Before the throne of God above
with BEFORE THE THRONE
Text: Origins. This hymn by the Irish native Charitie Lees Smith (1841–1923) was first published in The Praise of Jesus (London: James Nisbet, 1863 | Fig. 1), a collection compiled by William Reid of Edinburgh. The text in this edition was in six stanzas of four lines, unattributed, without music, headed “Within the Vail with Jesus.”
The hymn was introduced in the United States in a similarly-titled collection, Praises of Jesus (NY: William B. Bradbury, 1865 | Fig. 2), edited by Edward Hammond and William Bradbury. In the preface to the collection, Hammond acknowledged he had taken some of the hymns, “by permission, from a little book published in Edinburgh by Rev. Wm. Reid.” Smith’s text was not set to music, but it appeared on the same page as a suitable tune, DUKE STREET by James Hatton (1715–1795). Notice the fourth line of the first stanza, which was altered as “who ever stands and pleads for me.”
The hymn was published the following year in Our Own Hymn-Book (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1866 | Fig. 3), a collection compiled by Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) with editorial assistance by Daniel Sedgwick (1814–1879). The text was in six stanzas of four lines, without music, headed “Jesus pleads for me.”
In this collection, the hymn was dated 1863, attributed to Cherrie Smith. In the second edition (1867), the name was corrected to Charitie Lees Smith. Regarding the varying forms of her name in hymnals and songbooks, she married Arthur Bancroft in 1869; he died in 1881. She emigrated to California, where she married Frank De Cheney (1866–ca. 1946) in 1891; they divorced in 1915.
This hymn was repeated in Smith’s own collection, Within the Vail and Other Sacred Poems (London: S.W. Partridge, 1867 | Fig. 4), where the text appeared exactly as in Our Own Hymn-Book, except it was headed “Within the vail. Heb. vi. 19,20.” In the preface to her collection, she said the hymns “have been written at various intervals during the last few years,” and she offered this blessing:
May these verses find an echo in other hearts, and be of help, especially in hours of trial, by reminding of a Saviour’s sympathy and a Father’s love. May they help some to take humbly and patiently the chastisement which is sent, not less in tenderness than in wisdom. We are ‘not as yet come to the rest, and the inheritance.’ Thank God, we shall soon enjoy both!
Charles Spurgeon had a remarkable capacity for memorizing and quoting hymns, and this hymn was one of those etched in his memory. Toward the end of his life, in ill health, he retired to the more agreeable climate of Menton, France. In a pair of services on Dec. 31, 1891, and Jan. 1, 1892, he gave his last public address to his company of close friends, in which he said:
Though I have preached Christ crucified for more than forty years, and have led many to my Master’s feet, I have at this moment no ray of hope but that which comes from what my Lord Jesus has done for guilty men.
Behold him there! the bleeding Lamb!
My perfect, spotless Righteousness,
The great unchangeable “I AM,”
The King of glory and of grace. 
Text: Analysis. As indicated in Within the Vail, the text draws in part from Hebrews 6:17-20:
Wherein God, willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of his counsel, confirmed it by an oath: That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us, which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec (KJV).
The theology behind the hymn is also reflected strongly in Hebrews 4:14-16:
Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.
Smith’s text has some interesting similarities to a hymn by Charles Wesley, “Entered the holy place above” (Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures, vol. 2, 1762, no. 701), which is based on Hebrews 9:24, “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (KJV).
Entered the holy place above,
Cover’d with meritorious scars,
The tokens of his dying love
Our great High-priest in glory bears;
He pleads his passion on the tree;
He shows himself to God for me.
Before the throne my Saviour stands,
My Friend and Advocate appears;
My name is graven on his hands,
And him the Father always hears;
While low at Jesu’s cross I bow,
He hears the blood of sprinkling now!
This instant now I may receive
The answer of his powerful prayer:
This instant now by him I live,
His prevalence with God declare:
And soon my spirit in his hands
Shall stand, where my forerunner stands!
Smith’s text has also been compared to a hymn by John Newton, “Approach, my soul, the mercy seat” (Olney Hymns, 1779), especially the fourth and fifth stanzas:
Be thou my shield and hiding place!
That, shelter’d near thy side,
I may my fierce accuser face,
And tell him, “Thou hast died.”
Oh wondrous love! to bleed and die,
To bear the cross and shame,
That guilty sinners, such as I,
Might plead thy gracious name.
19th century hymnologist Charles S. Robinson described the essence of this hymn in saying, “It is when we sing such hymns as this that the thought comes to us again of our indebtedness to our Mediator, for he not only carries the weight of our guilt, taking it upon his own sinless soul, but he offers his suffering to atone for it. He unites men with God.”
Tune. For the first several decades of the hymn’s existence, tune settings varied widely. Within the last two decades, consensus has formed around a strong tune by Vikki Cook, a composer associated with Sovereign Grace Music. Cook has offered this account of the composition of the tune:
I first heard “Before the throne of God above” on a Sunday morning at church in 1997. One of our pastors had just come back from a conference in England and brought the song back with him. All of us on the worship team learned and rehearsed the song before church, then taught it to the congregation later that morning. The song bombed! The church didn’t respond to the song favorably. I think the old melody was a little too strange sounding to our American ears. The music was the melody called JERUSALEM [by Hubert Parry], but it was not a very good match for these words and did nothing to highlight the truths being communicated. I didn’t care for the melody much either, but I fell in love with the words!
The original words really impacted me. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of this hymn before! I took home a copy of the words and stuck them in my bible. During my quiet times, I would take out the lyrics and be so affected by them, especially verse two, “When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see HIM there, who made an end of all my sin.” I spent many mornings with God weeping over those lyrics. I had to find a way to sing these words to God, even if it was only for myself. When I made up my mind to write a new melody it came surprisingly quick, in about an hour. (This is not the “norm” for our songwriting—my husband, Steve, and me—we spend weeks, if not months, writing and re-writing.) I played it for my husband, Steve, and he liked it, so we recorded it. We played it for our worship leader, and the song just kind of “snowballed” from that time since. I’m amazed at how God has used this song in the church at large, especially when I think that I just wrote this new melody so that I could worship God in my quiet times with Him. Even though it has been several years, I still weep when I sing the part that says, “for God the Just is satisfied to look on Him, and pardon me.”
Cook’s tune, BEFORE THE THRONE, was first recorded on the album Depth of Mercy (1997). It appeared in hymnals shortly thereafter, twice in 1999, including Sing Glory (Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew Ltd., 1999 | Fig. 5) and Complete Mission Praise (London: Marshall Pickering, 1999).
by CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
20 May 2019
rev. 28 May 2019
The Sword and the Trowel (London: Passmore & Alabaster, Feb. 1892), p. 51.
Charles S. Robinson, “Before the throne of God above,” Annotations Upon Popular Hymns (NY: Hunt & Eaton, 1893), p. 208.
Correspondence with Vikki Cook, 17 May 2019.
John Julian, “Charitie Lees Bancroft, née Smith,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 109.
Christopher M. Idle, “Before the throne of God above,” Exploring Praise!, vol. 1 (Darlington: Praise Trust, 2006), p. 348.
“Before the throne of God above,” Sovereign Grace Music:
“Before the throne of God above,” Hymnary.org: