HYMN 303 We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder
Genesis 28:10-17. John 1:51
Text: African American Spiritual Tune: Anonymous
1. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, Soldiers of the cross.
2. Ev'ry round goes higher, higher, Ev'ry round goes higher, higher, Ev'ry round goes higher, higher, Soldiers of the cross.
3. Children, do you love my Jesus? Children, do you love my Jesus? Children, do you love my Jesus? Soldiers of the cross.
4. If you love him, why not serve him? If you love him, why not serve him? If you love him, why not serve him? Soldiers of the cross.
5. Rise, shine, give God glory, Rise, shine, give God glory, Rise, shine, give God glory, Soldiers of the cross.
MEDITATION In the text for this Sunday Jesus refers to the story of Jacob’s ladder. He tells Philip “Truly, truly I say to you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John 1:51.
I had missed the word on until recently. Jesus himself is the ladder and the bridge between heaven and earth. He comes down from heaven to us and he takes us up to heaven with him. The story in Genesis is a powerful one as Jacob dreams that God is standing at the top blessing him and promising him a future he can hardly believe. It is a powerful moment in the history of salvation.
Jesus uses it to tell Philip what is coming and who he is, connecting himself to that story in ways they should all understand. The heavens opened and Jesus has come down. He is the way between heaven and earth.
“We are climbing Jacob’s ladder” emerged as a spiritual in the 18th century. Scholars can trace it as far back as 1750 and attribute it to slaves from Liberia. It is one of the earliest spirituals we have. The slaves were not allowed to speak with one another as they worked, but they could sing. Work songs helped them overcome the back breaking tedium and cruelty of the work. And, like all spirituals, it has a double meaning. Not only is this about escaping to heaven, but also from slavery. But it also is a call to the Christian life. Do you love Jesus and will you serve him and give God glory?
It is shocking to think of slaves singing this while working in unimaginable conditions asking each other about their commitment to Jesus, and following him, but there it is. Jesus is the only refuge they have. Singing of him comforts them. They had nothing else. Here is faith that beggars mine. As I reflect on it, I imagine that one could either go to Jesus and look for release from both one’s own bitterness and being a slave or become so angry and despairing that one would prefer death. For me, it proves that what I believe is true. If there is no solace in Jesus during such a time, one could easily decide he is not there and does not exist. But, if there was solace, and clearly millions found solace in Jesus, then the Gospel is true beyond a reasonable doubt.
Faith isn’t just believing in what we hope is true, although we live in hope for the future. When we live in faith we experience the truth of Jesus’ promise to be with us through everything. Down through the history of the church, martyrs have found not only their ultimate hope to be true, but the truth of the promises of Jesus. “Come unto me,“ he says in Matthew 11:28 “and I will give you rest.” He promised to be with us through everything.
Slavery in the American South was about as cruel an institution as anything in history. We are still reaping a bitter harvest from it. And yet, one can hear in this spiritual the deep faith emerging in the midst of suffering, cries that teach us how to survive during the most terrible suffering.
When things are difficult and trying for me, I find the Lutheran chorales from the 17th century and the spirituals some of the only texts that speak the truth and bring comfort. Both were written in the face of the worst human beings can do to others. That the slaves found reasons to praise the Lord in their most awful situations is all the proof I need of Jesus’ living presence among us. They show us how to live in the midst of death.
As usual there is very little information about this hymn other than that scholars do have some evidence of its being around from the 1750s. It has been used by various protest movements. Paul Robeson sang it; it became a song, somewhat revised, of the labor movement; Pete Seeger made it part of the folk revival. It is the first black spiritual to have been accepted by white Christians who made it into a camp song sung at many a campfire revival.
LINKS Beatrice Reagan Johnson from Ken Burn’s Civil War Documentary https://youtu.be/7-qQsW6pdVM
New England Conservatory of Music choirs
Bruce Springsteen https://youtu.be/-8n7QD_RfmA