As we continue to ponder various advent hymns, let’s turn our attention to one that is much more familiar to Anglicans and Methodists than to Catholics: “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” In fact, it is considered one of the “Great Four Anglican Hymns.” Its text was written by John Cennick and Charles Wesley in 1758. Deriving much of its content from the Book of Revelation, it is a magnificent meditation on the glorious Second Coming of Christ. Gustave Doré (1868)
Let’s consider the hymn verse by verse. Several of the verses draw on an opening vision in the Book of Revelation: Behold, he cometh with the clouds, and every eye shall see him: and they also that pierced him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of him. Even so. Amen (Rev 1:7). Depending on their state some will be consoled, and others confronted, but they shall all behold him. The opening verse sets the scene:
Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
God appears on earth to reign.
Scripture attests that Christ alone is the judge. Jesus says, The Father judges no man: but has given all judgment to the Son, that all men may honor the Son, as they honor the Father. He who honors not the Son honors not the Father who has sent him (John 5:22-23). However, although He alone is the Judge, He does not come alone. Myriad holy ones, saints, attend Him. Here we need not think of saints as merely human beings, for among the holy ones are angels, such as Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. Scripture says, When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him (Matt 25:31-32). Similarly, of the heavenly company it is said that in addition to the 144,000 from the tribes of Israel, there is also a multitude too large to count, from every nation and tribe and people and tongue, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9).
It is as Joel prophesied:Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:14).
Every eye shall now behold Him
Robed in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.
The Book of Malachi describes the Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. In that vision there are two groups whose reactions and experiences are quite different. Of unrepentant sinners it is said, For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace, when all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble; the day is coming when I will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of Hosts. “Not a root or branch will be left to them (Malachi 4:1). But of those who repented and sought the Lord it is said, But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings, and you will go out and leap like calves from the stall (Mal 4:2). Yes, for those who have been brought up to the temperature of glory and are accustomed to the light, the Day of the Lord will be as a beautiful, sunlit day. For the unrepentant, that same fiery light will seem an inferno of blazing heat and blinding light. This distinction unfolds in this and the following verses.
Here and in the next verse, those who pierced and nailed him now see what they have done—they opposed and killed our very God and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Lord speaks of their angry lament as the “wailing and grinding of teeth” (e.g., Matt 22:13, 24:51).
Every island, sea, and mountain,
Heaven and earth, shall flee away;
All who hate Him must, confounded,
Hear the trump proclaim the day:
Come to judgment! Come to judgment!
Come to judgment! Come away!
Creation itself falls back before the glory of God. The entire cosmos seems swept aside. The Lord judges the living and the dead by fire. This fiery judgement will remake and renew the created world, which has longed for this day. St. Paul attests, Creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, but in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. Yes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Romans 8:19-22). But now the trumpet has sounded (1 Cor 15:52); the earth yields its dead, and all creation with humanity stands before God.
Now redemption, long expected,
See in solemn pomp appear;
All His saints, by man rejected,
Now shall meet Him in the air:
See the day of God appear!
In this verse, attention is turned to those who rejoice on this Great and Terrible Day of the Lord. Here, the Lord answers the martyrs cry, which John heard; I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had upheld. And they cried out in a loud voice, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe and told to rest a little while longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers, were killed, just as they had been killed (Rev 6:9-11). Yes, here is the reckoning and revelation of those who won through by the Blood of the Lamb, as opposed to those who rejected His offer of salvation.
Answer Thine own bride and Spirit,
Hasten, Lord, the general doom!
The new Heaven and earth inherit,
Take Thy pining exiles home:
All creation, all creation,
Travails! groans! and bids Thee come!
Here, the Church, the Lord’s Bride, also rejoices, for her stance has always been, as St. John says,[The Spirit and the bride say,] “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely…. He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:17,20). All creation groans, too, seeking to hasten the Lord’s return: We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time (Rom 8:22).
The dear tokens of His passion
Still His dazzling body bears;
Cause of endless exultation
To His ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
The Lord’s scars are the glorious sign of His love and His conquest. Another hymn of the Church, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” has this among its lyrics:
Behold His hands and side;
Rich wounds yet visible above
In beauty glorified:
No angel in the sky
Can fully bear that sight,
But downward bends his burning eye
At mysteries so bright.
Finally, let’s look at last verse our great hymn, the doxology:
Yea, Amen! let all adore Thee,
High on Thine eternal throne;
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own;
O come quickly! O come quickly!
Everlasting God, come down!
It is truly a literary masterpiece; it masterfully sums up the Book of Revelation and paints a picture of the Second Coming in sweeping, majestic poetry. Cherish it and meditate on it frequently.
In the performance below, it is sung to the tune “Helmsley,” which was first published in 1763: