The Unfinished Song

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) was one of the great figures in the Anglican Church during the early 19th century. His passion for world missions caused him to take an active interest in the spread of the gospel of God's grace to other lands. Eventually, he was appointed bishop of Calcutta, where he served faithfully until his untimely death three years later. He is credited with giving new impetus to hymn-singing in the church, writing many new songs himself. One of his hymns, "Holy, Holy, Holy," is sung weekly by some congregations.

On one occasion in 1819, Heber was visiting his father-in-law's home on a Saturday evening. A service with a missionary theme was planned for the next day. His father-in-law (the vicar) wondered if he could write something for them to sing. Reginald Heber went to the other side of the room, away from the buzz of conversation, and in minutes returned with the first three verses. "That will do nicely," said the vicar, who disliked long hymns. Others present expressed their enthusiasm too. But the author was not satisfied.

"No, no," responded Heber, "the sense is incomplete." He wanted to carry his theme beyond the present time, and on to the glorious return of Christ. His insistence on this prevailed, and he sat down and wrote a fourth verse. The hymn, entitled "From Greenland's Icy Mountains," was eventually published in the Evangelical Magazine in July of 1821.

In spite of its Victorian perspective, it is still considered one of the finest missionary hymns in the English language. The author expresses the desperate plight of earth's remotest tribes where, "In vain with lavish kindness / The gifts of God are strown; / The heathen in his blindness / Bows down to wood and stone."

The last verse of the song--finishing the theme--presents the ultimate end and goal of world missions. The message of salvation is to be shared far and wide, "Till o'er our ransomed nature / The Lamb for sinners slain, / Redeemer, King, Creator, / In bliss returns to reign."

How beautifully that sums it up! How well it ties together Christ's first coming and His second, when "the Lamb...returns to reign." In that day, ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands will cry before the throne, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honour and glory and blessing!" (Rev. 5:12).

Why proclaim the gospel? Certainly, in the church, it is a cause for praise and worship among God's people. But we are also to share it beyond the community of believers, because a lost and dying world needs to know and experience His power to save. "And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" (Rom. 10:14). The unfinished hymn reminds us of the unfinished task. Therefore, let us make known the message of Calvary love, calling sinners to put their faith in the Saviour, until "the Lamb...returns to reign."

That glorious consummation would not be possible without the cross. John Donne once wrote, "No pain, no palm; / No thorns, no throne; / No gall, no glory; / No cross, no crown." The celebration of the Lord's Supper (the Communion Service) reminds us of the relation of the two events as it looks both backward and forward. We are to "proclaim the Lord's death till He comes" (I Cor. 11:26).

Similar to Heber's hymn, that encompasses a time frame within which we are to announce the good news of salvation to all. As Heber's hymn puts it, "Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high, / Shall we to men benighted the lamp of life deny? / Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim, / Till earth's remotest nation has learned Messiah's name." Christ has assigned to believers a work to do for Him until He comes.