“BRIEF LIFE IS HERE OUR PORTION”

Wayne S. Walker

“Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them….There will be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21.3-4).

      INTRO.:  A song which pictures heaven as a place where God will dwell with His people and there will be no more pain is “Brief Life Is Here Our Portion.”  The text is attributed to Bernard of Cluny, also known as Bernard of Morlaix (early 12th century, c. 1122-1156).  It is taken from a section, Hic breve vivitur, of a 3,000 line medieval poem, De Contemptu Mundi (On the Contemptableness of the World), beginning Hora novissima, tempora pessima, sunt, vigilemus, which was produced around 1140-1145.  The English translation was made by John Mason Neale (1818-1866).  He found 95 lines of the poem in Trench’s 1849 Sacred Latin Poetry and translated portions of it in his own 1851 Medieval Hymns and Sequences.  Due to the splendid response to his efforts, he translated 218 more lines from the original poem in his 1858 Rhythm of Bernard of Morlaix, Monk of Cluny.  Eight hymns have been taken from Neale’s translation, including “Jerusalem the Golden” and “For Thee, O Dear, Dear Country.”

     The tune (St. Alphege) to which this song is usually set, at least in the books used among churches of Christ, was composed by Henry John Gauntlett, who was born, the son of an Anglican minister, at Wellington in Shropshire, England, on July 9, 1805, and was playing the organ at age nine.  After being educated in both law and music, he was admitted to the bar, but was awarded an honorary Mus.D. degree in 1843 by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his contributions to church music and gave up his practice in 1844 to devote his life to music.  An important figure in Victorian church music, he became an organist and produced over 10,000 hymn tunes, publishing at least five works.  This tune first appeared in the 1852 Church Hymnal and Tune Book which he edited with W. J. Blew.  He died at Kensington in London, England, on Feb. 21, 1876.

     Among hymnbooks published in the 20th century for use in churches of Christ, this hymn was found in the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 (#355) edited by E. L. Jorgenson, and the 1965 Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 (#282) edited by Tillit S. Teddlie.  Today, it can be found in the 1986 Great Songs Revised (#673) edited by Forrest M. McCann and Jack Boyd, and the 1992 Praise for the Lord (#81) edited by John P. Wiegand.  The tune was used with a hymn “Lead, Holy Shepherd, Lead Us” by Clement of Alexandria in the 1925 edition of Great Songs of the Church No. 1 (#188) also edited by Jorgenson.  Of the twelve stanzas that Neale translated for this hymn, only five have been in common use.

     The hymn points our minds to what awaits us in heaven contrasted to earth.

I. Stanza 1 refers to the tearless life
“Brief life is here our portion; Brief sorrow, short lived care;
The life that knows no ending, The tearless life, is there.”
 A. The life that we know here on earth is brief: Ps. 90.9-10
 B. Yet, brief as it is, it is often filled with sorrow and care: Job 14.1-2
 C. In contrast, the tearless life is there, as opposed to here,

II. Stanza 2 refers to the everlasting reward (orig. #5)
“And now we fight the battle, But then shall wear the crown
Of full and everlasting And passionless renown.”
 A. As long as we live in this life, there will be battles to be fought: 1 Tim. 6.12
 B. But then, we shall have won the victory and receive the crown: Rev. 2.10
 C. And once we win this victory, we shall have everlasting life: 2 Jn. 2.25

III. Stanza 3 refers to the morning (orig. #9)
“The morning shall awaken, The shadows flee away,
And each true hearted servant Shall shine as doth the day.”
 A. After the night of sorrow, we can look forward to the joy that will come in the morning: Ps. 30.5
 B. Of course, this morning shall awaken only for those who are true hearted servants of Christ: Rev. 22.1-3
 C. But those servants shall shine as doth the day: Dan. 12.3

IV. Stanza 4 refers to the presence of God (orig. #10)
“There God, our King and Portion, In fullness of His grace,
We then shall see forever, And worship face to face.”
 A. The dwelling place of God, our King and Portion, is heaven: Matt. 6.9
 B. When we are gathered to Him in His dwelling place, we shall sin Him forever: Matt. 5.8
 C. And like the angels, they will worship Him face to face: Rev. 4.1-11

V. Stanza 5 refers to the sweet and blessed country (orig. #11)
“O sweet and blessed country, The home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country, That eager hearts expect!”
 A. Heaven is referred to as a country or a city: Heb. 11.16, 13.14
 B. It is the home of God’s elect, those who have been chosen by Him because they have chosen His way: Rom. 8.33
 C. The elect expect it with eager hearts because their citizenship is in heaven: Phil. 3.20-21

      CONCL.:  Some have objected to hymns like this, saying that they reflect a medieval and thus outmoded concept of heaven.  Therefore, our modern ideas of religion and heaven make it necessary to retranslate the medieval symbols.  However, the fact is that those who wish to please God must still understand the distinction that must be made between the transitoriness of this world and the eternal verities of heaven.  Forrest M. McCann aptly states of this hymn, “It stands a blessed affirmation of hope in a world that needs hope so desparately.”  

It is just as true, as it was in medieval times and even in the first century, that in contrast to the eternal life of heaven, “Brief Life Is Here Our Portion.”

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