I have bought thousands of books in my lifetime, and it all started with two. The first two books that I bought after my spiritual awakening when I was in Junior High School was a Bible, the King James Version, and a hymnal. I got the Bible because I wanted to be able to hear what God was saying to me, and I got the hymnal because I wanted to be able to say some things back to God, and I had discovered, quite by accident, that hymns were a good way for me to be able to do this.
We sang Gospel hymns during “Religious Release” time when I was in elementary school – “The Old Rugged Cross,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Blessed Assurance,” “How Great Thou Art.” These hymns were not part of my hymnody repertoire as a high church Episcopalian when I was growing up, but when I sang them with all of the other Protestant kids from Glenoaks Elementary School who went down the street to the chapel at the Adventist hospital for cookies, Bible stories and Gospel songs every Tuesday afternoon, they connected with something deep in me. And so later when I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior, I found myself returning to these familiar songs about Jesus and how He saved me to help me express what had happened in me, and to me.
It’s said that the Biblical religions are singing faiths. Miriam sang of God’s deliverance at the Red Sea, and Hannah sang of God’s faithfulness to her on the occasion of the birth of her son Samuel. David wrote Psalms and sang them both in Bethlehem’s fields and Jerusalem’s courts. The birth of Jesus was bathed in the songs of mortals and angels, and we’re told that Jesus went out to the cross from the Upper Room singing. Paul and Silas sang in the night from their Philippian jail cell. And the church in heaven and on earth in the book of Revelation sings to, and about, the Lamb of God who saves us. The people in the Bible sang. They sang a lot.
Psalm 100:1-2, says – “Make a joyful noise to the Lord… Come into his presence with singing!” This verse tells us to come into God’s presence singing because we know who He is: “the Lord who made us” – and because we know what He does for us: “the Lord is good and His steadfast love endures forever.” Theology and Doxology intersect here, just as they do in all of the best hymns we sing. They teach us about God (theology), and then they provide us with a way to actually connect with that God in prayer and praise (doxology).
There are some of these good hymns that we sing seasonally – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” during Advent, Silent Night” at Christmas, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” at Easter, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” on Pentecost, and “God of the Ages, Whose Almighty Hand” on the Fourth of July. And there are three of these hymns that we sing at Thanksgiving time – “We Gather Together,” “Come Ye Thankful People Come,” and “Now Thank We all our God.” When we sing these hymns will are informing and expressing what’s in our hearts for this season of Thanksgiving.
“We Gather Together” is not in “Thanksgiving” section of the Chalice Hymnal. Hymns #714 – #719 are designated as the “Thanksgiving” hymns in the Chalice Hymnal, and that’s not where “We Gather Together” lives. Where you’ll find it is back on page #276 in the “The Church at Worship” section of our hymnal. I did some checking in the other hymnals that I own, and the only other one that doesn’t put “We Gather Together” in with the Thanksgiving hymns is the Methodist hymnal. They put it in the “God” section of their hymnal as one of 17 hymns under the heading – “Providence.”
Flipping through the “Providence” section of the Methodist hymnal, I came across great hymns like – “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,” “He Leadeth Me, O Blessed Thought,” “God Will Take Care of You,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and “On Eagle’s Wings.” If I didn’t know what God’s “Providence” was, then I’d certainly get some sense of its meaning from singing these hymns.
The English root of the word “Providence” is the word “provide,” and the word “provide” comes from a combination of the Latin prefix “pro” which means “ahead,” and the Latin verb “videre” which means “to see.” To “provide” literally means to “look ahead, to prepare, to supply, to act with foresight,” and the word “Providence” is how we as Christians have traditionally thought and talked about the way that the God of the Bible does this for His people.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32). And if you ask me, this is the perfect description of what the Bible means when it talks about God’s Providence. God knows what we need before even we tell Him, and God has every intention of providing for those needs even before we ask Him.
This is generally true in the sense that God has structured the universe in ways that are designed to sustain our lives and promote our physical well-being as human beings, and it’s particularly true in the way that God pays special attention and takes specific care of those who belong to Him by faith. As Romans 8:28 famously assures Christians – “We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
John Stott used to say that the Biblical doctrine of God’s Providence is the “pillow on which the head of faith rests,” and what he meant by this was that no matter what might be happening to us or in our world, as Christians we can trust that God has hold of us and isn’t letting go. And our Methodist brothers and sisters, by putting “We Gather Together” in the “Providence” section of their hymnal together with hymns like “Great is Thy Faithfulness” and “God will Take Care of You,” rather than in its “Thanksgiving” section are telling us that this hymn is not about a specific day on the calendar to be celebrated each year but is rather about a God who can be trusted to provide for His people as part of His essential nature.
As familiar and beloved a part of our Thanksgiving tradition the singing of “We Gather Together” has become for us, the fact of the matter is that this hymn wasn’t written with Pilgrims, or the Mayflower, or a fall harvest feast, or Plymouth Rock in mind. In fact, “We Gather Together” is not even an American hymn! It wasn’t included in the hymnals of most American churches until the early 1900’s, and it’s still not in the hymnals of either the Lutheran or the Moravian churches.
“We Gather Together” is a Dutch hymn that was written to celebrate the national liberation of Protestant Holland from the harsh grasp of Catholic Spain in 1597. This explains the militaristic phrases in the hymn like “the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,” and “from the beginning the fight we were winning; thou, Lord wast at our side, all glory be thine,” and “let thy congregation escape tribulation,” and “Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”
What elevates this hymn from its original narrow nationalistic setting is its grand affirmation of the God “who chastens and hastens His will to make known.” The God who is “beside us to guide us… ordaining, maintaining his kingdom divine.” The God who “still our defender wilt be.” This is the God of “Providence,” the God who knows what we need and who has every intention of actually supplying those needs.
What this means is that I don’t have to know the religious and political history of Holland at the end of the 16th century in order to sing “We Gather Together” with understanding and conviction. But I do need to know that the God who is there is a God who can be trusted, and deserves to be thanked. This is the God of “We Gather Together,” and our Methodist friends got it exactly right by putting “We Gather Together” in the “Providence” section of their hymnal. When we sing “We Gather Together” it’s thanks for all of the different ways that God is taking care of us right now that ought to fill our heads and hearts.
Daniel Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great 20th century British preacher, said that in different places and at different moments in the long history of the church that different Biblical teachings have assumed greater importance and required greater attention. He said that the doctrine of the person of Christ was this Biblical idea in the first few centuries of the church’s life, and that the doctrine of justification by faith was it during the Reformation, and that the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture was it at the beginning of the modern era. And Dr. Lloyd-Jones said that in our day “the most important doctrine, in many ways, is the doctrine of providence” (141).
All the time people are saying – “You tell me that God is a God of love and care, but look at the world, look at all the bad the things that are happening. Where’s God? What’s He doing? How can you possibly believe in a God of love and care when people get gunned down in church and run over by trucks on bike paths?” And I’ll admit it, personally and pastorally, that my confidence in the providential love and care of God gets shaken every time something bad happens – when I see people being ravaged by disease, brutalized by violence, crushed by circumstance, and abandoned by help and hope. But rather than giving into despair in those moments, I find that it’s precisely “when all around my soul gives way,” as an old hymn puts it, that I make the discovery once again that “He alone is my hope and stay.”
My peace and patience, my strength and hope as a Christian come from knowing that God is neither absent nor indifferent. In the vagaries of my own life, and our whole history in this world as human beings, I truly believe that God is always at work in hidden and mysterious ways, and that when the dust finally settles, that what will finally become clear are the ways that God is present in every circumstance, no matter how difficult and confusing it might be in the present moment. As they say – “It’s difficult to see what’s going on when you’re in the absolute middle of something. It’s only with hindsight that we can see things for what they are” (S.J. Watson).
And so, my belief in the Providence of God is not a demand that everything make perfect sense to me or make me completely happy right now, but rather, that one day it all will. “Faith is not saying: ‘I understand,’ but that: ‘I believe that I will understand.’ Faith is not declaring: “Oh, I’ve got it, I see what this all means,’ but that: ‘I believe there is going to be a meaning” (Louis Evely). And so I keep a little piece of paper tucked between the pages of my Bible with this quote from St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) carefully written on it –
Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; Rather look to them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things; And when you cannot stand, God will carry you in His arms. [So] do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow, and in every day to come. Either He will shield you from suffering or He will give you unfailing strength to be able to bear it. So, be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
That’s what confidence in God’s providence sounds like to me, and so does the hymn “We Gather Together.”