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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a poem written by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–95). Alexander published it for the first time in 1848 in a book of children’s hymns, as part of a series of poems on the Apostles’ Creed (seeking in this hymn to address the affirmation “born of the Virgin Mary”). The last two stanzas of the hymn continue to draw forth the fullness of the glorified Christ in His incarnation. The earlier stanzas address Christ in His humiliation, both in His active and passive obedience (as Alexander also does in “There Is a Green Hill Far Away”).
The fifth stanza particularly focuses on us in our glorification, in which we join Christ, who has been in His estate of exaltation since His resurrection. There, “at last,” with fully renewed “eyes” in a fully renewed heavens and earth, we “shall see him.” Only then and there will we be able to see Him properly. No longer shall we see Him as we did when He was below with us—as in that “poor lowly stable”—but we shall see Him as He is “in heaven, set at God’s right hand on high.” We shall do so “through his own redeeming love”; the merits and mediation of Christ alone afford us heavenly entrance.
Christ entered His glorified state upon His resurrection from the dead. All God’s people, following after the Lord, will likewise enter a glorified state at the return of Christ, when the dead will be raised and His own will receive glorified bodies. Until then, we remain in a state of humiliation. This is true even for the blessed dead, who are “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) and are better off than those who remain and continue to live in this present creation. Their bodies remain separated from their souls (“They rest in their graves as in their beds”; Westminster Larger Catechism 86) and, thus, they remain in part in a state of humiliation. We enter our full glorification only when Christ returns and we are all, body and soul, made new in a fully renewed heavens and earth. While what begins now for believers who die in this present age is better than what believers have in this life, we have a good life in Christ now (Phil. 1:21) and a better one in the intermediate state (to die is gain). No small part of what constitutes that best life to come is the attainment of the beatific vision, or as Alexander’s hymn puts it, “our eyes,” which we do not have in the intermediate state but will have restored in the resurrection, “shall see him” as He is. Looking forward to that great “Gettin’ Up Mornin’ ” can grant us here and now the patience that we need, by the Spirit’s work, even “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
It is important to have this hope for and eager anticipation of seeing our Lord Jesus in His glory. This helps us live in the here and now with all its griefs, disappointments, struggles, and even bitterness. When we know, contrary to the world, that we are not constantly pressed to “seize the day” and “go for the gusto,” having to find all our joy in the here and now, we can actually enjoy this life better. When we realize that we are in a state of humiliation and will be until the return of Christ, it lowers our expectations and enables us to enjoy the many moderate pleasures of this life, since they need not be invested with the joy that pertains only to the coming age.
Many Christians have come to expect that they ought to be living their “best life now.” They see, though, that their lives remain fraught with problems. They feel as if they should not have such problems as Christians. But God never told us that we would not have tribulation in this world. Jesus told us that we would. And He also told us to be of good cheer, because He has overcome the world (John 16:33). At the last, as Alexander’s hymn says, we too will overcome when we see Him on His throne and enter the new heavens and earth, there forever to gaze on Him in His glory.