Lenten Hymns and their Story

March 20, 2023

“Go to Dark Gethsemane”

The author of this hymn, James Montgomery (1771-1854), is a declining star in the world of English hymn writers. During his lifetime, he wrote approximately 400 sacred lyrics, and fourteen of them made it into our Lutheran Hymnals. Among them, are “Angels from the Realms of Glory”, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”, “Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain”, and “Go to Dark Gethsemane”.
Montgomery wrote this hymn as a meditation as a meditation upon the Passion of Christ. This is an old genre of sacred poetry, and can be found in writings as far back as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).
When he published his final version of this hymn, he called it “Christ our Example in Suffering”, a title that certainly reveals it’s theme. The Gospel invites us to contemplate Christ in His Passion as our Savior from sin. But the Law presents Him as a model for Christian living.
On the one hand, the poet has given us pictures of our Lord’s humility – the “bitter hour” of Gethsemane, the “wormwood and the gall” of His trial. [wormwood is a bitter-tasting herb, and gall is an animal bile used in medicine] He uses five important imperatives in just the first verse – go, see, watch, turn, and learn. He believes the Passion is not only for viewing, but also for living.
Each verse concludes with a command that presents a life lesson to be learned from critical moments in Jesus’ last days of earthy life as the poet takes the reader from Maundy Thursday to Easter. Montgomery summarizes each of the first three verses in the same way: “learn from” Jesus Christ “to pray”, “to bear the cross” and “to die”.
The fourth verse is different, for the Passion ends not only in death but also in a resurrection that transforms the circumstances of the first disciples by means of the angel’s announcement: “Christ is risen!” No wonder this author changes over to the words, “Jesus teach us so to rise.”

Go to dark Gethsemane, all who feel the tempter’s pow’r;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see, watch with Him one bitter hour;
Turn not from His griefs away; learn from Jesus Christ to pray.

LSB 436

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