Many of the great hymns of the faith have been penned when the authors faced a tragedy or suffered from great physical pain or emotional distress. William Cowper (1731-1800), the author of this hymn, experienced a number of tragic events in his life, beginning with the death of his mother when he was six years old. It is said that he suffered from depression all of his life. The son of an Anglican clergyman, Cowper studied for the law, but was so intimidated at the prospect of the law exam that he attempted suicide. Cowper was institutionalized in a mental asylum for a time. Upon his release, he went to church where he met the Reverend Morely Unwin and his wife, Mary. The Unwins took Cowper under their wing, and Cowper lived with them for more than two decades. When Rev. Unwin fell from a horse and was killed, John Newton (author of the hymn, "Amazing Grace") came to the Unwin home to pay his respects. He persuaded Cowper and Mrs. Unwin to move to Olney, where Newton served as the pastor of a church. Behind her new home was a beautiful garden where Cowper and Newton met nearly every day to work on their hymns. Then Mary Unwin became seriously ill, and it appeared that she would die. Cowper began to experience severe depression again, because Mary had been a mother figure to him and his best friend. That crisis, in 1772, inspired him to write "O for a Closer Walk with God", words that comforted him in his distress. The day after he penned these words he wrote: "She is the chief of blessings I have met with in my journey since the Lord was pleased to call me. ... Her illness has been a sharp trial to me. Oh, that it may have a sanctified effect, that I may rejoice to surrender up to the Lord my dearest comforts, the moment He may require them. ... I began to compose the verses yesterday morning, before daybreak, but fell asleep at the end of the first two lines: When I awakened, the third and fourth were whispered to my heart in a way which I have often experienced." Fortunately, Mary recovered from her illness. Cowper, who had written poetry for most of his life, worked with Newton on a collection of hymns that they entitled Olney Hymns. That collection included 280 of Newton's hymns and 68 of Cowper's hymns, including this one. Through his trials and depression, Cowper's desire was to have a closer walk with God. But, like most of us, at times he strayed and missed "the blessedness" and the peace which He experienced when He was walking with God. To walk with God requires us to "walk in the Spirit" (Galatians 6:16, 25) and be submissive to Him and dependent on Him. And if sin raises a barrier between us or if there is an "idol" which stands in the way of our relationship, we need to confess it to restore the intimacy with Him that we once knew. Is it your desire to have a closer walk with Him? Are there things that are hindering you in that walk? If there are, then confess them to Him today and ask Him to "tear" them away and restore the joy of your salvation. May our daily prayer be, "O for a closer walk with God".
1. O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!
2. Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?
3. What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.
4. The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
5. So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
Listen to this hymn here. LISTEN
(note - Cowper's words have been put to numerous melodies over the years. The one chosen here is probably the most commonly used one in hymnbooks.)