Higher Hymnody: No Tramp of Soldiers’ Marching Feet

by The Rev. Randy Asburry

I had never sung this hymn before this week. But now that my Kantor has been introducing it to us, I can't imagine preparing for Holy Week or going through Holy Week without it. The hymn is "No Tramp of Soldiers' Marching Feet" - #444 in Lutheran Service Book.

The tune, "Kingsfold," has taken just a bit of effort to nail down for singing, especially because, as my Kantor says, my ear wanted to sing something else at a couple of points. But I have come to realize that with sturdy, durable hymns, good things come, not for those who put little effort into learning their hymns, but for those who do have to put some effort into learning and singing their hymns. Quite often the best and sturdiest hymns and hymn tunes - the ones that stay with you and put spiritual meat on your bones, so to speak - are the ones that take some time and effort to learn!

But back to the hymn itself. Once learned, this tune seems to have both a regal and a marching quality to it. Perfect for Holy Week as we ponder our Lord's kingly procession into Jerusalem without customary regal fanfare, and then as we can almost hear the tramping feet of soldiers marching to arrest Jesus and deliver Him to Pontius Pilate, and then as we raise the rafters of heaven in singing of our Lord's Easter victory.

The truly glorious thing about this hymn is how it immerses us in the humility of Palm Sunday, then takes us through our Lord's Passion, and, in the final stanza, elevates us to the genuine victory procession of our Lord's Resurrection. (By the way, a humble suggestion to any organist, pianist, or keyboardist who plays this hymn: Stanza 4 should be played as regally and triumphantly as possible!) And throughout the hymn, we keep singing of our King of glory and, in each stanza, repeating the words: "Behold, behold your King!"

I find it quite fascinating that each stanza places those words on quite different lips. In stanza 1, the Palm Sunday crowd joyously cries out. It's the only thing that heralds the King's coming. As the rest of the stanza says: "No tramp of soldiers' marching feet" and "No sound of music's martial beat" and "No bells in triumph ring, No city gates swing open wide." Our Lord's Palm Sunday entry is oh so humble.

In stanza 2, it's the very stones that cry out, "Behold, behold your King," reminding us of Jesus' words that if we humans keep quiet, His creation will certainly sing His praises. The children cheer, the palms are strewn along the way, and, most powerful of all, "With every step the cross draws near." Even if we were to keep silent, or be forced into quietude, the King still receives His due praised for what He has done for our life and salvation.

Then, in stanza 3, the statement "Behold, behold your King!" takes on the ironic note of Pontius Pilate's utterance as he hands Jesus over to crucifixion. The joys of Palm Sunday have faded. The thorn replaces the bloom and leaf. "The soldiers mock, the rabble cries, The streets with tumult ring." The cheery joys of Palm Sunday quickly transform into the jeering, chaotic din of Good Friday. What beautiful poetry!

But the genuine climax and meaning of the line comes out fully in stanza 4, as "heaven's rafters ring" and as "all the ransomed host proclaim 'Behold, behold your King!" The stanza resumes the cry of "Hosanna to the Savior's name," but on the other side of the Resurrection. After all, once our Lord rose again, He revealed what it all means. He bore the cross for us mortals, and He took on the servant's form in order that we may raise the rafters of heaven for all eternity in singing, "Behold, behold your King!"

It's a great holy week hymn, and I highly recommend learning it, if you haven't already. It will be well worthy the time and effort it takes. The pictures and poetry of the text gives much to ponder, and you will likely find yourself humming the tune to yourself long after you've sung the hymn in church or in your prayers.

 

The Rev. Randy Asburry is pastor of Hope Lutheran Church in Saint Louis, Mo.  He regularly blogs at: RAsburry's Res.

Created: March 14th, 2008