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Hymn History: “The Son of God Goes Forth to War”

2 min

The hymn writer Reginald Heber was a young boy when he came to know Jesus as his Savior. Being very bright, he learned to read before the age of five. One of his favorite books was about the famous Christian martyr, Henry Martyn. Martyn’s life and death impacted the Reverend Heber. He had great respect for those who would endure years of pain and suffering, loneliness and frustration, all in order to hold to God’s truth and to share that truth with others. Reverend Heber wrote about such martyrs who endured for the cause of Christ in his hymn “The Son of God Goes Forth”:  

The Son of God goes forth to war,
A kingly crown to gain;
His blood-red banner streams afar:
Who follows in His train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe,
Triumphant over pain,
Who patient bears his cross below,
He follows in His train. 

The phrase “follows in His train” is repeated several times in the hymn. A train is the long, flowing portion of a king’s robe that trails behind him as he ascends his throne. Those who “follow in his train” are the ones committed to the king and his cause. They will courageously endure whatever necessary to show their obedience and loyalty to him. “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (II Timothy 3:12). 

Reverend Heber referred to Christian martyrs, both past and present, as those who would “follow in [Christ’s] train.” Reverend Heber not only wrote hymns, but also served for sixteen years pastoring churches in England. Twice he was approached by the Church of England to consider becoming the first bishop in Calcutta; both times he turned the position down. However, when asked a third time, his zeal for taking the Gospel to the unreached prevailed. He and his family moved to the difficult mission field of India. Like many of the martyrs he had read about, he, too, endured hardships, such as oppressive heat and rampant disease, in order to preach the Gospel to the people of India. After three arduous, trying years, he succumbed to illness, dying at the age of 43. In both India and England, Reverend Heber’s memory was honored; his example and reforms were lauded. It was said of him: “No other man made so great a mark on India in so short a time.”

 Reverend Heber closed his hymn with this prayer:

A noble army, men and boys,
The matron and the maid,
Around the Savior’s throne rejoice,
In robes of light arrayed.
They climbed the steep ascent of heav’n
Through peril, toil, and pain.
O God, to us may grace be giv’n
To follow in their train!

Indeed, may that be our prayer, too: “O God, to us may grace be giv’n to follow in their train!”

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