HYMN FOR PENTECOST 3 Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Text: Wallis Willis (ca 1820-1880) Tune: Alexander Reid
R/Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. Swing low, sweet chariot, Coming for to carry me home. 1. I looked over Jordan, and what did I see, Coming for to carry me home. A band of angels coming after me, Coming for to carry me home. R/ 2. If you get there before I do, Coming for to carry me home. Tell all my friends I'm coming too, Coming for to carry me home. R/ 3. The brightest day that ever I saw Coming for to carry me home. When Jesus washed my sins away, Coming for to carry me home. R/ 4. I'm sometimes up and sometimes down, Coming for to carry me home. But still my soul feels heavenly bound, Coming for to carry me home. R/
The story of Elijah riding the chariot of fire into heaven and passing on his mantle to Elisha is one that catches the imagination of most everyone who hears it. Think, waiting by the river, and suddenly seeing a fiery chariot with horses descending to earth to pick up the great prophet. He is among the two in Scripture, Enoch the other (Genesis 5:24), who "did not see death." The passover meal expects Elijah to return, thus an empty chair always awaits the prophet. And Malachi 4:5 says that the Lord will send Elijah …”before the great and awesome day of the Lord.”
Both John the Baptist and Jesus remind their listeners of Elijah. Elijah even appears with Jesus in the Transfiguration, standing with Moses, the Law and Elijah the prophet, both assumed in Jesus when they disappear and the disciples see Jesus only. Jesus referred to Elijah and his miracle with the widow of Zarephath when he is giving his sermon in the synagogue in Luke 4. It enrages his audience.
There are many moments in Scripture when heaven comes down to earth, never more fully than when Jesus is born. But we have other images of the descent in Jacob’s ladder, in the Transfiguration and in the chariot of fire.
The singer of this spiritual is looking forward to being carried away into heaven by a band of angels. There is a kind of weariness in the song—Sometimes I’m up and sometimes down—so I want to be taken now.
There is also joy in that one’s sins have been forgiven. Because they have been forgiven, we can now stand before our maker, cleansed and holy. If we have not been made holy by the Spirit, we cannot stand before God since he is pure holiness and cannot abide sin—it is his very nature. He is like a fire, Scripture says, and we cannot be near him without a redeemer or mediator. Jesus is that mediator. He died to make us holy, able to be in fellowship with him and the Father.
That is the glory of our faith, something Martin Luther saw in his flash of insight into the Gospel—We are justified—made holy—by faith, in other words, Christ, not our own efforts. No amount of our work can make us holy enough to be with God. All we can bring to this transaction is a broken heart.
We can see the chariot coming for us with the angels, the light, and the fire, confident that despite all our sins, we have been made right by the blood of Christ and can spend all our lives here and in eternity in blissful fellowship with God and the saints forever. Swing low, sweet chariot!
This hymn has an interesting history. The sources for most spirituals cannot be easily found, but this one can. This can be traced to Wallis Willis, a Choctaw freedman in the old Indian Territory in Oklahoma after the Civil War. Scholars surmise that Willis was working by the Red River and thought of the Jordan River and Elijah’s beng swept up into the chariot. (2 Kings 2:11). It could also be a song by those helping to free slaves through the Underground Railroad before the Civil War.
A minister, Alexander Reid, at the Old Spencer Academy, a Choctaw boarding school, is said to have overheard Willis singing this song and heard Willis singing it and transcribed the words and melody. He sent it to the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville and they made it popular during their tour in 1870.
It has been recorded thousands of times. One of the earliest if by the Fisk Jubilee Singers below. Over time it has become the anthem of the Rugby World Cup games!
Fisk Jubilee Singers 1909
Rugby International Cup Game 2003
Anders Öhrwall Choir