One of my favorite hymns is Beulah Land, a hymn written by Edgar Page Stites and John R. Sweney:
I’ve reached the land of corn and wine,
And all its riches freely mine;
Here shines undimmed one blissful day,
For all my night has passed away.
O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My Heav’n, my home forever more!
My Savior comes and walks with me,
And sweet communion here have we;
He gently leads me by His hand,
For this is Heaven’s border land.
The beauty of this hymn is that it speaks of the eternal glory prepared for believers. Beulah Land is “Heaven’s border land,” a land where “shines undimmed one blissful day, For all my night has passed away.”
Today, this beautiful hymn is seldom sung in churches where praise songs and contemporary Christian rock music dominate the worship experience. But this phenomenon is not peculiar to contemporary churches. A brief survey of hymnals from several denominations reveals that this hymn is either unknown or no longer relevant to many churches.
The theme of Beulah Land appears in many Christian hymns but many people who know the hymn, sing its words, and love its message do not know the story behind Beulah Land.
The concept of Beulah Land comes from a passage found in Isaiah 62: 4. The reason many people are unfamiliar with the concept of Beulah Land is because the word appears only in older translations of Isaiah 62:4, including the King James Version and the American Standard Version of 1901:
Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah; for Jehovah delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married (Isaiah 62:4 ASV).
The words of the prophet are words of encouragement: Never again will you be called the Godforsaken City (Isaiah 62:4 NLB). Because of its exile in Babylon, the people of Judah believed that God had forsaken his people: Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14).
The people’s feelings were not completely without merit, for the Lord himself had affirmed that for a short moment he had actually forsaken them: I did forsake you for a brief moment (Isaiah 54:7). Even Israel’s enemies, in derision, mocked the people by calling their land “Desolate.”
After the Babylonian invasion under Nebuchadnezzar, the land became a waste and desolate, a land of ruins (Isaiah 49:19). The cities of Judah had become a “desolation” (Jeremiah 34:22).
But now, with the redemption of Israel and the return of the people to their land, things changed. The land that once was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the waste, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited, just as the prophet Ezekiel had proclaimed (Ezekiel 36:35).
From now on, with the restoration of Israel, the land will be called Hephzibah. This word literally means “My Delight Is in Her.” The land also will be Beulah. The word “Beulah” means “Married.”
The metaphor of marriage is used in the Old Testament to describe the relationship between God and his people. The concept of Yahweh as Israel’s husband appears in Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. This idea is clearly expressed in Isaiah 62:5: As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
All the modern translations, contrary to the King James Version and a few other old translations, translate the word “Beulah,” rather than allow the word to remain untranslated. For instance, the ESV correctly translates Isaiah 62:4 as follows:
You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married.
The correct interpretation of Isaiah 62:4 clearly shows that Beulah Land carries no idea of “Heaven’s border land,” a land where “shines undimmed one blissful day,” where all our nights have passed away. If this is so, from where then, does the idea of Beulah Land as heaven’s border land come?
To the surprise of many, the idea of the land of Beulah as heaven’s border land comes from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress. In his work, Bunyan says that “the Enchanted ground is place so nigh to the land Beulah, and so near the end of their race.” He also says that the land of Beulah is the place “where the sun shineth night and day.”
Bunyan’s concept of Beulah land as heaven’s border land entered into Christian hymns through the Holiness Movement in America. In his writings, Stites wrote the following words about Beulah Land:
It was in 1876 that I wrote `Beulah Land.’ I could write only two verses and the chorus, when I was overcome and fell on my face. That was one Sunday. On the following Sunday I wrote the third and fourth verses, and again I was so influenced by emotion that I could only pray and weep. The first time it was sung was at the regular Monday morning meeting of Methodists in Philadelphia [Pennsylvania]. Bishop McCabe sang it to the assembled ministers. Since then it is known wherever religious people congregate. I have never received a cent for my songs. Perhaps that is why they have had such a wide popularity. I could not do work for the Master and receive pay for it.
My former student, Karen Roberts, who now serves as Chapel Coordinator at Northern Baptist Seminary, wrote a paper in which she traced the development of Beulah Land in Christian hymnody and the Holiness Movement in America.
Roberts’ paper, “Beulah Land in Christian Music Tradition: Isaiah 62:4 (KJV),” is a study of Isaiah 62:4 and how the concept of Beulah Land appears in Christian hymns. She lists 13 different hymns that use the Beulah Land metaphor. According to Roberts,
Many of these hymns used the Beulah Land metaphor both in the present and future sense. In these hymns is the expression of the present reality, “Praise God, I live in Beulah land, My house will all the storms withstand; It is not built on sinking sand, My home is on the rock,” and anticipation of the future, “Is not this the land of Beulah, Blessed, blessed land of light, Where the flowers bloom forever, And the sun is always bright?”
Karen Roberts’ paper is available on my web page. You can download and read the paper by clicking here.
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Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary