“Let The Lower Lights Be Burning”

One of my favorite church hymns was written by Philip P. Bliss in 1871:

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy, from His lighthouse evermore;
But to us He gives the keeping of the lights along the shore.

Dark the night of sin has settled, loud the angry billows roar;
Eager eyes are watching, longing, for the lights along the shore.

Trim your feeble lamp my brother; some poor sailor tempest-tossed,
Trying now to make the harbor, in the darkness may be lost.

Let the lower lights be burning! Send the gleam across the wave!
Some poor, fainting, struggling seaman you may rescue, you may save.

Apparently, Bliss wrote this song after hearing a story from the famous evangelist D. L. Moody in one of his sermons. On a dark and particularly stormy night, a large passenger boat crept toward Cleveland Harbor. This particular harbor was marked by two lights, one on either side of the harbor, which were called the upper and lower lights. To make a safe entry into the harbor, it was necessary for the incoming ships to see both lights.*

As the boat approached the harbor, the captain asked the pilot, “Are you sure this is Cleveland?” “Quite sure, Sir,” replied the pilot. “Where are the lower lights?” he asked. “Gone out, Sir!” was the reply. The pilot turned the wheel, but in the darkness, he missed the channel. The boat crashed on the rocks and many lives were lost that night. Moody’s closing words were, “Brethren, the Master will take care of the great lighthouse; let us keep the lower lights burning.”

I love this song because it reminds us that while Jesus is the Light of the world, Christians also have a role to play in pointing people to Him. As Jesus said in Matthew 5.16, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven,” and the sad truth of the matter is that there are many people who spend their entire lives stumbling in darkness because the Christians they come in contact with every day fail to let their lights shine as they should.

I also love this song because of the sense of urgency and even desperation it conveys—if we let our lights go out, for even a moment, it may be at that moment that some desperate soul is frantically straining to find the lights of the harbor.

And finally, I love this song because it convicts me—I know that too often, my lamp is too feeble to be seen by anyone who needs it.

*See Ed Reese, “The Life and Ministry of Philip Bliss,” and “The Upper and Lower Lights,” in Moments in the Book.


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