One of the most interesting “thanksgiving hymns” is Come, Ye Thankful People, Come, written by Henry Alford. The song’s theme is focused on harvest time, it is true, but uses it as metaphor to teach about coming judgment.
Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;
All is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide for our wants to be supplied;
Come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home.
The first verse has several elements to note. Alford begins here by reminding believers of the goodness of God in harvest. He also brings out the themes of harvest with which he will utilize later–“All is safely gathered in.” In my musing over this hymn, I suppose that “raise the song of harvest home” may refer to bringing the song of harvest sung in the fields to home. And it seems that “home” here will serve as a metaphor to our eternal Home, our eternal Rest.
All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield;
Wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown.
First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.
Now Alford begins the metaphor itself, largely built off our Lord’s parable in Matthew 13. We learn that all the world is a field for God, which he has planted in order to bring for to himself. Both wheat and tares, however, have been planted in this field, and we will not know until the end who was a child of God and who was his enemy. Not until “the full corn” or fruit appears do we really find out the difference between the two. The final line is a prayer in response to this truth: “Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be.”
For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take His harvest home;
From His field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.
The third stanza continues to exposit the parable of the Lord. Judgment is promised to the tares, and salvation is promised to the “fruitful ears.” All “offsenses” (sins being used for the sinners, I suppose) will be damned in that day, and the angels will cast the tares into the fire, as put forth in Mt 13:30, “Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.” The “fruitful ears” are gathered to be stored “in His garner evermore.” A traditional dispensationalist will understand this time of judgment and salvation to refer to the end of the tribulation when the Lord comes back to judge those on the earth who were not raptured, though it is possible that the Lord here in the parable may not be attempting to refer to an actual end-time event but an end-time principle: judgment for the unrighteous and salvation for the righteous, and the reality that these two groups live side by side until the end of the judgment. I should also mention the vivid imagery in the third line, “Giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast.” I believe that songs about judgment with imagery such as this are good to have sung in the church of God. In a day where all talk of judgment seems to have left even the most conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches, these images are sure to startle some. But it is hymns such as these with which the word of Christ is dwelling richly in the congregation, and should be sung to give us reminders of the judgment that comes on those who do not have faith in the Christ.
Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring Thy final harvest home;
Gather Thou Thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
There, forever purified, in Thy garner to abide;
Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
The last stanza is a prayer to the Lord, not only to come quickly, but to bring salvation. Do you not with me find this first line refreshing? “Even so, Lord, quickly come.” Alford has the audacity to ask the Lord to come after he has just penned two stanzas talking about possible judgment coming! Oh, what a standing we have in Christ, whereas, even though we deserve to be cast into the fire with the other tares, we know that in Christ we have righteousness. “Bring thy final harvest home,” he says, refreshing in our minds the prayer from the first stanza of the hymn. We are to be gathered in “free from sorrow, free from sin”–gathered in with the righteousness of Christ being our righteousness, purified forever in God’s garner, or the eternal state. “Come, with all Thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.
This hymn is most powerful, because it says to us, “this is what harvest should remind you of”–the coming judgment and salvation of God. He will cast out the tares just like we throw out the weeds. He will save the fruitful ears just like we love to eat the fruitful ears. He will bring us home and put us in his garner, just like we store our food in our barns. This is what harvest points to–salvation and judgment in the end of the age.
And what does this hymn do in the end? Reminds us why we are “thankful people.” In a certain sense, this hymn has very little to do with thanksgiving–after all, it is about judgment and wrath and salvation and eschatology in a coming Lord who is to be feared and dreadfully hoped in. This is one of the reasons I am always amazed when people sing it at thanksgiving. But, on the other hand, it is all about thanksgiving, for it reminds us what harvest time points to–larger and greater truths about the world–and it reminds us why were are thankful–because the Lord who has made and will make us “fruitful ears” will gather us into His garner. We are “the Thankful People” spoken of in the first line because we have experienced our Lord’s rich salvation.