250 years ago, in 1772-73, Britain was in the grip of the worst economic crisis in its history to that point. In economic history it is known as the 1772-3 Credit Crisis. There was not a business in the land that was not affected. The Scottish ‘Ayr Bank’ failed, and the entire British economy teetered on the edge of collapse. There could hardly have been a single person in the country not effected to some extent by the crisis, either directly or indirectly by rising food prices and cost of living. The sense of uncertainty and bleakness would have been widespread as the nation celebrated the new year of 1773.
Along with this there were the first rumblings in the movement that would bring about the abolition of the slave trade in Britain. The trade in slaves was a, probably the, mainstay of the British economy at the time. The so-called ‘triangular trade’ saw merchant ships leaving the UK (mainly from Bristol and Liverpool) carrying European goods to trade for slaves in Northwest Africa. Slaves were then taken, packed into the merchant ships in terrible, cramped an insanitary conditions, to the plantations in the West Indies and Southern parts of what is now the USA. Cheap labour was essential for the economic viability of the plantations and the continuous supply of human chattel met the need. Those slaves who survived the journey were traded for sugar, cotton and tobacco which was then shipped back to the UK to be sold for profit. The triangle then repeated. The trade was so embedded in the British economy that it could not be abolished without very serious consequences. Abolition would mean bankruptcy for many of the most wealthy aristocrats, landowners and businessmen in the nation who held large financial investments in the plantations, and therefore in slavery. Banks and financial institutions were heavily invested in the trade making this lucrative business a way of comfortable living. Yet in 1772, in the so called ‘Somersett Case,’ the courts awarded freedom to a fugitive slave with the judgement that ‘slavery does not exist under English common law’. Here was the beginning of the end for this major foundation of the British economy. 35 years later, after a long fight, slavery was eventually abolished across the British Empire on 25th March 1807. Abolition occurred nine months before the death of John Newton who had become a, somewhat reluctant, prime mover in the fight. He had known the slave trade from the inside for more than a decade and later became a right-hand man to William Wilberforce, the public leader, spokesman and negotiator in the abolitionist movement.
John Newton was ordained into the Church of England in 1764 at the age of 39, leaving his career at sea behind him. He was appointed minister at St Peter and St Paul’s church, Olney in Buckinghamshire where he served for 16 years until, in 1780 he moved to East London where he spent the rest of his life.
In Olney Newton was a hardworking and popular pastor. His care for people was foremost in his ministry. He was a Christian first and an Anglican second. When he was initially rejected for ordination in the Church of England he had applied to the Methodists and the Presbyterians to see if they would have him! Church polity was, it seems, of minimal importance to him. He threw himself wholeheartedly into his parish, giving himself to spiritual, pastoral care, sometimes at cost to himself and his reputation. His care for the great hymnwriter William Cowper raised more than one eyebrow. Due to severe depression Cowper lived as a virtual recluse, hardly, if ever, attending church. Newton cared for him like a brother, visiting him regularly, reading the Scriptures and praying with him. Together Newton and Cowper collaborated in the production of ‘OIney Hymns’.
Newton was a great diarist, hymn writer, preacher, and wise counsellor. He was only a very reluctant activist in the abolitionist cause. But above all he loved the Bible, he had taught himself Greek and Hebrew before his ordination so that he could read it in its original languages. It was the Bible, more than anything else, that had led him to Christ and now shaped his life and ministry. He sought to live by it, and he encouraged others to do the same. It was the Scriptures that informed his whole life, his personal walk with God, and his pastoral ministry. It is, after all, God’s written word so must be taken seriously.
On 1st January 1772, nine years into his ministry at Olney, and 250 years ago today, the Bible passage Newton was to preach on was 1 Chronicles 17. He would often produce a hymn arising from the Bible reading and his meditations upon it. This would embed the major theological points of his sermon in the minds of the congregation as they sang. The words of a hymn, especially when set to a well-known tune, are more easily remembered than simple narrative. Many of Newton’s hymns can be found in most hymn books as well as Newtn and Cowper’s own ‘Olney Hymns.’ The hymn he penned for this New Year’s Day began ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me’. This hymn has since become one of the most familiar hymns ever written. It is one of the very few hymns to have made it into the pop charts. The words are familiar to many people, and it is frequently requested at weddings and funerals, often because it’s the only hymn people can recall. Yet very few indeed, know its origins.
1 Chronicles 17
1 Chronicles 17 is a key chapter in the God’s covenant history with His people. It is in the chapter that God reaffirms His covenant with king David. So, let’s consider the chapter and its context:
Twenty years before the events of this chapter the Ark of Covenant, the symbol of God’s covenant presence with His people, had been lost in battle to the Philistines by King Saul (1 Samuel 5). Saul, in desperation for victory, had taken the Ark into battle as a kind of lucky talisman. The Philistines considered they had achieved a great victory and put the Ark in their temple next their god Dagon, perhaps believing that adding another god would bring them greater success. However, the following morning Dagon had fallen flat on his face! They stood him back up, but the next morning there he was again, flat on his face. Only this time his hands and head had broken off! So, they sent the Ark around the country trying to find a safe place to keep it. None could be found, it caused mayhem wherever it went. Eventually they decided it was best to return it to Israel. They managed to get the ark as far as Kireath-Jearim where it stayed in the house of Abinadab for 20 years.
The Ark of the Covenant represented God, yes, but specifically it represented God’s covenant with His people. It had been constructed in the wilderness to God’s very precise instructions, and then carried before the people of Israel as they journey towards the promised land. It represented God’s promise to lead and protect His people, to give them a land of their own. To be their God and they His people in His place under His protection. To look at the Ark of the Covenant was be reminded of God’s covenant promises.
Back to In 1 Chronicles 17. David, now king in Israel, having taken Jerusalem from the Jebusites, wanted to restore the Ark of the Covenant to its rightful place, at the heart of the nation, God’s chosen people. The new capital city of Jerusalem. Symbolically this would restore God, and His covenant promises, to their rightful place. So, with a small hiccough which cost another three months (you can find out about this in 1 Chronicles 13), David finally retrieved the Ark from Kireath-Jearim and brought it to Jerusalem. And so we arrive at our passage, 1 Chronicles 17.
David’s desire (1-2)
David, being the great king he was, lived in a palace. But the Ark of God was kept in a tent. David was concerned about this, it was not right. After all, we keep the Crown Jewells in a castle with the best security we can arrange. We allow visitors to view them but only with security guards present and careful crowd control. The USA keeps an original copy of their constitution (1789) in a similar way, heavily guarded. Yet, the Ark of God was in a tent in Jerusalem. Consequently David, in his desire to honour God, wanted to build a house (temple) to house the Ark of God. And, being a godly man, he consulted God on the matter before going ahead, via God’s prophet, Nathan (v1).
Nathan considers the request a ‘no brainer’ and immediately answer, yes, of course you must do this. Get on with it (v2). But God then stepped in.
God’s refusal (3-6)
The following night God tells Nathan he’s made a mistake. It’s not a glorious house that matters but following God and keeping His covenant. God then gives a message for Nathan to pass on to David. A message full of gracious, covenant hope.
God addresses David (7-15)
God’s message is full of covenant language of promise. You see, David had a concern to put God and His covenant promises back at the heart of the nation. God honours that concern by reaffirming His covenant with David.
God’s covenant document to His people leaving slavery in Egypt and heading for the promised land began with a reminder of His gracious, saving action: “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt”. We know this document as the Ten Commandments or the Decalogue. God’s covenant to David begins in the same way with a reminder of God’s gracious, saving action: “I took you from the pasture … to be a prince over my people” (v7). Then God makes a series of gracious covenant promises to David:
- “I will make for you a name …” (v8)
- You will live in my appointed place of safety (v9-10a)
- The Lord will build you a house (v10b)
- Your son will reign and know God’s blessing in his kingdom (v11)
- Your son will build a house for God, and his throne will be eternal (v12)
- God will be a father to him and establish his forever (v13-14)
Now we need to recognise the importance of this covenant promise. Yes, David’s son, Solomon, built God’s temple. But his kingdom was not eternal. He died. So, did God fail? Absolutely not! a son of David will reign eternally. God will build him a spiritual house and establish his kingdom forever. The true ‘son of David’ here is, of course, Jesus Christ. He was born a descendant (son) of David, in the town of David (Bethlehem). He was born within God’s covenant people (cf. Matt 1). God has established a kingdom that is eternal. A New covenant people in union with Christ our head, in God’s place, under God’s care forever. It is exactly this language that Peter picks up on in the second chapter of his first letter, ‘As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ (1 Peter 2v4-5)
David prays (16-27)
David’s response to God’s gracious promises is to pray:
- To praise God (v17-20)
- To thank God for His blessings (25-27)
- for His grace (v16)
- for His covenant love (v21-24)
So how does this fit with John Newton’s hymn? I am indebted to the work of Marylyn Rouse of the John Newton Project here who pointed me to the following. Let’s take each stanza of the original hymn in turn:
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!
Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yes, when this flesh and heart shall fail
And mortal life shall cease;
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
The earth shall soon dissolve like snow,
The sun forbear to shine;
But God, who called me here below,
Will be forever mine.
v12, 14, 22, 23, 24, 27