Mark Twain famously wrote, “I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the human race — never quite sane in the night.”
Twain should see us now. It’s a summer of long nights on crumpled sheets. We’re tangled in worries from a world gone mad, spinning alone in a stark and fractured universe. Patriarchs pushing greed and gold have taken over, with their vulgarity, vanity, and bacchanalian disregard for vulnerable “others.” We lie awake, wrestling with despair, longing, faith, God.
THE JACOB STORY, CHRISTIANIZED
Charles Wesley (1707-1788), called the “Methodist poet,” was the younger brother of John, the denomination’s founder. In 1742, he wrote a poem called “Wrestling Jacob,” contemplating the flawed hero of Genesis 32 who struggled until daybreak with someone or something. Wesley’s fourteen verse poem became the hymn “COME, O THOU TRAVELER UNKNOWN.”
According to the biblical story, Jacob sent his two wives, children, and servants ahead and waited alone on the road to Canaan, expecting an attack by the brother he’d once wronged.
Jacob was attacked, but not by revenge-driven Esau. After wrestling for hours, he injured his thigh or hip so badly that he limped for the rest of his life. Artists depict the “midnight wrestler,” as the challenger’s been called, with bulging biceps and beefy legs. Sometimes he glows and has wings.
The mysterious traveler wants the struggle to end, but Jacob won’t let go until he gets a blessing. The stranger is eventually revealed to be God or an angel of God.
In his hymn, Charles Wesley reimagines the Old Testament story. Neither wrestler will let go of the other, no matter how much it hurts. They are in this struggle together. In his retelling, the poet speaks in first person, taking Jacob’s place. He is known to the stranger, but how? He demands to know the unknown’s name and is almost childish in his insistence, “Tell me thy name, and tell me now!”
Exhausted, fainting, falling, the poet is confident only in his own despair, but he continues to cling to his assailant. Near dawn, he not only wants answers, but a blessing, for he suddenly understands and cries out:
‘Tis Love! ‘tis Love! thou diedst for me,
I hear thy whisper in my heart.
The morning breaks, the shadows flee,
pure Universal Love thou art:
to me, to all, thy mercies move —
thy nature and thy name is Love.
The poet boldly names Jesus the personification of Universal Love. He ends the long poem joyfully with the knowledge that the Savior will not depart at sunrise, “but stay and love me to the end.” In exhausted ecstasy, Wesley borrowed one of his own best lines, beloved of all who join in the Christmas refrain, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” claiming that the Sun of Righteousness hath “risen with healing in his wings.”
Though limping, the speaker in this hymn leaps for joy, exuberant, ready to fly home with the good news: “thy nature and thy name is Love!”
A HYMN GREATLY ADMIRED, RARELY SUNG
Isaac Watts, the “father of English hymnody,” said: “This single poem is worth all the verses which I have written.” Other hymnists, preachers, and theologians have praised the lyrics. Why, then, do we so rarely sing it?
Some say the verses, like the story itself, are too intimate, too physical, what with mention of “the hollow of my thigh” and all. Nor can hymnal committees agree on the best tune to fit the words, consequently, every hymnal seems to offer a different one.
And it’s too long. No modern Christian is going to wade through all fourteen verses of the poem, so we’re given only four or five. Jacob’s transforming struggle is abridged and greatly distilled, alas.
HERE’S TO INSOMNIACS
What thinking person hasn’t experienced overwhelming anxiety in the night, alone with our despair, doubts, debts?
It seems that the sun will never rise and, when it does, we worry that we are unloved and unlovable in the stark light of day.
We could do worse than use our nighttime terrors to wrestle with faith. Preachers reassure us that it is the struggle itself that matters. If we awaken with renewed faith, so much the better, even if we are left limping.
And so we sing Wesley’s poem to whatever tune we know, weaving Old and New Testament metaphors together into a story of a loving God who holds us, though we thrash and fight.
Listen, we can almost hear Charles Wesley whisper through the centuries not to let go but to cling fast! And when we awaken, let it be with one name on our lips, “ ‘tis Love! Love!”
TO GO DEEPER
Hymnary.org website: “Wrestling Jacob” lyrics, background, and a seemingly endless array of tunes
Cyber Hymnal: all 14 verses of “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown”
Mandy Prior and the Carnival Band, sung to the haunting shape note tune “Vernon”
Melodious Accord, arranged by Alice Parker, (Vernon)
Sung by Mack Bailey (Candler)