By All Your Saints in Warfare
A Bible Study Inspired by a Hymn
Text: Horatio Bolton Nelson (1823-1913)
(Lutheran Service Book 517, 518)
Primary Scripture Lessons: Hebrews 13:7; 2 Timothy 4:8; Revelation 4:8–11; 7:9–17
or all Your saints at rest,
Your holy name, O Jesus,
Forevermore be blest!
For You have won the battle
That they might wear the crown;
And now they shine in glory
Reflected from Your throne.
3. Then let us praise the Father
And worship God the Son
And sing to God the Spirit,
Eternal Three in One,
Till all the ransomed number
Fall down before the throne,
Ascribing pow’r and glory
And praise to God alone.
“By All Your Saints in Warfare” has 28 verses in our hymnal, which is why it is divided into two hymns (517 & 518). Most of the verses were written by Horatio Bolton Nelson (1823-1913), the third Earl of Nelson. Nelson was the grandson of the sister of the great English naval hero Lord Nelson, which is how he came to be the third Earl Nelson in 1835 after his father died. While he was a politician, he never really became a major mover and shaker in politics. His work as a layman has had far more lasting value. While he wrote some devotional material, his major contribution came in compiling a very popular hymnal. In that hymnal were two of his own hymns, “As the Sun Doth Daily Rise,” and “By All Your Saints in Warfare.” The first one isn’t in our hymnal, but the second one is, as it is in many other hymnals.
We are not expected to sing all 28 verses at one time. Instead you sing the first verse, then one of the verses that deal with a specific saint (verses 5-28) and then the third verse. This way the hymn can be used for most any saint day. There is even a general verse for any saint or martyr that isn’t covered with their own particular verse (verse 4). The study below will be based on verses 1 and 3 (above).
At first one might ask, “Why have a hymn about any saint, modern or ancient?” After all, we are Christians and not ancestor worshipers. The writer of Hebrews gives us a reason: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). The saints of old, who have run the race and crossed the finish line, are worth remembering and singing about because they provide us examples of how we too can run the race until we cross the finish line.
As we look over the list of saints in these two hymns we find many who have given all, even their lives, for the Lord: Andrew, Thomas, Stephen, John, the infants slaughtered by Herod, Peter, Paul, Timothy, Titus, Matthias, Joseph, Mary, Mark, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist, Matthew, and more. Some, like Matthew, gave up a lucrative career to follow Jesus. Some, like Stephen, died rather than give up their faith in Jesus. Some, like John, endured exile for Jesus. We walk in the steps of heroes who walked in the steps of Jesus. They inspire us to remain true when we face whatever trials and temptations we face. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to remember the “outcome” of their faith. He isn’t speaking of some sort of temporal reward, but the eternal glory they now share. Neither the writer of Hebrews, nor Nelson in this hymn, seeks to imply that these saints were perfect examples. They are saved by grace through faith, not by their works. But they held on to their Lord in faith and were delivered by him to glory when they left this corrupted life.
In verse one, the “saints in warfare” are those believers who are alive and walking the planet today. The “saints at rest” are the saints who have passed on to glory. Though Nelson’s focus is on the saints in glory, those who have “fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7), we nonetheless may also draw inspiration from our fellow believers in the Church Militant. Those who face persecution today, and yet remain faithful, inspire all believers as they face their own personal trials.
When Paul wrote 2 Timothy he knew his own death was near. He wrote, “Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). Paul had faced incredible sufferings and trials throughout his ministry and yet remained faithful to his calling. As he awaited his death he knew what was in his future beyond his temporal death, the “crown of righteousness” he would receive through God’s grace. It is the same gift that awaits others who have kept the faith. God gives us the means to be certain we do keep it: His Gospel.
This “crown of righteousness” is not our righteousness, comprised of our good works, but the righteousness of Christ which he gives us. Therefore we sing “For You (Jesus) have won the battle that they (the saints) might wear the (Jesus’) crown.” Only those who have this crown of righteousness enter the Lord’s presence. There are three times this happens. First when we become believers. At that moment we are “seated … with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). Nelson doesn’t mention this in his hymn. The second time is when we die. This Nelson refers to in verse one. Those who have died in the Lord “now … shine in glory.” Even here the glory is a gift, a reflection from the throne of God. The third time is at the Second Coming of Jesus, what Paul refers to as “the Day.” On the Last Day Christ returns and raises us with new, glorified, bodies. The first two times are hidden from the eyes of fallen humanity. The third time will be manifest to all.
All Christians, both those who are still in warfare and those at rest, join together in praising our Triune God. This is the Holy Christian Church we confess in the Creeds. This Nelson brings out in verse 3. We can read a piece of this song we are joining in, in Revelation 4:8-11.
8 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
11 “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
Heaven is full of songs of praise. It is almost like heaven has a sound track. Just one of the things we praise God for is creation (verse 11). The Triune God’s hand in creation was revealed in the opening chapter of Genesis. “ In the beginning, God [the Father] created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the [Holy] Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said [Jesus] …” (Genesis 1:1-3a). That God speaking here is a reference to Jesus is confirmed in John 1:1-3. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Triune nature of God comes out all over the place in this Revelation quote. (1) Holy, (2) holy, (3) holy, is the (1) Lord (2) God, (3) Almighty, who (1) was and (2) is and (3) is to come.
The multitudes praise God in heaven, especially for our salvation. Again Revelation gives us a glimpse of this.
9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God … (Revelation 7:9-11).
When John records “salvation belongs to our God” he doesn’t mean that God is saved, but that “our” salvation is from God. It is his creation. The Father has sent the Son who is the sacrifice that redeems us. It is “ours” as a gift. It is his because it is his work. No one knows this better than the ones who are in glory.
For the saints in warfare, life as a believer isn’t always easy. That is how it was for the saints at rest, and continues to be. In fact many of the saints at rest were martyred, as are many to this day. Those who have been murdered for their faith in Christ are beyond our count. We read about them in Revelation 7:9-17 (a portion of which I quoted above). The rest of the text reads:
12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
There are those who anticipate a time of great tribulation in the future. The biblical reality is that this time has stretched from the time of the Apostolic Church to this day, and will continue until the Second Coming. So John records of the martyrs already in the Lord’s presence that they have come through the “great tribulation” (14). When John writes, “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” he is referring to the righteousness they have received by grace through faith. They are forgiven sinners, made righteous by the blood of Jesus and strengthened to preserve.
Holding on to the Faith is not easy in a world that is bent on separating us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. But these forgiven sinners inspire us, who are also forgiven sinners, until we join “all the ransomed number” and “fall down before the throne, Ascribing pow’r and glory and praise to God alone.” Amen.