearts, even now, while we are strong.

For further thoughts I have on this topic see “The Day of Death is Better.” For another excellent song on this topic see “It is Not Death to Die,” by Sovereign Grace.

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