On Jordan’s banks the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings.
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way for God within;
Prepare we in our hearts a home
Where such a mighty Guest may come.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
Our refuge and our great reward;
Without thy grace we waste away
Like flowers that wither and decay.
To heal the sick stretch out thine hand,
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth and let thy light restore
Earth’s own true loveliness once more.
All praise, eternal Son, to thee,
Whose advent doth thy people free;
Whom with the Father we adore
And Holy Ghost for evermore.
~ Charles Coffin, 1736, trans. John Chandler, 1837
Tune: Michael Praetorius’s “Puer nobis nascitur,” 1609. (This tune is also used for the next Advent hymn I’ll post, “O Come, Redeemer of the Earth.”) “On Jordan’s Banks” is also sung to “Winchester New.” You can hear both tunes here and here.)
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I noted in my last post that Advent hymns have deep roots in Scripture. And you can see this clearly above. You can also see what I meant in my last post about Advent hymns playing with the notion of Christ’s coming on at least three different levels.
This hymn opens, of course, with John’s baptism of repentance by the Jordan River. In so doing, it puts us in the position of hearers of John, whom John instructs to “Make straight the way of the Lord.” John’s own message is taken from Isaiah 40, where the way of the Lord is envisioned geographically as a highway cutting through mountains and valleys (thus necessitating that the valleys be filled in, and the mountains levelled). But in John’s message, and in Coffin’s hymn, the “way of the Lord” is explicitly spiritualized. Coffin specifies that the way needs to be made “straight” to reach the human heart.
Also underscoring the Old Testament background to this hymn are a pair of references in stanza 3. Stanza 3 juxtaposes two Scriptural passages that aren’t usually put together. It begins with a citation of Gen. 15:1, where God tells Abraham “I am your refuge and your great Reward.” God’s self-declaration in Gen. 15 includes His making of the Abrahamic Covenant: the promise to Abraham that includes both land and descendants, among whom will of course be the Messiah. In contrast to this Genesis reference, the hymn juxtaposes another citation from Is. 40 (shortly following the passage about the “way of the Lord”), where all flesh is described as fading like the grass. The implication is that our mortality is not overcome except by the action of God’s covenant faithfulness, manifested specifically in the coming of the Messiah.
So the hymn compares us to the Jews awaiting the kingdom of God, such that we must prepare and repent, as they did. But this is not the only way the hymn relates us to the coming of Christ. Due to this hymn’s setting in the weeks before Christmas, it positions us as Christians awaiting the celebration of the Incarnation. It treats us as if we already knew that Christ, at His coming, would find no room in the Inn; so it instructs us to prepare Christ a “home” in our hearts. It also foreshadows Christ’s miracles while on earth: the healing of the sick and the forgiveness of sinners, expressed together in the same stanza as they are intertwined in the Gospels. The invocation to “Shine forth and let thy light restore / earth’s own true loveliness once more” is probably a reference to Malachi 4:2: “The sun of righteousness shall arise with healing in his wings.”
In the third place, in virtue of the fact that we are not actually Jews by the Jordan, and we are actually not waiting for Christ to be born, the hymn positions us as what we are: Christians preparing for Christ’s future return, when he will again heal the sick and raise the dead. The song can thus simultaneously be sung as an expression of the historical faith of the peoples of God, and of our own faith as we wait for Christ’s return.
The concluding stanza is a standard Trinitarian doxology.