Hymnnotes: Wayfaring Stranger.

December 10, 2014.

Today I would like to talk about a hymn that is so moving that it almost gives me chills when I hear or sing it. I grew up singing this hymn and it has always held a special place in my heart. More recently, it seems that this song comes to mind when life gets difficult and troubles and trials come upon me. The message of this song is both emotional and up-lifting at the same time. The minor tone heightens the sense of woeful emotion, but the message is ever looking towards the long awaited home where these trials will be no more. If you have never heard of this song, I encourage you to learn it. The video I found on youtube on the bottom of this page is the arrangement that I sung growing up. There are many other arrangements and words, and it has even recently come into the popular scene with Ed Sheeran doing a rendition of it. I have provided a few links to different versions, each with their own niche.

Wayfaring Stranger
Spiritual: Folk Sources

Being an American Folk Spiritual, there is no author that is credited with penning either the words or the melody of this hymn. In hymnals you will find the names of those who arranged it, but the melody and words would likely predate the arranger. The hymn deviates from normal hymns you would find in the repertoire of church songs in that it is sung in a minor key (perhaps that’s why I like this song so much) as opposed to the more regular major keys. Most of the music written for the church (think baroque era and beyond) was written in a major key as this tone is generally perceived as more “happy” or up-lifting. Many folk songs are sung in minor keys or even modal keys (which I prefer), perhaps due to the tone that the message is usually trying to convey. Let’s look at the words.

I am a poor wayfaring stranger,
While traveling through this world of woe.
Yet there’s no sickness, toil nor danger
In that bright world to which I go.
I’m going there to see my Father;
I’m going there no more to roam.

The first line of this hymn, from which the name is derived, sets out the ultimate truth that the Hebrew writer describes in the “hall of faith” chapter, or so we call it. The Hebrew writer uses this section of the epistle to describe many faithful men and women throughout the ages to give those who were suffering at the present time encouragement and hope that they were not alone and that they indeed could endure. When describing all these godly ones who had gone before, the writer has this to say:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.”
(Hebrews 11:13-14)

What was a commonality amongst all these people? They did not count this world as their home, but just as a temporary place that they were passing though. Their treasure was laid up elsewhere (ref. Matt. 6:19-20), and their eyes were fixed above, ever looking towards the promise and not on the present trying situation. This hymn takes that notion and carries this message throughout. When we open with “I am a poor wayfaring stranger,” we are stating that our home is set elsewhere and the ties that we have to this physical world are few. In times of struggle, this message is indeed encouraging.

This verse goes on to compare this world with the world to come. Here there are trials, there they are gone. Here there is sickness, there there is none. Here there is darkness, but there the Son will shine ever bright (ref. Rev. 21:25). This is the vision of that place to come that John describes at the end of Revelation.

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
(Revelation 21:1-4)

I’ve made reference to this passage before, but really this whole chapter paints a beautiful picture of the New Jerusalem that we will someday enter, to live with our God forever more. We are going there to see our Father, for we will dwell in His presence forever more, not needing to roam through this pilgrim land any longer. This is the hope that is set within us, a wonderful exception and longing for the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. But first, we must endure our path that we journey here below.

I know dark clouds will gather round me;
I know my way is rough and steep.
But golden fields lie out before me
Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep.
I’m going there to see my mother,
She said she’d meet me when I come.

There is no sugar coating, no brushing the rough things under the rug, no apology for suffering. Perhaps this is another reason that I like this song so much. I find much of mainstream Christianity today to be too happy-go-lucky, for lack of a better word (I’ve been trying to think of words to describe how I feel about it for a long time now, I just can’t put my finger on it). But this hymn takes that idea and nips it in the bud. This life is not going to be easy, especially if you are going to live the Christian life. God isn’t going to give you a free pass and just make everything work out well, rather He is going to build your character. There’s really only one way to build character, and it isn’t a process that we like very much. But we know we need to go through  it.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
(James 1:2-4)

We sing, “I know my way is rough and steep,” because we do. There is no use trying to sell Christianity any way that it isn’t. Yes, there is ultimate joy in Christianity. Yes, there is peace that passes understanding. Yes, it is to our benefit, thanks ever to the grace given by God, to be obedient to the faith. But all of this does not mean life is going to be easy. In fact, the bible has quite the opposite message:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
(I Peter 1:3-7)

We know our way is rough and steep. But we also know that there is One who is ever present to help us through this journey, and He will never leave us, nor forsake us (ref. He. 13:5). One day we will be with Him, and our troubles will be no more.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
(Romans 8:18)

As a further note on this hymn, the second chorus has always seemed a bit weird to me as (fortunately) not everyone can say this about their mother. I tend to think of this metaphorically though, as speaking of any of our loved ones in Christ who have gone before. There will be a great reuniting when the saved in Christ will gather over on the other shore, as the song goes.

I’ll soon be free from every trial,
My body sleep in the churchyard;
I’ll drop the cross of self denial
And enter on my great reward.
I’m going there to see my Savior,
To sing His praise forevermore.

The third verse continues the line of thinking that time here on this earth is short, and we soon shall be from our trials freed. What a wonderful thought this is. Dropping the cross of self denial I believe to be an allusion to the words of Jesus:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
(Matthew 16:24-25)

I think the point the hymn is trying to make is that when we enter in, we will no longer need to deny ourselves because our will will be perfected in His. There will be no sin, no pain, no death, nothing that can separate us from the love of God. There will be no need to deny self, because our self will be aligned with His will. And indeed, we will sing praises to our Savior, the Lamb of God forever more. Another picture that John gives us shows a scene like this:

“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,

“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
    who was and is and is to come!”

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever,”
(Revelation 4:8-9)

Hallelujah to the King! What a day that will be!

I’m only going over Jordan,
I’m only going over home.

After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the people of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses.”
(Joshua 1:1-3)

An allusion to the promised land that God told Abraham that He would give to his descendants. We have a spiritual promised land to which we are going. We are strangers and pilgrims in this land, but we anxiously await the one beyond. We are only going over Jordan. We are only going over home.

Suggested Daily Reading: Hebrews 11, 12, Revelation 4, 21.

We are but poor, wayfaring strangers.


Other renditions of this hymn:
Male Acapella Group
Mixed Acapella Group
Ed Sheeran
Cold Mountain

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