The Old Rugged Cross
Warren F. Kenney
“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, The emblem of suffering and shame; And I love that old cross where the dearest and best For a world of lost sinners was slain.”
So begins what could be described as the favorite hymn of many a person. It is the favorite because the tune so perfectly fits the words or because the words so effectively pierce our hearts. Whichever is true, it is equally true that the hymn’s popularity never seems to fade.
Some mystery surrounds this old song that was written (words and music) by George Bennard. Charles Gabriel, a well-known gospel song composer, assisted Mr. Bennard with the harmonies. We are not positive if it was written in 1912 or 1913 as both dates are suggested. Mr. Bennard claimed the year was 1913. That would be conclusive evidence to me if I did not get my years mixed up. We are not certain whether it was written in Albion, Michigan, Pokagon, Michigan, or Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. Each town claims to be the place of the hymn’s nativity. The one thing we can be sure of is that the beautiful words and melody vibrate the deepest chords of the human heart. There is a museum dedicated to Mr. Bennard in Reed City, Michigan. Bennard was born in Youngstown, Ohio. A memorial was created there at Lake Park Cemetery.
The list of singers that have recorded the song is truly impressive: Anne Murray, Brad Paisley, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash – to name just a few.
There are so many things swirling through my mind that I would like to say about the cross. I think, however, that I will go through the song, line-by-line, and mention appropriate scriptures from the King James Version of the Bible.
“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross.” This brings to my mind the fact that Isaiah pictured that cross 700 years before it stood (Isaiah 53:8).
“The emblem of suffering and shame.” The cross was not a place of honor for the Son of God. It was something to be endured while despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2).
“And I love that old cross where the dearest and best.” This helps me remember that when God gave His Son, He gave heaven’s best (John 3:16).
“For a world of lost sinners was slain.” Christ died for what we would call the dregs of humanity, the sinners (Romans 5:8). Much to our amazement, that even included the very ones who put Him to death (Acts 2:23).
“Oh that old rugged cross, so despised by the world.” Love the cross! No, no, a thousand times no. The world does not love the cross. To them it is foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18).
“Has a wondrous attraction for me.” Do not misunderstand this. There was nothing attractive about the cross. The picture of a man being nailed to a cross on a well-traveled road where everyone could see is not a pretty picture. It is an ugly scene. The attraction it holds for me, and for every saved person, is the redemption it offers (1 Peter 1:18).
“For the dear Lamb of God left His glory above.” To picture him who “took upon Him the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7) overflows me with gratitude.
“To bear it to dark Calvary.” While the scriptures are silent as to the proposal that He fell beneath its weight, they do mention Him bearing His cross to the place of the skull (John 19:17), with the assistance of a Cyrenian named Simon.
“In the old rugged cross, stained with blood so divine.” This brings to my mind a Roman spear being thrust into my Lord’s side (John 19:34).
“A wondrous beauty I see, For 'twas on that old cross Jesus suffered and died, to pardon and sanctify me.” I join these three lines together because they so wonderfully explain the beauty of the cross. This fills me with an emotion not unlike what Paul must have felt when he wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15).
All of these things lead me to the only logical conclusion expressed in the final stanza and refrain:
“To the old rugged cross, I will ever be true, Its shame and reproach gladly bear; Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, Where His glory forever I’ll share.”
“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, Till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to the old rugged cross, And exchange it some day for a crown.”
Mr. Bennard said he was preaching on Galatians 6:14-15. He said his motivation to write the song grew out of that study. I would hope that the thoughts in this article will cause us to grow more in our personal appreciation for the cross. That is important because the way of the cross really does lead home. -90 Waverly Ct., Martinsburg, WV 25401.
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