Monsell’s "I hunger and I thirst": Reflection of a Pilgrim

“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  We try to avoid the reality that we are hungry, thirsty, and needy in every sense, always. A hymn by the little-known writer J. S. B. Monsell speaks to us where we are. This hymn reminds me that I must always come to the Lord’s Table--and into His presence at any time--hungry for more of Him. I must acknowledge my poverty if I am to receive from Him any time I come before Him.   This hymn reminds me that I can only come to the Lord Jesus in a way pleasing to Him if I am hungry for more of Him.  If I am to receive anything from Him when I enter His presence and approach His Table, I have to acknowledge my poverty

The poet arranges in a symmetrical arch form the images of living Water, Bread, Vine, Bread, and Water, enriching imagery and language from the Exodus wilderness narrative with New Testament emblems of Christ from His parables and gospels. 

Stanza 1 recalls Jesus’ claim that He was the Bread of Heaven and living Water, yet is a cry for help asking Him to be my sufficiency today, just as He provided physical food for Israel then.

Stanza 2 brings the image of bread to the crucifixion with the striking alliterative phrase “bruised and broken Bread”; Jesus’ perfect, final sacrifice alone can sustain me now and forever.

In a poem of five stanzas the third stanza often holds a special role as the centerpiece. It can serve as a fulcrum upon which the entire text turns. This third stanza is an oasis in a desert land.  The picture of fruit is suddenly evoked here in the Vine image, sweet fruit which is the life of Christ “that sweetens mine”. This stanza is richly evocative, bringing to our lips the very taste of “new wine” by which Jesus depicted His gospel and coming kingdom. The fragrance of Christ hangs heavy in the air. 

Stanza four abruptly brings us back to the rough paths of the barren land and the pilgrim’s path.  It also recalls the heavenly Bread from stanza two, in a striking isocolon that juxtaposes Christ’s divine and human names and brings into sharp focus his fully dual nature as God/Man: “Bread of God” and “Son of Man.”  This is the prayer of a hungry soul: “Feed me, help me.” 

At the end, the hymn seems to leave us where we began, in mid-journey, but we are changed, renewed. The desert still lies behind and ahead, but we have met Christ there, fed on His grace--the Christ Who meets us, Who meets our hunger, thirst, and weakness with Himself as heavenly Bread, Vine, and living Water from the true Rock, evermore. 

I hunger and I thirst   

I hunger and I thirst;
Jesus, my manna be;
O living Water, burst
out of the rock for me!

O bruised and broken Bread,
my life-long needs supply:
as living souls are fed,
so feed me, or I die.

O true life-giving Vine,
let me your goodness prove:
by your life sweeten mine,
refresh my soul with love.

Rough paths my feet have trod
since first their course began:
feed me, O Bread of God,
help me, O Son of Man.

For still the desert lies
behind me and before:
O living Water, rise
within me evermore!

Dr. Esther Crookshank is a Professor of Church Music at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. She teaches in the areas of hymnology, musicology, applied ethnomusicology, and musical aesthetics.