The Watch-fires: Analyzing Verse 2 of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

The second verse of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" presents a clear image of an army camp at twilight or perhaps just after dark. The fires are burning, the lamps flicker. It begins peaceful, yet expectant, the proverbial "calm before the storm".

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

The third line sounds an ominous note. Sentence is passed upon the evil doers and it is this army, these circling camps that are to be the instrument of God's justice. The "righteous sentence" is also thought to be an oblique reference to the Bible, Daniel Chapter 5, where writing appears on the wall of the banquet hall of King Belshazzar predicting his end because of his iniquity. There is little doubt as to who the sentence is for in the hymn. It is the perpetrators of an iniquitous system that promoted bondage in a section of the nation. The "Old Testament" judgmental God is one who has not been seen in the modern western world for some time. His evocation tends to make many modern Christians uncomfortable, but a righteous God was quite familiar to the 19th century American.

Of course, the marching refrain is again picked up with a swift transition into:

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on!

In many versions the fourth line of the refrain echoes the 4th line of the stanza, in others it is always "His truth" that goes marching on.

< Trampling Out the Vintage: Analyzing Verse 1 of Battle Hymn of the Republic | Fiery Gospel: Analysis of Verse 3 of the Battle Hymn of the Republic >

Interesting Fact:

The "righteous sentence" mentioned in the second verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic might be refering to writing on the wall or a judgment handed down by God.


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