the promise is not vain

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O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain,
that morn shall tearless be.

We don’t often use the word vain in the same way people did in 1882. We mostly think that vain means “having too high an opinion of oneself, spending too many hours admiring oneself in the mirror, egotistical, prideful, self-glorifying.”

But when George Matheson wrote his poignant words about tracing the rainbow through the rain, his use of vain meant this: producing no result, barren, ineffectual, hollow.

Matheson meant that God’s promises are not hollow. They are not barren. Morn will tearless be!

A trust born not from a life of ease

Forty years before he penned those words, Matheson was born with poor eyesight. He made his way through to advanced 1800’s Scottish schooling, but then his sight failed, and almost completely blind, he had to rely on his sisters for care. They helped him through school, and he wrote scholarly studies of scripture before his eyesight failed completely. In his 30s by then, and no longer able to see to write, God began to use Matheson to preach to thousands. But more and more as the years went on, he had to rely on one special sister for help.

It’s said that he fell in love during those years, but when he asked her to marry him, she said no. Her reason: his blindness. So then, at 40, on the night before his care-giving sister’s own wedding, he found himself alone and wrote about tracing rainbows through the rain:

My hymn was com­posed in the manse of In­ne­lan on the ev­en­ing of the 6th of June, 1882, when I was 40 years of age. I was alone in the manse at that time. It was the night of my sister’s mar­ri­age, and the rest of the fam­i­ly were stay­ing over­night in Glas­gow. Some­thing hap­pened to me, which was known only to my­self, and which caused me the most se­vere men­tal suf­fer­ing. The hymn was the fruit of that suf­fer­ing. It was the quick­est bit of work I ever did in my life. I had the im­press­ion of hav­ing it dic­tat­ed to me by some in­ward voice ra­ther than of work­ing it out my­self. I am quite sure that the whole work was com­plet­ed in five min­utes, and equal­ly sure that it ne­ver re­ceived at my hands any re­touch­ing or cor­rect­ion. I have no na­tur­al gift of rhy­thm. All the other vers­es I have ever writ­ten are man­u­fact­ured ar­ti­cles; this came like a day­spring from on high.

Matheson’s trust wasn’t born from a life of ease. In fact, the hymn written on a night of loneliness and suffering is the one that quickens our hearts these hundred-plus years later.

The promise to you is not vain

O believer in Jesus, trace the rainbow through your own rain! Know the promise is not vain that morn shall tearless be! Pray for a heart that trusts, and rests even when weary, in the Lord’s love. Do not close your heart to Jesus, whose very presence is Joy. For no matter your own suffering or loneliness, the Lord, whose love will not let you go, will one day do this:

“He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8)

Indelible Grace set Matheson’s 1882 hymn to new music. You can listen here: O Love That Will Not Let Me Go. And you can read his whole hymn here:

O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

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About Jill

I'm a wife, mom to three beautiful children, and currently work at two jobs for which I'm very grateful -- part-time at my kids' school, and as children's ministry director at Redeemer PCA in Athens, GA, a place our family treasures as our church home. It's been thirty years since the Lord saved me, and to this day I'm astounded at His steadfast love shed upon unfaithful me. My hope would be that I might speak and write in ways God would use to soften hearts toward Him, that we would together be enamored by the glorious beauty of Jesus and awakened to His love unimagined. Thanks so much for reading!
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