Lest we forget

With Remembrance Day approaching, I found myself thinking about the phrase "Lest we forget."  Specifically, I began to wonder where it came from.  To my surprise, I discovered that a very early usage of the phrase is in a poem by Rudyard Kipling, which is itself a contemporary meditation on biblical themes.

Kipling's "Recessional"

God of our fathers, known of old,  

   Lord of our far-flung battle-line,  

Beneath whose awful Hand we hold

   Dominion over palm and pine—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


The tumult and the shouting dies;

   The Captains and the Kings depart:  

Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,

   An humble and a contrite heart.

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


Far-called, our navies melt away;

   On dune and headland sinks the fire:  

Lo, all our pomp of yesterday

   Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!  

Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,  

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


If, drunk with sight of power, we loose  

   Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,  

Such boastings as the Gentiles use,

   Or lesser breeds without the Law—

Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!


For heathen heart that puts her trust  

   In reeking tube and iron shard,

All valiant dust that builds on dust,

   And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,  

For frantic boast and foolish word—

Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!


The poem

When Kipling wrote "Recessional," the British Empire was at the peak of its power.  Military victories the world over gave the British populace a tempting reason to glory in their own military might.

Against this backdrop, Kipling juxtaposed the transient nature of human power with the everlasting omnipotence of God – “the shooting and the tumult end / the captains and the kings depart / still stands thine ancient sacrifice... Lord God be with us yet.”  When the dust from all human wars settles, human armies will be forgotten, but God will stand, unscathed, unchanged, as He has for all eternity.  HE is our hope.  There's a neat piece of irony that may be lost on us - behind the saying ‘Lord of hosts’ is a Hebrew military expression that means ‘Lord of the heavenly army,’ so Kipling is really calling his audience to trust God’s eternal heavenly strength, not a mortal army.

The poem really boils down to a prayer – ‘Lest we forget, God, amidst the excitement of military victory and human accomplishment that You are sovereign and unchanging and we are not, be with us and have mercy on us.”  As a prayer, it calls on God to do that; as a poem, it warns its audience not to think too highly of their military progress and strength and to instead trust God, whose way of victory is actually through sacrifice – “an humble and contrite heart.”

Biblical themes

Kipling is giving voice to two biblical ideas – ‘Don't put all your trust in human strength’ and ‘Don't forget that all you have is from God.’

The first is a central concept in the narratives of David (and sons)'s kingship.  Psalm 33 sums it up nicely:

16 The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.

 17 The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.

 18 Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love,

 19 that he may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine.

 20 Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.

  (Psalm 33:16-21 ESV)


The second theme has its roots in Deuteronomy 6:

"10 And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you--with great and good cities that you did not build,

 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant--and when you eat and are full,

 12 then take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Deuteronomy 6:10-12 ESV).

God directed Moses to teach His people to remember God’s goodness, lest they forget that their blessings are all from Him; Kipling borrows the language to make the same point.

For us

In an age of significant wealth and ease, it would be all too easy for us to fall into the same trap as the Israelites and Kipling's audience before us.  Our culture gets so wrapped up in our own achievements that we are tempted to forget that God is there, and that all we do is unfolding within His wise and gracious sovereignty.  As we consider our well-being, let us treasure above all God's unchanging and merciful character, ‘lest we forget’ that it is God who has seen fit to bless us so.

If you followed this link hoping for practical Remembrance Day ideas, my apologies.  The best that I can offer you is the thought behind Kipling's poem and this prayer:


God, You are above all things: all powers, all rulers, all authorities.  

Help us to celebrate Your omnipotence, Your graciousness, Your faithful provision

lest we forget how good and trustworthy You truly are!

Lest we forget,

God of Hosts be with us yet.