Hank Williams, Sr. and Hank Williams, Jr. (approx. 1950)
Seventy years ago this week, Hank Williams, Sr. wrote the song “I Saw the Light.” Earlier in the month, the 23-year old Williams and his band were returning to Montgomery, Alabama from a show in Fort Deposit, a little town 30 miles south of Montgomery. Williams, however, was unable to stay awake for the short drive because he was passed out drunk, as usual after shows, in the back seat of the car. As they were approaching the city, the driver, seeing the lights of the airport, announced to the band that they were almost home, saying, “I just saw the lights.” Hank woke up, and a light must have went off in his mind, because a few days later he wrote what has become a Country and Gospel music classic.
Just a few months before this, Williams auditioned for, and was rejected by, the Grand Ole Opry. Just a few months later, he was a big star, signed a recording contract with MGM, and started turning out hit after hit—35 top ten singles in the next six years. And then Hank Williams died, on New Year’s Day, 1953, at the age of 29, in the back seat of a car on the way to a concert.
Williams was born with a spinal defect, made worse over the years by falling and fighting. He lived with constant pain, became addicted to pain killers which he used to excess, and then to alcohol. The continuous overuse of both, often consumed together, destroyed his heart.
Williams was to perform that New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio with several others. The concert hall was already filled, when the other performers received word of Williams’ death. It was announced it to the crowd, and many people started to laugh, thinking it was a joke. But then the band softly started to play a song as a tribute. The crowd quieted, realizing it was not a joke; and then began to sing along to “I Saw the Light.”
The song is the testimony of a backslider, living in the hope of repentance, redemption, and a chance to start over. Hank Williams did a lot of backsliding in his short life. One might even say he was backsliding all the while. He was raised in the Baptist church where his mother was the organist, but as an adult he did not talk about his faith, and gave little evidence of trying to live it. But he sure could sing about the power of faith in Jesus, as he did in this wonderful song. Whether he was expressing what was in his heart, or just writing words he thought might be popular enough to be another hit, only God knows.
Matthew 4:16 says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” “I Saw the Light” begins with these words: “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in; then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the Lord, I saw the light.” Then in the refrain, Williams sings: “No more darkness, no more night… no sorrow in sight, I saw the light.” That sounds a lot like Matthew 4:16 (which is quoting a prophecy in Isaiah 9:2).
There are several more Bible references in the short song. First, there is the part about Jesus coming as a stranger in the night. The Bible actually says ‘thief in the night,’ and that you will find in Matthew 24 and I Thessalonians 5. In Revelation 22 we find the phrase “there will be no more night.” In verse two, Williams sings about how he was, “Just like the blind man that God gave back his sight, praise the Lord, I saw the light.” That’s in John chapter nine. In the last verse there is a reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 7 when it says “straight is the gate and narrow the way.” And the main reference to the image of light that is used in the song is in John 8:12, where Jesus said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” That’s eight Bible references in three verses—not bad for a backslider. Williams spent much of his life in the darkness, not only with his drug and alcohol abuse, but also because of his lying, infidelity, irresponsibility, lack of loyalty, lack of faith, arrogance, and quick temper. But it is clear he did know his Bible and he did know about Jesus. We can only hope that somewhere along the line he really did what he sang about in verse one, and “let his dear Savior in.”
Have seen the light? Do you know what it means to walk in darkness, and to live in the land of the shadow of death? Do you know what that is like? And if so, are you familiar with the experience described by Matthew to have seen a great light, or, to have the light dawn in your life? Do you know what that is like? What is this darkness? What is this light? And what does it look like in one’s life? What does it mean to say that Jesus is the light of the world? (continued…)
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner. Amen.
–Ancient Jesus prayer (based on Luke 18:13)