“My Name is Written on His Hands”

One of my very favorite hymns is Charles Wesley's "Arise, My Soul, Arise." The first verse says this:

Arise, my soul, arise; shake off thy guilty fears;
The bleeding sacrifice in my behalf appears:
Before the throne my surety stands,
Before the throne my surety stands,
My name is written on His hands.

I came across Isaiah 49:16a the other day, which is the basis for the last line of that stanza. "Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. . . ." I was a little bit disappointed when I went back and looked at the surrounding context. Just a brief survey finds that "I" is God speaking to "you" people of Israel ("his people," v. 13). In light of the second half of the book of Isaiah (chaps. 40–66), God is promising to restore his people in a very literal and tangible way. In fact, the second half of verse sixteen and verse seventeen record the significance of God's people, national Israel, being engraved on his hands: "Your walls are continually before me. Your builders make haste; your destroyers and those who laid you waste go out from you." God is promising to restore Israel and rebuild Jerusalem, no matter how long it takes or how unlikely it appears. He will fulfill the promises he has made to his covenant people.

While not wanting to be too hard on Charles Wesley, who has given us some magnificent hymn texts, the imagery of being "written on God's hands" does not specifically apply to the church saint. However, we enjoy even better promises. If God gave up his own Son for us, what would he possibly withhold from us? If God has acquitted us, in what chance of "double jeopardy" do we stand? If God's Son has paid our debt with his death and now stands interceding for us at God'’s right hand, who would dare to condemn us? What could possibly remove us from God'’s favor?

"He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died——more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" (Rom 8:32–25a).


Scott Aniol said…
Bummer. This is also a great line in "Before the Throne of God Above" (STUTTGART). Are you sure that is the only passage with such a reference?
Mark Perry said…
"Before the Throne of God Above" is another of my favorite hymns. As far as I can tell, Isaiah 49:16 is the only passage that makes reference to names written on his hands. While I think the scriptural allusion is misapplied, I think the truth of Christ as our High Priest and Advocate is blessedly true. Certainly this aspect of Christ's ministry (his present session) is woefully underrepresented in our hymnody.
Frank Sansone said…
If you really want to get disappointed about this hymn, listen to this update - http://ruf.org/sounds/mp3/AriseMySoulArise.mp3
Pittsley said…
Do we have to be that strict in Scriptural allusions?

Obviously a metaphor is at work both in the hymn and in the Isaianic poetry. God didn't literally or tangibly engrave anything on his anthropomorphic hands. (In addition, there is an embedded figure of speech: God said he engraved them on his hands, which is probably metonymy for their name. But that's beside the point.;) Isaiah's point for the metaphor is that God will not change in his positive purposes for Israel. He could never forget them.

Granted, in context the specific content of those purposes concerns restoration to the land. But Wesley did not use the metaphor in the same context. He used the metaphor in a context with reference to Christ's sacrifice and surety for the believer. The passage you quoted makes clear that God's positive purposes for believers will never change. He cannot forget us. Wesley's metaphor works in its own context.

Let me try to get at it another way: when I say that Josiah, my son, is the apple of my eye, I do not necessarily mean the same thing as when God said that Jacob was the apple of his eye (Deut 32:10; the Hebrew metaphor is "little man," i.e. the pupil. English translations since Coverdale have translated it "apple"). But that doesn't mean that I am abusing Scripture. It just means I am using Scriptural language in a different context.
Mark Perry said…
No, Jeremy, you don't have to be that strict in your critique, either. I'm not saying you can't use a figure of speech that is also used in the Bible. In fact, our English language is filled with figures of speech that come from Scripture (mainly the King James). For example: "There is nothing new under the sun."

My point (as I was trying to explain to Larry in another thread) is just that Isaiah's context for this metaphor is different than Charles' Wesley's context in this hymn. The Church does not equal national Israel, and therefore, this is not a promise made to the Church. The allusion is fine, and perhaps we are comparing similar concepts. However, there is not a one-for-one correspondance (which many would claim).

I am simply pointing out that Isaiah's context and the hymn's context refer to different groups.
Pittsley said…
I hadn't read the comment thread on the other post. But I see that Larry was making a similiar point. From your response, I also see that I over-reacted (which, ironically, is what I thought you were doing). I was late to the game anyway, so I probably should have just kept my mouth shut. I apologize.

I suppose we come to the disagreement with the statement:
"Does it 'seem useful to use poetic images' in music? Sure, I guess so. But if we are going to use images directly from Scripture, why not use them in the same way Scripture does? That's my point."

Doesn't John use the language of Ezekiel's Gog and Magog to depict a different battle than Ezekiel was depicting? Doesn't Paul allude to Isaiah's eschatological conversion of Gentiles when he descibes the inevitable success of the church's mission (Rom 15)? Doesn't Peter allude to Joel's prophecy of the eschatological Day of the Lord when he describes Pentecost (Acts 2)? It seems that the NT authors did not use OT imagery the way the OT authors used it.

Now, I don't think that this means that they allegorized or abused the OT Scripture in anyway. I think what they did is perfectly legitimate. They used poetic imagery in a context that it had not heretofore been used. Poetic imagery is flexible like that; it turns about withersoever the governor listeth.

`When I make a word do a lot of work like that,' said Humpty Dumpty, `I always pay it extra.'
Mark Perry said…
There is at least one difference I can think of: John, Paul, et al were inspired. I don't mind using scriptural allusions either, but since I am not inspired, I try to use them in a way that is at least in keeping with the original context.

Allusions are fine, let me repeat. I was pointing out that the original context of a couple of these two allusions is somewhat surprising, given their contexts in the two hymns.

You were not out of line to comment. Obviously, I was not clear that I am not "writing off" the hymn. I was actually trying to understand the original context of the allusion so as to "sing with the Spirit and the understanding also."

Do I not find comfort in knowing that God will keep his promises to national Israel? Does that not indicate that he will keep his promises to me? Am I not to be encouraged that God will take care of sparrows?

But if our allusions to Scripture get us so far away from the original context that most don't even realize it is a scriptural allusion, is there great value in alluding to Scripture?
Pittsley said…
I see what you are saying much more clearly now. That last sentence was key for me.

When someone quotes Scripture outside of the intent of the original authors, he is using it purely as literature. It's just as valuable as quoting from Through the Looking Glass or Shakespeare because the Biblical words have no magical power aside from their intended meaning. The allusions are not necessarily wrong; but they're probably not as valuable as teaching people what the words were intended to convey--Unless, of course, you happen to be teaching with apostolic authority, in which case, your message has authority and value of its own.

I really thought you were writing off the hymn, and I didn't think that you had a good reason to. But now I see what you're getting at, and I agree. I think I you've honed my perspective a bit, and I appreciate that.