Battle Hymn of the Republic: What Do Those Words Mean?

By Rich Deem

I remember hearing the words of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as a child and not understanding the meaning. I knew the song was written during the United States Civil War, but most of the words seemed to have nothing to do with battles that were happening at that time. Since then, I have become a Christian and have studied the Bible, which has allowed me to understand what those “crazy” mean. Written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe, it is clear this woman had a heart to see the Lord victorious in the end.

First Stanza:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.

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

From the first verse, it can be ascertained that the Battle Hymn of the Republic is not a secular song. The reference to “the coming of the Lord” is an obvious reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. The Bible makes it clear that Jesus is to come twice. First He came as Messiah, the Savior of the world. He is to come a second time as judge of the world. The Old Testament also contains prophecies that suggest two comings. So, the “glory of the coming of the Lord” could refer to either coming. However, from the context of the next verse, we understand it to refer to the second coming of Jesus Christ. In addition, the New Testament specifically refers to the second coming of Jesus as being glorious:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)

The next line says, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” where “He” refers back to the Lord. It seems to be a reference to wine making, except for the “wrath” part. The reference is another reference to the second coming of Jesus in judgment:

“So the angel swung his sickle to the earth and gathered the clusters from the vine of the earth, and threw them into the great wine press of the wrath of God.” (Revelation 14:19)

The “wrath” refers to God’s anger against those who hate God and worship the false god – the antichrist. The choice of wine is likely due to its color, which resembles that of blood.
Truth is an important aspect of Christianity. In fact, the truth is so important that Jesus described himself as being the truth:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)

That “His truth is marching on” is symbolic of the preaching of the gospel of truth (Galatians 2:5, 14, Ephesians 1:13, Colossians 1:514).

The chorus to the Battle Hymn of the Republic has only three words, “Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!” The word “Hallelujah” is from the Greek (the original language of the New Testament) word “allelouia,” with the meaning “praise the Lord.” This word is derived from two Hebrew words (the original language of the Old Testament), hâlal (meaning “praise”) and yâhh (being the proper name of God). The idea from the chorus probably also comes from the book of Revelation:

After these things I heard something like a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God.” (Revelation 19:1)

Second Stanza:
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 second stanza still has as its protagonist the Lord (“Him”). At this point the lyrics discuss some aspects of what it was like during the Civil War, describing an encampment of troops with watch fires lit at night. The writer says, “I have seen Him,” which probably does not refer to a physical sighting as much as “seeing” Him at work during the events of the Civil War.

They have built an altar to worship the Lord – something that would be illegal in today’s U.S. military (i.e., “establishment of religion”).

Reading “His righteous sentence” refers to reading the Bible. Since this is still referring to the Lord, it claims that the Bible originates from Jesus. The Bible refers to Jesus as the “Word of God.”

The phrase “His day is marching on” seems pretty innocuous. However, the day referred to as “His day” is anything but ordinary. Since “His” refers to the Lord, it would refer to the day of the Lord, which, throughout the Bible, has special significance as the day the Lord executes judgment upon the ungodly. Descriptions such as “destruction from the Almighty,” “Cruel, with fury and burning anger,” “A time of doom for the nations,” “great and very awesome,” “the warrior cries out bitterly,” “the earth will be devoured in the fire of His jealousy,” and “the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.”

Third Stanza:
I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel; As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel; Since God is marching on.
The third stanza has references to the Civil War and the Lord. The gospel, found in the Bible is not fiery. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus died for our sins to redeem us and bring us into fellowship with God. “A fiery Gospel” is a reference to the “good news” that the Civil War would bring freedom to the American slaves.

The word “contemner” is an old, seldom-used word that originates from Latin. It has two main meanings. The first definition is one who despises or scorns. The second is a legal term that refers to someone who intentionally disrupts legal proceedings. Although it would, at first glance, seem that the first definition applies, it is possible that the second would also apply. In Christianity, justification in the eyes of God is a legal term that means that one has received a pardon for crimes (e.g., sins) committed against Him. One is justified when one accepts by faith God’s redeemer, Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior. Those who contemn against Jesus will be dealt with on the Day of the Lord, as the sentence of eternal punishment/death is carried out at the White Throne Judgment. Those who accept God’s justification through Jesus Christ receive grace (unmerited favor) and mercy from God. Hence the phrase “so with you My grace shall deal.”

The “Hero,” still beginning with a capital letter, represents Jesus Christ, the Lord. “Born of woman” again refers to Christ’s birth to the virgin Mary, with the phrase coming from Galatians 4:4. The serpent represents the serpent from the garden of Eden, when Satan took on the form of a snake to tempt Adam and Eve into sin. After the fall of Adam and Eve, God gave the first prophecy of the Messiah, in which it was stated that He would bruise the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15), hence the phrase, “crush the serpent with His heel.”

Fourth Stanza:
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat; Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet; Our God is marching on.

The fourth stanza goes back to the book of Revelation and God’s final judgment. The trumpet is a reference to the final trumpet of God. During Old Testament times, the trumpet was a warning of upcoming war. The Day of the Lord, in which He judges mankind was prophesied by the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah to be a day of trumpet and battle cry. The reason that the trumpet “shall never call retreat” is that all of God’s enemies will have been defeated at this point.

The next line indicates that He is judging people on the basis of their hearts. Christians tend to use formulas (such as making a confession of faith) to describe how people are saved from the judgment. However, God does not judge based upon some simple formula or a half-hearted response to some alter call. God will judge one’s true beliefs from his heart.

The idea of answering the Lord at the judgment comes from a description given by Jesus in the book of Matthew. Jesus will sit on His throne before the nations of the world and separate the “sheep” (the righteous ones) from the “goats” (the unrighteous ones). The sheep are invited into the kingdom of heaven, while the goats are ordered to depart from Him “into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” During this process, there is a series of questions and answers from the Lord. However, the answers have no bearing on the result of the judgment since that has already been decided. All whose names are written in the book of life go to heaven, while all others go to hell, since they have rejected Jesus’ offer of salvation. Those who enter heaven will have jubilant feet, since there is much joy and rejoicing in heaven.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was a very popular patriotic song from the time it was written. Recently, it has fallen out of use (except in churches during Independence Day, Fourth of July, celebrations), probably because of its Christian religious content. However, its lyrics provide rich symbolism of the triumph of Jesus over His enemies.

Other Stanzas:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea;
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free;
While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave;
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave; Our God is marching on.

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