A popular old hymn stresses our longing for our heavenly rest, but also our commitment to keep working until Jesus comes. It begins, “O land of rest, for thee I sigh! When will the moment come, When I shall lay my armor by, And dwell in peace at home?” The refrain repeats “We’ll work till Jesus comes, We’ll work till Jesus comes, We’ll work till Jesus comes, And we’ll be gathered home.” The words, by Elizabeth K. Mills, who died at 24 or 25, were first published in 1837. The tune, attributed to William Miller, was added in 1859.
I have been unable to verify if this is the same William Miller who twice set a date for the return of the Lord, but if it is the same man, it is ironic. William Miller (1742-1849), was a Baptist preacher who through his study of the book of Daniel determined that the return of the Lord was very near, and he traveled throughout the United States preaching a message of the need to be prepared for the Lord’s return. As his followers, known as Millerites, pressed him for a date, he announced in January 1843, that the date would be March 21, 1844. When that date passed, he and his followers recalculated, and set the date for October 22, 1844.
Despite the words of the hymn, many of Miller’s followers did not “work till Jesus comes.” They left farms untended, debts unpaid and took it easy. When the second date failed, these people were very upset with Miller, and he died disillusioned and forgotten in 1849, still thinking the Lord would return in his lifetime. Some of his followers pressed on, organizing the Seventh Day Adventist church. In their history they refer to the Miller failure as the “Great Disappointment.”
The hymn is consistent with the warnings of the Lord. He likened the kingdom of heaven to ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom to come. Five were wise, but five were foolish, and “took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.” All were in the same situation waiting for the bridegroom, but the foolish were not ready to serve when the cry came, “Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.” They all arose, but the foolish were unprepared, and missed their chance. “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matthew 25:1-13).
Disappointment awaits those who are not working until Jesus comes. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).