George Matheson was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on March 27, 1842. He had only partial vision as a boy. After he entered Glasgow University, his sight failed rapidly and he became totally blind at the age of eighteen. Despite this handicap he was a brilliant scholar and finished the University and the Seminary of the Church of Scotland with high honors. In 1886 he became pastor of the 2,000 member St. Bernard’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. He went on to become known as one of Scotland’s outstanding preachers and pastors, greatly esteemed in Edinburgh, where his eloquent preaching consistently attracted large crowds. Matheson never married, but throughout his fruitful ministry he was aided by a devoted sister, who herself learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew in order to aid him in his theological studies. She was his faithful co-worker and helper throughout his life, assisting in his calling and other pastoral duties. Matheson died in 1906.
Many conjectures have been made regarding the cause of the mental distress which prompted the author to write this text. A very popular account, although never substantiated, is that this text was an outgrowth of Matheson’s fiancee’s leaving him just before their marriage when she learned of his impending total blindness. Although this story cannot be documented, there are many significant hints in this hymn reflecting a saddened heart, such as the “flickering torch” and the “borrowed ray” in the second stanza; the tracing of the “rainbow through the rain” in the third stanza; and the “cross” in the last verse. Fortunately, Dr. Matheson left an account of his writing of this hymn:
My hymn was composed in the manse of Innellan on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. I was at that time alone. It was the day of my sister’s marriage, and the rest of the family were staying overnight in Glasgow. Something happened to me, which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the impression rather of having it dictated to me by some inward voice than of working it out myself. I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high. I have never been able to gain once more the same fervor in verse. –Source: 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, 1982, Kregel Publication, pages 189-190
Psalm 44:25-6 — We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground. Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love.
Jeremiah 31:3 — The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.”
Psalm 52:8b — …I trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever.
O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO
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O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust, life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be. Amen.