I have several old books in my office that I’ve never looked at closely. Someone (Orlan Paulson, Clinton Goodwin?) thought I might like them, and I just stuck them on my shelf. Every once in a while, I’ll take one down and say, “I wonder what this is?”
That’s how I discovered an old volume (1935) called Spiritual Hymns and Songs. About 20% of these were familiar to me, but the rest were not. A little research on the publisher and editors revealed that this was a hymnal designed for use by rural midwestern/Appalachian churches that followed Brethren, Mennonite and Methodist traditions – a slice of the church that was a little outside my comfort level. It was fascinating to discover a different facet of faith tradition and join in their music of worship and evangelism.
I was especially curious about a song entitled, “Bring Your Vessels, Not a Few.” What in the world did that mean? A little more online searching led me to a story about the Prophet Elisha in the Old Testament:
Now the wife of a member of the company of prophets[a] cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead; and you know that your servant feared the LORD, but a creditor has come to take my two children as slaves.” Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house, except a jar of oil.” He said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not just a few. Then go in, and shut the door behind you and your children, and start pouring into all these vessels; when each is full, set it aside.” So she left him and shut the door behind her and her children; they kept bringing vessels to her, and she kept pouring. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” But he said to her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your children can live on the rest.” (2 Kings 4:3-7)
The author built the chorus of the song on the phrase in verse 3, as it is in the King James Version, “Bring empty vessels, not a few.” God was about to do a miracle of grace for the poor widow, and Elisha warned her that she’d better bring a lot of containers so that the ample blessings weren’t wasted. She should even borrow jars from all her neighbors. So, the song challenges the spiritual seeker today:
Are you longing for the fullness
Of the blessing of the Lord
In your heart and life today?
Claim the promise of your Father;
Come according to His Word,
In the blessed, old-time way.
And the chorus brings the promise:
He will fill your heart today to overflowing;
As the Lord commandeth you,
“Bring your vessels, not a few.”
He will fill your heart today to overflowing
With the Holy Ghost and pow’r.
This song was written in 1912 by Lelia N. Morris, a Methodist woman who wrote a thousand other songs popular in evangelistic camp meeting of her day. The only two I recognize as still being used in churches today are “Sweeter as the Years Go By” and “Nearer, Still Nearer.” Actually, “Bring Your Vessels, Not a Few” is still sung in Pentecostal circles and in certain regions in America. The best recording I found on YouTube is this bluegrass version.
You don’t have to be a Pentecostal to want the full blessing of the Lord. How much grace is available for you? The last stanza of the song expresses it this way:
Like the cruse of oil unfailing
Is His grace forevermore,
And His love unchanging still;
And according to His promise,
With the Holy Ghost and pow’r
He will every vessel fill.
So, bring your vessels, not a few!
— Pastor George Van Alstine