Saturday, February 27, 2016

Hymns & Hymn Writers: 'Tis Midnight, and On Olive's Brow by David R. Kenney

The song is categorized by some as one of the finer Passiontide Hymns.  Some have described its sadness that “is almost depressing.”  One wonders how anyone can take an honest look at the events of the garden, the trials of mockery and injustice, and the absolute cruelty of man poured out against Jesus of Nazareth and not be impacted by such.

William Bingham Tappan  (1794-1849), Lyricist

William Bingham Tappan was born October 24, 1794 in Beverly, MA.  His father was a teacher, but he died when William was but 12 years old.  The boy was known to have an interest in poetry, having started writing verses at age 8.  He also studied the clockmaker trade in Boston.  When he was old enough, he moved to Philadelphia to make clocks; however, he found the trade did not suit his passions.  He decided to pursue his education and would become a teacher.  He became a published poet and achieved a recognized status as such.  His poem “’Tis Midnight” appeared in his Poems of 1822.  He decided to do some work for the American Sunday School Union which he served for the rest of his life.  He also did some work that brought him to Cincinnati, Ohio for a time.   Through all these events, he kept writing and publishing his poetry.  In 1841 he obtained a license to preach from the Congregational Association which increased his activity with the Sunday School movement.  While preparing another book of poetry for press, he fell ill.  Tappan died June 18, 1849 of cholera in West Needham, MA, and he was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, West Roxbury, MA.

William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868), Music

Born October 6, 1816 in York, Maine, William Batchelder Bradbury’s father was leader of a church choir.  His family moved to Boston when he was 12 years old where he became acquainted with the famous musician Lowell Mason.   Bradbury would go onto study music and voice even traveling to Germany for further education.  His brother, Edward G. Bradbury, and he founded the Bradbury Piano Company in New York City.  He wrote and published numerous songs and hymnals.  For a time, Lowell Mason, George F. Root and William Bradbury made a very popular trio.  We sing several songs he composed the music to including:  “Just As I Am”, “He Leadeth Me”, “My Hope Is Built On Nothing Less”, “How Sweet, How Heavenly, Is The Sight”, “Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow”, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” “Jesus Loves Me” and others.  The name for this tune is appropriately OLIVE’S BROW.  The song first appeared as “Olive’s Brow” in his published work, The Shawm, in 1853.  William Batchelder Bradbury suffered with tuberculosis and died on January 7, 1868 in Montclair, NJ and is buried in Bloomfield Cemetery, Bloomfield, NJ next to his mother.

‘Tis Midnight, and On Olive’s Brow

This song is called by some sources “Gethsemane” which was the garden that is believed to have been on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives which is referenced in the expression “On Olive’s Brow”.  The word “Gethsemane” means “an oil press” which would not be a surprise since the Mount of Olives was a mountain known for having many olive trees.  The garden was about three-quarters of a mile from the wall of Jerusalem, but there is great uncertainty about its exact location today.  The olive trees of Jesus day were cut down by the Roman army when it destroyed Jerusalem.  Between the Mount of Olives and Jerusalem is the Kidron Valley. 

The expression “The star is dimmed that lately shone” is one I think about.  It reminds me of the star that came at the coming of the Messiah.  That star must have been a bright star and such a joyous occasion.  Now, the “star is dimmed” meaning the hour of betrayal suffering, anguish and death had come.  The time that Jesus always held in His mind would come.  Darkness creeps all about Him, and that darkness is not just because of the “midnight hour”.  It had to have been a very lonely and difficult time for the Lord as the words “wrestles lone with fears” suggest.  “E’en the disciple whom He loved” is a reference to John who was there and unable to keep awake with Peter and James (Mark 14:33).  This occasion for weeping was not for what He had done, but what we have done.  He did not deserve this!  He came on behalf of “other’s guilt”.  Even the Roman Procurator was able to size up the situation very quickly when He sated of those who delivered Jesus to be crucified—“For he knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10, NKJV.)

The mental anguish He was under was strong enough to make blood come out with His sweat (Luke 22:44).  Some debate whether this expression is metaphorical or literal; however, there is a condition known as ‘hematidrosis” in which acute emotional distress can cause hemorrhaging of blood into the sweat glands and exit the body.  Notice that this condition is due to “acute emotional distress”.  What was the state of Jesus emotions during this time?  Acute Emotional Distress!  His distress was so excessive, so difficult, so alarming, that Luke reveals that God provided Him strength—“Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him” (Luke 22:43, NKJV.)  Did this take way the distress?  Not completely, in fact, after this event is when the sweat and blood is mentioned.  How did this angel comfort Him, and what was the effect of this comfort we are not told.  The writer refers to this comfort in the last verse with the words about a sounds of comfort from the angel “…Is borne the song that angels know; Unheard by mortals are the strains That sweetly soothe the Savior’s woe.”  Shortly after this, Jesus gets up, wakes His disciples, and goes to meet His betrayer and complete the work He had come to do.  He would endure mock trials, the greatest travesty of justice, the most degrading forms of humiliation, and die a death designed to extract the most suffering in every conceivable way known to man. 

There are two interesting occurrences of the word “demonstration” in the book of Romans.  The first is the demonstration of God’s righteousness—“But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-26, NKJV.)  The second is the demonstration of God’s love for us—“For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.  For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.  For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.” (Romans 5:6-10, NKJV.)  Jesus provided the remedy for our sin and restored our relationship to God.  He suffered much that we may can see the seriousness of sin, obtain forgiveness of our sins, and have a demonstration as proof that God truly does love us. 



Edwin F. Hatfield, “William Bingham Tappan 1794-1849” The Poets of the Church – A Series of Biographical Sketches of Hymn Writers With Notes on Their Hymns, New York, NY:  Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1884, pp. 591-593.
V. E. Howard, Editor, and Broadus E. Smith, Associate Editor, Church Gospel Songs & Hymns, Texarkana, TX:  Central Printers & Publishers, 1983.
Robert Guy McCutchan, Our Hymnody, Nashville, TN:  Abingdon Press, 1937.
John P. Wiegand, Editor, Praise for the Lord, Nashville, TN:  Praise Press, 1997.

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