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Monday, March 21, 2011

Wrestling Jacob

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Charles Wesley. His way of weaving together profound theology and scriptural language into lyrical form goes unmatched in my opinion. Wesley’s songs have been used since their creation in the church’s worship. However, in Charles and John’s original collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, many of Charles’ lyrics were meant for devotional use as well. The collection was a means of teaching people Christian life and theology.

One of Charles Wesley’s greatest hymns that seldom gets attention today is “Wrestling Jacob,” also known as “Come, O, Thou Traveler Unknown.” The lack of attention it receives may have something to do with its length, as well as the fact that it is difficult to eliminate verses of the song without disrupting the structure and flow of the hymn.

The hymn takes an “inside-out” allegorical approach to scripture. This approach looks at the a scripture passage, places the person inside the story as if it part of their own testimony, and reinterprets the scripture thusly. In particular, “Wrestling Jacob” is a meditation on Charles Wesley’s own conversion through the story of Jacob and the angel found in Genesis 32:22-32. Charles becomes a figure of Jacob while the angel becomes a figure of Christ.

These lines are rich. They are beautiful. They are moving. Isaac Watts was even quoted in John’s obituary tribute to his brother Charles as having said, “…that single poem, ‘Wrestling Jacob,’ is worth all the verses I myself have written.” Certainly high praise from one of the greatest English hymn-writers of all time.  

Take a moment and read through the text of these lines. Place yourself in the story. Bask in their beauty. As we continue in this season of Lent, may these lines resonate with your own journey.

Come, O thou Traveler unknown,

Whom still I hold, but cannot see!

My company before is gone,

And I am left alone with Thee;

With Thee all night I mean to stay,

And wrestle till the break of day.

I need not tell Thee who I am,

My misery and sin declare;

Thyself hast called me by my name,

Look on Thy hands, and read it there;

But who, I ask Thee, who art Thou?

Tell me Thy name, and tell me now.

In vain Thou strugglest to get free,

I never will unloose my hold!

Art Thou the Man that died for me?

The secret of Thy love unfold;

Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,

Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

Wilt Thou not yet to me reveal

Thy new, unutterable Name?

Tell me, I still beseech Thee, tell;

To know it now resolved I am;

Wrestling, I will not let Thee go,

Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

’Tis all in vain to hold Thy tongue

Or touch the hollow of my thigh;

Though every sinew be unstrung,

Out of my arms Thou shalt not fly;

Wrestling I will not let Thee go

Till I Thy name, Thy nature know.

What though my shrinking flesh complain,

And murmur to contend so long?

I rise superior to my pain,

When I am weak, then I am strong

And when my all of strength shall fail,

I shall with the God-man prevail.

My strength is gone, my nature dies,

I sink beneath Thy weighty hand,

Faint to revive, and fall to rise;

I fall, and yet by faith I stand;

I stand and will not let Thee go

Till I Thy Name, Thy nature know.

Yield to me now, for I am weak,

But confident in self-despair;

Speak to my heart, in blessings speak,

Be conquered by my instant prayer;

Speak, or Thou never hence shalt move,

And tell me if Thy Name is Love.

’Tis Love! ‘tis Love! Thou diedst for me!

I hear Thy whisper in my heart;

The morning breaks, the shadows flee,

Pure, universal love Thou art;

To me, to all, Thy bowels move;

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

My prayer hath power with God; the grace

Unspeakable I now receive;

Through faith I see Thee face to face,

I see Thee face to face, and live!

In vain I have not wept and strove;

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

I know Thee, Savior, who Thou art.

Jesus, the feeble sinner’s friend;

Nor wilt Thou with the night depart.

But stay and love me to the end,

Thy mercies never shall remove;

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

The Sun of righteousness on me

Hath rose with healing in His wings,

Withered my nature’s strength; from Thee

My soul its life and succor brings;

My help is all laid up above;

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.

Contented now upon my thigh

I halt, till life’s short journey end;

All helplessness, all weakness I

On Thee alone for strength depend;

Nor have I power from Thee to move:

Thy nature, and Thy name is Love.

Lame as I am, I take the prey,

Hell, earth, and sin, with ease o’ercome;

I leap for joy, pursue my way,

And as a bounding hart fly home,

Through all eternity to prove

Thy nature and Thy Name is Love.


  1. I think you and I discussed that this was the hymn that John was teaching to a congregation about 3 weeks after Charles' died where John started weeping (verse 1, line 3) uncontrollably. Thank you for posting this, Jonathan!!

  2. Yeah, you're totally right, Jeff. There is deep emotion wrapped up in so much of this hymn - I think John was probably feeling a million different things at the time! And that's one of the things I appreciate so much about both him and Charles - emotion was an important element of spirituality. Not over-emotionalism, but they didn't fall into the far greater danger (that was common in their era) of eliminating emotion altogether!

  3. I don't recall off hand if Charles wrote music for this song as well but the rendition in the UM hymnal is pretty awesome, especially for guitar. I played it last July for our 100th anniversary church celebration up in Jonesville and although only one of the 150 people there knew the song, she really liked it and I think everyone got into it. I wonder why it's not more of a worship standard?

  4. Thank you for the comment! You are right - the music in the UM hymnal is absolutely beautiful. Though there has been various music settings put to these lyrics, the one in the current UM Hymnal is my favorite. Charles did not write that tune - it is an old Scottish folk tune by the common name of "Candler." (The Scottish folk song is Ye Banks and Braes.)

    I think is usually is not sung mainly due to its length. Of course, the current hymnal cuts the song down to four stanzas, but most people agree the full impact of the song is lost when some verses get omitted. Still, since the hymnal provides an option for a pared down version, I don't know why it still gets overlooked. The words and tune are beautiful together.

    I've always wanted to find a good version of this on guitar. I have experimented around with chords, but I've wanted to hear other versions out there. Unfortunately, there aren't many. Is there somewhere you found either a chord chart or recording of this song on guitar? I'd love to have that resource if possible! Thanks!

  5. I'm not sure I had ever heard that hymn before, to be honest. It tells the story well, and I think the wrestling that we all go through in our own soul.

  6. So true. That's one of the things I love about these types of Charles' hymns - he's able to make it personal yet deeply scriptural. He finds his story within the greater narrative. Amazing.

  7. I just picked the melody as an intro and ending and played some "hammered" suspensions in the chords to help imitate the Scottish style. I will see if I can tab it out for you.

  8. Where are the other 36 stanzas? Did you know that the Methodists sang this song to the tune of a local beer drinking song? It was very lively and enjoyable to hear. Not like the funeral hymns sung today.

    1. Some confuse beauty with funeral homes...