With glorious clouds encompassed round
Charles Wesley (1707-88)
Tune: ST GREGORY, Robert Wainwright (1748-82)
With glorious clouds encompassed round,
Whom angels dimly see,
Will the Unsearchable be found
Or God appear to me?
Will he forsake his throne above,
Himself to me impart?
Answer, thou Man of grief and love,
And speak it to my heart!
In manifested love explain
Thy wonderful design;
What meant the suffering Son of Man,
The streaming blood divine?
Didst thou not in our flesh appear,
And live and die below,
That I may now perceive thee near,
And my Redeemer know?
Come then, and to my soul reveal
The heights and depths of grace,
The wounds which all my sorrows heal,
That dear disfigured face.
I view the Lamb in his own light,
Whom angels dimly see,
And gaze transported at the sight,
Through all eternity.
Reflection: Richard Watson
This is not one of Charles Wesley’s best known hymns, and it comes from one of his lesser known books, Hymns for the Use of Families of 1767, written towards the end of his hymn writing life. And in speaking about it, I have used a revised text rather than the original one. But in my view it is one of his greatest attempts to set forth the full implications of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, in which Christ was born in Bethlehem, lived on earth, and died on the cross, in order that sinners might be forgiven. This is a traditional summary of Christian theology; but its expression in this hymn transforms that theology into a spectacular masterpiece and a great hymn of comfort. It has been in every Methodist book since 1780 until it was omitted by the compilers of Singing the Faith.
The modern editors of John Wesley’s ‘large hymn book’, A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists of 1780, printed this hymn in its place in the book, and then in a special section which showed its multiple Biblical allusions. If I were to try to list them, we would be here for a very long time. For example, God is beyond all imagining and all thought, so that even the angels cannot see through the clouds. There are many moments in the Old Testament in which God is found in clouds: in Psalm 97, for instance, ‘clouds and darkness are round about him’. We know that Charles Wesley borrowed the line ‘whom angels dimly see’ from a poem by his brother Samuel, and from Milton in Paradise Lost, but he transforms the borrowing by making the clouds ‘glorious clouds’. That wonderful first line, ‘With glorious clouds encompassed round’, takes the reader or singer straight into a contemplation of a magnificent and mysterious presence. It is sometimes said that Charles Wesley began his hymns on earth and ended them in heaven, but this one begins in heaven, among the glorious clouds which encompass the Unsearchable. The word ‘Unsearchable’ is from Chapter 11 of the Book of Job, ‘Canst thou by searching find out God?’.
This is obviously a rhetorical question: of course you can’t find out God by searching. God is beyond our searching the un-nameable, the I AM THAT I AM from Exodus 3: 14. But Wesley has his answer, and it is a magnificent and humbling one. We find God in the life and person of Jesus Christ, and particularly in his sufferings and death.
The hymn works through a series of questions: ‘will God forsake his throne above?’ is the second, from Philippians 2, one of Charles Wesley’s favourite texts. He demands a response, to be spoken to his heart. To Wesley, the heart is of particular importance: it is the seat of the affections, the centre of our life, and it is to this centre that the hymn speaks. The suffering of Christ is, for us, the sufferings of grief and love, echoing Isaac Watts’s ‘sorrow and love’, which flow down in dying crimson from the body on the cross: sorrow and love, love and sorrow, intertwined: sorrow for the state of the world, love for the human beings that live in it.
The next question is ‘What does it all mean?’ But that question is preceded by ‘in manifested love’ and ‘thy wonderful design’, and it is put into words that make it clear what the question is referring to: ‘What meant the suffering Son of Man,/ The streaming blood divine?’ It is summed up in the next verse, which is in the form of yet another question: ‘Didst thou not in our flesh appear,/ And live and die below’. This is a statement in the form of yet another rhetorical question. Christ suffered on the cross in order that we might know him as our Redeemer.
The next verse is a prayer, but an extraordinary one. Christ is to come to the sinner in his suffering, and this is how God is revealed to us. Christ’s wounds and his face, that face which is dear even as it is disfigured, are the healing elements to set against human sorrow and sin. And so, with the repetition of ‘Whom angels dimly see’, we come back to the beginning. As sinners we view the Lamb that was slain, and our fears are assuaged, so that we can live in his forgiveness and understanding for evermore. This is indeed a wonderful design, a summary of the manifested love, of the heights and depths of grace.
Let us pray:
O Lord, teach us to be humble in our attempts to find the truth, and to work out our destinies and our ways of life in fear and trembling. Help us to admire and treasure those who have helped us to understand the gospel more clearly, and especially those who have written hymns that shine a glorious light into the ordinariness of our normal lives. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.