I love the poetry and melody of the William Tappan hymn, “‘Tis Midnight, and on Olive’s Brow.” It is also so rich with meaning, but inasmuch as it was written 191 years ago it is possible that its wording gives younger worshippers, new Christians, non-Christian visitors, and a good many of the rest of us difficulty with comprehension. Good worship requires not only proper actions, but mental engagement and a heart-connection with the lyrics.
The first verse begins, “‘Tis midnight, and on Olive’s brow.” Some may have no idea what that means. The song is about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the night He was arrested and ultimately led to the cross. Tappan seems particularly influenced by Luke’s account of the events. While scripture does not single out the hour of midnight, it does indicate Jesus was there at night (see Lk. 22:56, 66; cf. Jn. 18:3; Mt. 26:31, 34; etc.). Luke 22:39 indicates the garden’s location as the Mount of Olives. “Brow” would be a poetic, late Middle English word for the top of a hill. The phrase, “The star is dimmed that lately shown” would simply reinforce the idea of darkness and the anxiety such would add to Jesus’ suffering.
The second verse is pretty self-explanatory, though it might help some to remember that the phrase, “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20) appears to be a humble term the apostle John uses to describe himself in his gospel. “Heeds not” simply means “does not hear”; he had fallen asleep with the rest of Jesus’ inner circle of disciples (Mk. 14:37).
The third verse is also straightforward, though we have another allusion to Luke’s gospel, with “the Man of Sorrows weeps in blood.” Luke 22:44 tells us that Jesus, “being in agony” was “praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood….” The second line of this verse speaks of Jesus’ kneeling in anguish, which Luke cites in the last part of Luke 22:44, saying Christ’s sweat was “falling down upon the ground.”
The last verse might cause some trouble, especially without consulting the footnote found under the song in the “Praise for the Lord” songbook. “‘Tis midnight, and from ether plains is borne the song that angels know,” is, for many, incomprehensible. “Ether plains,” as explained in the book, is a poetic way to reference “upper regions” or “heaven.” The song seems to allude to that part of the garden experience where “an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him” (Lk. 22:43). While this verse of the song seems to strain the meaning of Luke’s words, it is a beautiful thought that angels or even the Father sang to comfort the suffering Son (cf. Heb. 5:7).
We should take the time to understand the words of the songs we sing in worship to God. This keeps worship from being merely external, without heart, and a disconnection. Perhaps, too, it serves as a notice that we should explain the meaning of older songs, especially those couched in language we do not use today. It should also awaken the awareness that we need to incorporate songs in worship that are more contemporary in language and melody along with these beautiful, older songs.