Nearer, My God, to Thee

Bernini Angel

Bernini Angel

Those of you who follow my daughter’s missionary blog know that the hymn Nearer, My God, to Thee has become quite meaningful to her.  She inspired me to expound on the treasure that lies within the text.
Here are the words:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!
E’en though it be a cross That raiseth me.
Still all my song shall be Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!

Though like a wanderer, The sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, My rest a stone,
Yet in my dreams I’d be Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!

There let the way appear, Steps unto heav’n;
All that thou sendest me, In mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!

Then with my waking thoughts Bright with thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel I’ll raise;
So by my woes to be Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!

Or if, on joyful wing Cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, Upward I fly,
Still all my song shall be Nearer, my God, to thee,
Nearer, my God, to thee, Nearer to thee!
(Sarah F. Adams, 1805-1848)

Though this song has been a favorite funeral hymn for two centuries, made famous from accounts that it was played by ship musicians as the Titanic sank in 1912, the poetic verse is actually based upon the experience of Jacob from the Old Testament.  An experience known as Jacob’s Dream.

Jacob's Dream by Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1665

Jacob’s Dream  by Bartolome Esteban Murillo 1665

Jacob’s Dream
It is recorded in the Book of Genesis.  You’ll see echoes of the hymn as we break down the passage and talk about its meaning.

Genesis 28:10-22
10  Jacob went out from Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran.

Jacob was wandering solo, traveling from southern Israel to Haran, a city most likely located in modern day Turkey.

11  And he lighted upon a certain place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.

It had been a long day on foot.  Now that the sun was down and it was dark, Jacob picked a spot to crash for the night, propped himself on some rocks, and fell fast asleep.

12  And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it.

A dream unfolded.  A symbolic vision for Jacob that remains significant for us today.
Angels traveling up and down a ladder reaching into heaven is a metaphor for the Temple – the conduit and pathway connecting Heaven and earth, and the angelic help we receive from beyond the veil.

13  And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed;

The Lord appeared to Jacob and confirmed that the promises made to Abraham (Jacob’s grandfather) and to Isaac (Jacob’s father) would continue through him and his posterity. Reference to the Abrahamic Covenant.

14  And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

Jacob’s name would later be changed to Israel.  His 12 children would be known as the 12 Tribes of Israel (or the Nation of Israel) who, through the centuries, would multiply, scatter and mix with races of every nation and cover the earth.

It is the prophesied mission of Ephraim’s (Jacob’s grandson’s) descendants in the latter-days to gather Israel once again and bring blessings of salvation through missionary work and Temple work.

15  And, behold, I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of.
16  And Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.

After Jacob awoke from the dream/vision, the holiness of the place was apparent.

17  And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place!  This is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

Jacob was afraid because he had been in the presence of God – a wonderful yet sometimes dreadful thought, depending on the status of your sins and feeling clean and worthy in God’s presence.

Oakland Temple

Oakland Temple

Jacob put it all together:
The feeling of holiness,
God affirming blessings,
Covenant steps leading to Heaven,
The presence of Angels –
This was none other than the very
House of God – a gateway to Heaven.

Through Israel’s temples, ancient and modern, we make covenants that allow us to pass into the presence of God.

18  And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

Jacob used his resting stones to build a pillar, an altar, then he blessed it with consecrated oil.

19  And he called the name of that place Beth-el: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first.

How appropriate that the name of the city was Luz, meaning Light, however, Jacob renamed the place Bethel, which literally means House of God.

20  And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this Way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on,

This is where Jacob covenanted to follow the Way of the Lord.  Anciently, the path in the temple leading to the Holy of Holies (the presence of God) was known as The Way.  This is why Christ said of Himself, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”  (John 14:6). Making covenants to follow Christ and live a Christ-like life – is a step-by-step process that leads us back into the presence of God.

Of course, the rest of the verse can be seen as earthly food and clothes, but can also be viewed figuratively as the bread of Life (Christ’s gospel) and spiritual garments – temple clothing given in the Lord’s House.

21  I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God.
22  And this stone, which I have set for a pillar, shall be God’s House: and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.

After acknowledging the Lord’s blessings upon him and his posterity, and covenanting further to pay tithes, Jacob dedicated the site as a Temple, Bethel – House of God.

Nearer, My God, to Thee
A beautiful hymn of depth and meaning.  Whether it is sung as a prayer, a memorial, or in recalling Jacob’s profound dream of Bethel, the words and tune have a way of softening the heart, drawing thoughts upward, and making us feel, well, nearer to God.

Maybe that’s why it is so beloved.  The song carries a message of hope for us all: the deep seeded desire of returning to our eternal Home.

With those we love.

Andre Rieu and his orchestra perform in Amsterdam Nearer, My God, to Thee.




They are starting to put ads on our blog. We do not approve these and are not getting any residuals whatsoever, so I apologize for the content. I’ll see what I can do about it.


One thought on “Nearer, My God, to Thee

  1. I remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s version of this song. It was played a lot in my house when I was growing up, and I have it on CD and on my play list still today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s