“"The Lord Is My Light" and Despair”

Categories: Hymn Theory

During our monthly singing last Sunday evening, we sang Charli Couchman’s “The Lord Is My Light”.  I love the hymn.  I think it’s one of Charli’s best, and indeed one of the best hymns written by brethren in the 20th century. 

“The Lord Is My Light” is based on Psalm 27, and as psalm paraphrases tend to, it has excellent content.  My favorite line appears in the second verse.  It reads, “I will not despair; Your goodness sustains me.”  Charli took it from the NASB ’77 reading of Psalm 27:13.

The path from David’s original in v. 13 to “The Lord Is My Light” is an interesting one.  Apparently, there is a divergence in manuscripts.  Some of them read as reflected in the ESV, “I believe that I shall look on the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

The other reading (followed by the NASB, the NKJV, and older translations, says something like, “Oh!  Had I not believed that I shall. . .”  In other words, if I had not believed that I would see God’s goodness, it would have been bad.  The original NASB tried to capture this thought by saying, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” 

That’s a neat idea, but its expression is about as elegant as a snoring teenager (par for the course for the NASB, alas!).  Charli had a meter to fit, as hymnists always do, so she compacted the concept to the form it takes in “The Lord Is My Light”.

However, as is often the case with paraphrase, something was both lost and gained.  The NASB rendering is retrospective.  It looks back on trial and says, “I wouldn’t have gotten through that, except for my faith in God.” 

Charli’s version is more daring.  Much more.  It is prospective.  It looks to the future and defiantly proclaims that it will not lose heart.  I will not despair, no matter what!

That’s the spiritual equivalent of signing a blank check and giving it to somebody else.  It is a promise to continue steadfastly, regardless of how many zeroes of trial life may fill in.  Bring it on, time and chance!  Bring it on, devil!  I still won’t despair.

In isolation, such a promise is brash, almost foolhardy.  Aren’t you aware of all the disasters that can happen to a human being in this fallen world?  Who knows what horrible things your future may hold?

“The Lord Is My Light”, though does not focus on all the unknowns.  It focuses on the one known.  It focuses on the certainty that God will be faithful to perform what He has promised.  His goodness need not even appear now to sustain us.  As long as we remain convinced that it will appear, that hope is sufficient to reassure us.

I sing all of “The Lord Is My Light” with great joy, but I especially love to sing that promise.  I will not despair.  Not ever.  I don’t care if Satan and all his angels hear it.  Indeed, I hope they do!   However, my boast is not in my own strength of character.  It is entirely in the sustaining goodness of God.