One of the challenges of old hymns is understanding what the words mean. I don’t mean the old-fashioned words that we just don’t use anymore, like “thou” or “surety” or “foe.” Those we can recognize as not part of our regular vocabulary. So we take a moment to figure out or look up or learn their meanings, and move on.
The tough words are the ones we still use, but with a different meaning from the one that was intended when the hymn was written centuries ago.
One of the most misunderstood words in some of the best hymns is the word “plead.” It shows up in several of my favorite hymns about Jesus’ ascension and intercession.
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea,
a great high priest, whose name is love,
who ever lives and pleads for me
Five bleeding wounds he bears,
received on Calvary,
they pour effectual prayers,
they strongly plead for me.
Alleluia, Bread of Heaven, thou on earth our food, our stay,
Alleluia, here the sinful flee to thee from day to day.
Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, plead for me
where the songs of all the sinless sweep across the crystal sea.
These words sometimes raise objections, because in our normal usage, “pleading” means begging, imploring, piteously arguing with someone who is reluctant to grant our request. This, of course, is not a biblical picture of Jesus’ intercession with God. The Father is not unwilling to forgive us – he sent Jesus to die for us so that he could do just that! And the Risen Lord is not a beggar.
So it’s not surprising that some people have tried to change the wording of these hymns. In one hymnal I have, the second to last line of “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus,” has been changed to, “Intercessor, Friend of sinners, earth’s Redeemer, hear our plea.” This removes the offensive image of Jesus begging a vengeful God to let us off the hook, but at the cost of making us plead with Jesus himself.
But this is really unnecessary, simply because that’s not what “pleading” meant when these hymns were written. In the British legal tradition, “pleading” is the activity of a legal advocate arguing a case in court. It does not imply begging or imploring, but simply urging the judge to decide in favor of one’s client.
We still use “pleading” this way in the American court system when we are asked, “How do you plead?” The judge does not want to know what it sounds like for us to beg. He just wants to know whether we are going to maintain our innocence, or accept the charge against us.
The good news is that we don’t have to plead for ourselves. We don’t have to convince God that we are innocent, or deserving of forgiveness. We don’t argue our own case. Because Jesus, eternal God and glorified man, has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, we have an unfailing Advocate who never stops interceding for us before our Judge. There, in the heavenly courtroom, Jesus our High Priest, Mediator, and Advocate speaks on our behalf.
How do you plead? If you trust in Jesus as your Advocate, you don’t have to. He does it for you.
My God is reconciled, his pardoning voice I hear,
he owns me for his child, I can no longer fear
with confidence I now draw nigh,
and “Father, Abba, Father!” cry.
Image credit: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=177661