God must be known and felt.
Nobody comes to the Father but through Jesus Christ.
These two truths hold up the life and work of Ann Griffiths (1776-1805) – a young farmer’s wife from rural Montgomeryshire who has been called one of Europe’s leading religious poets. Her hymns articulate personal spiritual experience with theological clarity and a poetic melody. But most of all, they present Christ wonderfully from different perspectives.
This short article is not biographical. Instead, Ann will speak through one of her hymns. Poetry is not always easy. That doesn’t mean that its contents should be watered down. I hope that you’ll be able to see how close a young Christian can be to her Saviour. Ann was only 29 when she died, but her vision was clear and saturated with living hope.
Ann wrote in Welsh, and here we have the original Welsh together with the English translation. Listen to this hymn, and may we all seek after that closer walk with God:
Bererin llesg gan rym y stormydd,
This storm-battered pilgrim (Heb. 11:13) is the sinner. It’s you and me. As we read, we are commanded to look up and see God’s Lamb mediating on our behalf (Rom. 8:34). We look carefully and realise that the Lamb flickers into that high priest (Heb. 4:14). What is he wearing? A loose garment (Ex. 28; Dan. 10:5) and a golden girdle labelled ‘faithfulness’. We can also hear the little bells ringing on the hem of his tunic.
What does it all mean?
The picture is based on the tabernacle in the Old Testament (Ex. 28). Ann visualises Jesus walking into the sanctuary as both priest and Lamb (Heb. 10:12; John 1:29). He re-emerges from the Holy of Holies – bells ringing because the sacrifice pleases God. This great high priest is alive and makes intercession for us (Heb. 7:25). Ultimately, the storm of God’s wrath doesn’t fall on us anymore because of Jesus’s ‘propitiation’ (1 John 2:2). He is storm-calmer, wrath-appeaser and empathiser (Heb. 4:14).
Cleansing waters of purification
But it doesn’t end there. The hymn goes deeper:
Cofiwch hyn mewn stad o wendid,
Yn y dyfroedd at eich fferau sy,
Mai dirifedi yw’r cufyddau
A fesurir i chwi fry;
Er bod yn blant yr atgyfodiad
I nofio yn y dyfroedd hyn,
Ni welir gwaelod byth nac ymyl
I sylwedd mawr Bethesda lyn.
Remember this when in your weakness,
The healing waters feel ankle-high –
Numberless shall be the cubits
Measured to you in the sky.
Children of the Resurrection
They alone can swim its depths
There no shore, no bottom either
To Bethesda’s vast expanse.
Can the healing waters cover me? The angry sea transforms into a soothing lake. Ann takes us to Bethesda, that pool in John 5 which supposedly cured the sick. In the great story of redemption, we have all been somewhere better. Ann mentions a vast lake. As you entered those healing waters, perhaps you thought it was too late and the cleansing waters all used-up. How can there be enough for my sin?
It’s enough! Why? It’s very deep. As William Cowper wrote:
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins
Where sinners plunged beneath the flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
The greek word translated as Bethesda, Βηθεσδά, literally means ‘house of mercy’ where the sinner can come freely to the water. Ann may have known Toplady’s hymn, ‘Rock of Ages’, which talks about the ‘double cure’:
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.
The water purifies the soul from the guilt of sin while the blood atones, taking away the power of death. A sinner need not wait for some angel to stir these waters. Like that poor crippled man in John’s gospel, go to Jesus as you are and be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
The depths of salvation
Ann then approaches the person of Christ from a different angle:
O! ddyfnderoedd iechydwriaeth,
Dirgelwch mawr duwioldeb yw,
Duw y duwiau wedi ymddangos
Yng nghnawd a natur dynol-ryw;
Dyma’r person a ddioddefodd
Yn ein lle ddigofaint llawn,
Nes i gyfiawnder weiddi, “Gollwng
Ef yn rhydd: mi gefais Iawn!”
O! the depth of this salvation!
Mystery of godliness!
God of gods has now appeared
In the form of sinful flesh;
He, it is, who bore God’s anger,
In our place, he suffered so.
Until Justice cried, ‘Release him,
For Atonement has been made!’
Ann explores this salvation and remembers Bethlehem. God became a man, taking upon himself the likeness of sinful flesh. She then says, ‘Dyma’r person,’ or, ‘This is the person,’ who bore God’s anger, making atonement for you and me. She focuses on the Saviour; he is priest and God, but he is also man. Her mind then returns to Calvary where she sees him suffering on the cross. But then, God’s justice shouts: ‘Enough!’ The debt is fully paid!
The sea of wonders
O! ddedwydd awr tragwyddol orffwys
Oddi wrth fy llafur yn fy rhan,
Ynghanol môr o ryfeddodau
Heb weled terfyn byth, na glan;
Mynediad helaeth byth i bara
I fewn trigfannau Tri yn Un;
Dŵr i’w nofio heb fynd trwyddo,
Dyn yn Dduw, a Duw yn ddyn.
O! Blessed hour of eternal rest
From my labours, home at last.
A sea of wonders
Without ceasing, without shore;
Access free to dwell for ever
In the mighty Three in One;
Water to swim in without passing through,
Man in God, and God in man.
Ann’s mind then looks forward to a time when she can be with God forever. Having experienced the stormy waters of life, the cleansing waters of purification, and the blood of atonement, she comes to the ‘Sea of wonders’. This is no physical expanse. In Ezekiel 47, the prophet is given a vision of a deep river issuing from the altar:
It was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen. It was deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be passed through.
If the waters signify the gospel of Christ (Zech. 14:8), gushing forth from that final altar of Calvary, then Ann has known it in her life. There are times when she has even been overwhelmed by that gospel – it felt as if she was waist-high, but it only lasted a while. These experiences were God-filled; God seemed to inhabit her whole being: ‘Man in God and God in man.’ These moments, she says, are glimpses of that future consummation between the bride and the bridegroom.
The wonder of redemption
These are weighty things to write about! Do you find them overwhelming? Too mystical? Ann Griffiths was relatively uneducated, yet God impressed upon her heart the depth and wonder of his redemption. This was a girl in love with her Saviour. Can you say the same? I challenge you, reader, to return to that soul-refreshing view of Jesus. Go further and seek a closer walk with him. For he said himself, ‘Ask and it shall be given unto you.’ Maybe then, we will be able to say with those early Christians: ‘Maranatha!’ ‘Come Lord Jesus, come.’
If you want to find out more about Ann Griffiths, E. Wyn James has edited an excellent book with all the translations: Flame in the Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn (Lolfa: 2017).