Saturday, August 5, 2017
Sun of My Soul -- John Keble
A poet-preacher was he. The Englishman John Keble was still a young man, practicing his craft and building upon his faith when he wrote “Sun of My Soul” as a result of some study in which he had been engaged in 1820. He was no doubt thinking about the congregation he served, and how his discovery of something in scripture could be a stepping stone for their worship. He eventually would roll this poem and many others into a collection for use by his audience seven years later, but claiming credit for it was not one of Keble’s objectives. He tried to maintain his anonymity, but his reputation as a poet while at Oxford – where he’d been educated – made his fingerprints on “Sun of My Soul” too apparent. His subject in the poem was also a mystery – for a while. (The “Light of the World” painting by William Holman Hunt [shown here] hangs in the Keble College at Oxford today, a physical reminder of the Son-light of whom he wrote.)
John Keble had a background that served him well and contributed to his poetic nature and the ministry he inhabited for the rest of his life, and even beyond. John’s father was in professional ministry in England’s church, giving John his foundation of faith and later his study at Oxford. His outstanding performance in school somehow contrasted with a humility in John that translated into a position at Oxford for the following decade, where he most likely was when “Sun of My Soul” was penned. “Evening” was the poem’s original title, which enlightens its readers as to its setting – a nighttime scene. John had evidently been reading about Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with two despondent Emmaus travelers (Luke 24), and their desire to have Him remain with them for the evening meal. Though His identity was hidden from their eyes for most of that episode, the two disciples knew Jesus in due course, remarking that his presence had enlightened them—‘(their) hearts burning within…’, like a sun. John’s poem was among the many published by 1827 in “The Christian Year”, a volume that Keble , incognito, wished to use to further church worship, in tandem with the Anglican Book of Prayer. So, his poem was not projected originally as a hymn, yet its widespread popularity dictated otherwise. Over 100 editions of this poetry collection were published by the end of Keble’s life in the 1860s, and a college at Oxford was named for the poet in 1869, testifying to his influence. By 1873, 158 editions of his poetry volume had spread throughout Christendom. Keble College at Oxford still exists today, along with the Evening hymn – “Sun of My Soul”—that he wrote there.
John Keble was evidently imagining what it must have been like for those two Emmaus travelers to see and talk with the Lord, to finally recognize who this was that had brightened their outlook so profoundly. His six verses convey the consolation, and moreover, the exhilaration that we believers experience in knowing that Jesus is not dead. Though at times I feel as those two did at first on that resurrection day, Keble reminds me that everyone’s eyes can open to the reality, incredible though it may be. It’s not just any other day, it is indeed RESURRECTION day. As big and as enduring as our sun in space, and more, is our God.
See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1985; and A Treasury of Hymn Stories, by Amos R. Wells, Baker Book House, 1945.
See this site for all six of the original verses: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/htm/s/u/n/sunosoul.htm
Short biography of the composer: http://www.hymntime.com/tch/bio/k/e/b/keble_j.htm
See this site for a more lengthy biography of the composer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Keble