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Abide With Me: A Case Study

Part 2 of a 2-part series. (You can go to part 1 here.)

“Abide with Me” and A Lifetime is a Day

A Lifetime is a DayMy professor, David Maxwell, encouraged me to do a close analysis of the hymn “Abide with Me,” by Henry F. Lyte (1793–1847), and he mentioned that it was one of his favorites. Well, this was disconcerting. As an avid devotee to N. T. Wright and his writings on eschatology, I had taken to heart his view on “Abide with Me.” In response to my question, “What would you say tops your list of hymns that don’t get eschatology right?” he wrote, “‘Abide with me’: ‘Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee’ (sounds like Plato’s Cave!).”[7]

It was more than a little terrifying to set out to tear apart one of my professor’s favorite hymns, and originally this was exactly what I was planning to do, but as my research progressed I discovered something just as scandalous. Could Wright be wrong?!

Lyte’s original hymn text easily demonstrates the use of the Lifetime is a Day conceptual metaphor with the related metaphor Death is Sleep also in evidence. I will need to summarize here six pages of textual analysis and comparison with the biblical text which support the assertion that the Lifetime is a Day conceptual metaphor controls the interpretation of the text of the hymn. Suffice it to say that the use of the highly metaphorical and poetic language of “Abide with Me” portrays the story of a person on his deathbed who reflects back on the “hours” of his life and God’s presence throughout “life’s little day.” In the last verse, he pleads for God’s presence to remain now as he closes his eyes in death:

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

The victory in the previous verse is won on the cross, so now we look to that scene of triumph over sin and the grave as “life’s little day” comes to a “close”. Contemporary liturgies for the commendation of the dying [8] make liberal use of the sign of the cross. In older liturgies a cross was actually held before the eyes of the dying person. This opening line of this final verse calls this liturgy to mind as well as all the words and scriptures that would be read, all the liturgical actions – confession and absolution, the 23rd Psalm, the story of the resurrection, the creed, the Nunc Dimittis.

“Speak through the gloom” of this room and death. The “darkness [has] thicken[ed]” to the point of “gloom,” but isn’t there something more? God gives us the promise of a new day. Although “point me to the skies” could be heard within the Good is Up metaphor,[9] within the Lifetime is a Day metaphor, we are called to look toward the skies to see the sunrise of the new day – toward the coming of the Parousia. The verses of Psalm 121 come to mind:

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.  The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.  The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.

With similar images and use of the Lifetime is a Day  metaphor, this Psalm pulls together themes from the first verse of “Abide with Me” to the last – God, our helper, from daylight to night, “abides” with us without sleeping, all the days of our lives and forevermore.

The new day, the dawn of the eschatological future comes when “Heaven’s morning breaks.”  This image is remarkable! Typically in the Lifetime is a Day conceptual metaphor, night comes, you are dead, the end. There is no dawning of a new day. You only get one dawn. You go to “sleep” and you don’t wake up, but in this text we wake when “[h]eaven’s morning breaks!” Just like Lazarus who was asleep, but was woken by Jesus, we too will wake up.

Jesus changes the way the metaphor is typically run. This is remarkable! Morning comes again after night and brings birth and new life. The “shadows” and “darkness” of “life’s little day” have passed, and eyes are opened again after sleep in the grave to a “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) forever with the Lord who “abide[s] with me.”

Nadine Grayl unpacks and expands on the Death is Sleep metaphor when she describe the impact of 1 Corinthians 15: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then those who belong to Christ at his coming.” At Christ’s coming, the dead will be made alive—the sleepers will “wake up.”[10] (Emphasis added.)

“Abide with Me” and Plato’s Cave: Interpreting the text with a different metaphor

My interpretation remains primarily within the Lifetime is a Day conceptual metaphor with the subset of Death is Sleep. It relies on the biblical narrative to add additional inferences to the imagery. The result is an orthodox scriptural interpretation with a clear eschatological outlook, but what happens when one applies a different metaphor? Will the interpretation remain orthodox?

In his brief observation regarding the eschatology represented in “Abide with Me,” N. T. Wright asserts that this hymn, particularly in the final verse, is more reminiscent of Plato’s Cave than orthodox Christian belief. Wright applies the conceptual metaphor from Plato’s Cave in his reading of the hymn.

The metaphor at work in Plato’s allegory is not one of life, death, and time, but instead what Lakoff and Turner call Knowing is Seeing.[11]  This metaphor has as one of its inferences that when it is dark you cannot see, so you cannot understand. In Plato’s Cave, Plato is making the point that what we see and perceive as reality is simply shadows of Forms (reality) – the shadows observed on the wall by the prisoners in the cave.

The light which produces the shadows could even be said not to be “real” as it does not come from the sun, but from a fire. The prisoners in the cave have an incomplete understanding of reality. To gain a higher knowledge and a more complete understanding, they need to not only be able to turn and see the actual figures which are casting the shadows, an intermediate step, they need to get out of the cave and into the light of the sun in order to see things as they truly are.

Lying behind this allegory is Plato’s concept that what we experience with our senses is only a copy, a shadow, of the real world. The real world can only be grasped intellectually with the mind. The Knowing is Seeing metaphor can help us grasp this concept. The metaphor allows us to compare seeing/knowing incompletely or inaccurately to seeing/knowing completely and clearly.

In its final verse, “Abide with Me” says, “Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee!” This image does have some similarities with Plato’s Cave, but also with 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

In the Cave the prisoner only sees shadows until he is brought into the sunlight/the morning. Is Paul using the same Knowing is Seeing conceptual metaphor? I believe that he is; however, another conceptual metaphor has been overlaid which cannot be forced on the biblical text and should not be forced on the hymn.

Life is BondageGiven that the hymn is about death (within the larger structure of the Lifetime is a Day metaphor), it is quite possible that a death metaphor has been superimposed over the Knowing is Seeing metaphor. The one which best explains the importation of the content and imagery of Plato’s Cave is Life is Bondage/Death is Deliverance. It plays quite well with Knowing is Seeing and Plato’s Cave. The two metaphors share a number of inferences such as incomplete knowledge is bondage, being embodied means that one has incomplete knowledge, and complete understanding comes at death.

In reading the last verse of “Abide with Me” using these interpretive tools, “Heaven’s morning break[ing] and earth’s vain shadows flee[ing]” becomes an escape from the body and its bondage of incomplete understanding of reality and deliverance by death to a higher knowledge and more complete understanding.

However, this interpretation does not fit the passage from 1 Corinthians or “Abide with Me.” 1 Corinthians is not talking about the death of the individual believer, but about resurrection and the knowledge and understanding that will come with the eschaton. The eschaton is indeed a release from bondage, but not at death, at resurrection.

This being the case, the Knowing is Seeing metaphor can be applied, allowing for a very orthodox reading which says that one day we will see/understand clearly, but overlaying a metaphor in which death is the actant which delivers understanding does violence to the meaning of Paul’s words, as we can also see happening in Wright’s interpretation of the phrase from “Abide with Me.” This, indeed, creates a very different eschatological view and not one that is in any sort of agreement with the orthodox concept of the resurrection of the body.

Although this last verse of “Abide with Me” admittedly contains words and phrases which bear similarity to Plato’s Cave, an interpretation of the entire hymn text according to the metaphorical structures used by Plato is simply not sustainable. Although one can make some sense of one line by pulling it out of context, trying to treat the whole hymn according to this structure would be difficult at best and would only serve to demonstrate the incongruity of such a project.


photoThe problem with the unorthodox interpretation of some hymn texts, as has been revealed in this discussion, is not necessarily with the text itself.[12] The problem is with the conceptual metaphors used to interpret the text. Metaphors which do not come from and/or support the biblical text do not allow for an orthodox interpretation and become untenable as an interpretive tool. The application of conceptual metaphors which are supported and enhanced by the biblical narrative, enable us to interact with the hymn text in a way that brings us to an orthodox interpretation.

Letting metaphor theory and scripture function together as hermeneutical tools for interpreting our hymnody produces an orthodox understanding which allows the Church to sing her hymns with the confidence that they are conveying the true faith in what she sings. She will pass on the faith to her children with confidence. She will know that her song keeps her from error and gives praise to the same God who is confessed in the creeds as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. She can sing into the darkness and shadows of sin and death, proclaiming the sure hope of the resurrection of the body and life everlasting at the dawning of the Parousia.



[7] Wright.

[8] Lutheran Service Book: Pastoral Care Companion. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House: 2007) 81– 94.

[9] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 16.

[10] Grayl, 27.

[11] Lakoff and Turner, 48, 158, 190–91, 206.

[12] I allow for the possibility of exceptions to this, but would urge the interpreter of hymns to do the hard work of interpreting the text against an orthodox creedal and scriptural framework before making the decision that the hymn itself is not orthodox.

About Deaconess Ruth McDonnell, PhD, MA

Deaconess in The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod PhD with a concentration in Theology and Culture from Concordia Seminary

One comment on “Abide With Me: A Case Study

  1. […] This article continues here: Abide With Me: A Case Study. […]

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