John Bowring wrote the words of this hymn. Bowring was a brilliant man who had a special gift for languages. He is reputed to have learned a hundred different languages during his lifetime, and translated poetry into English from a number of languages. Because he was brilliant and good with languages, the British government appointed him to a number of jobs that required him to travel throughout Europe as well as to Syria and even Siam—modern Thailand. He learned Chinese and served as the British governor of Hong Kong in the mid-1800s.
“Watchman, Tell Us of the Night” was probably inspired by a rather obscure oracle in Isaiah 21:11-12, which says:
“One calls to me out of Seir,
‘Watchman, what of the night?
Watchman, what of the night?’
The watchman said,
‘The morning comes, and also the night.
If you will inquire, inquire. Come back again.'”
The darkness of night presents many dangers, so a watchman would need to be especially alert during the hours of darkness. The dark of night is also when gremlins and goblins run through our consciousness and disturb our sleep. Darkness inspires both fear and depression.
In this hymn, each verse is composed of two short speeches by a traveler (each speech is two lines). The watchman answers each of these short speeches with a short response (each response is two lines).
The traveler asks the watchman for “signs of promise”—and asks whether a beautiful star promises joy and hope. The watchman assures the traveler that it does (v. 1).
The traveler asks further about the star, and the watchman says that the star promises blessedness and light—peace and truth (v. 2).
The traveler notes that the dawn is near, and the watchman acknowledges that doubt and terror lose their power when “darkness takes its flight” (v. 3). The third verse closes with these words:
“Watchman, let thy wandering cease;
Hide thee to thy quiet home!
Traveler, lo, the Prince of Peace,
Lo, the Son of God is come!”
We associate this hymn with Advent and Christmas, when we are celebrating the coming of the Prince of Peace, the Son of God.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan