Story behind the song – Onwards and Upwards

by / Saturday, 10 August 2013 / Published in songstory

Bible references: Numbers 9-14; Hebrews 3-4; Philippians 1-4

Themes: Perseverance, evangelism, grace, hope

I’m not generally a fan of making decisions, but each year I do enjoy choosing songs for the choir of hundreds at Perth Women’s Convention. So many great songs out there! BUT, when I discovered in 2006 that the talks would be from the book of Numbers (what?!), and looked up “themes” in the squillions of songs on ccli, strangely enough none of them had “Numbers” listed in their top 3. In fact, you are hard pressed to find many songs at all based on the Old Testament other than the Psalms. So I thought, why not write one? (As it turns out, there are many, many reasons not to write songs. But no one had told me about that, so I jumped in.)

How do you write a song on the book of Numbers? Isn’t it just a collection of facts, figures and laws of an obscure group of people roaming the desert on the way to who knows where? What relation does it have to a group of women who live thousands of years later on the other side of the globe? The question puzzled me so much that the conference came and went without its theme song.

I got the first verse done. “It’s still so far until Canaan…”, but it wasn’t until the next year’s conference when we were studying Philippians (phew!) that it became clear how to finish the Numbers song. On the surface, our lives look very different to those Israelites wandering in the desert. But the New Testament writers often compare the experience of the Christian living in the “now and the not yet” with that of the Israelites living in the wilderness on the way to the promised land.

They were to be shaped by God’s great act of salvation from slavery, and to set their eyes “onwards” to the land he was preparing for them, and “upwards” to the cloud and the fire which was to guide them there. They were to forget their old life of slavery in the times they were tempted to look back on it fondly, and fix their eyes on the prize, the promised land where God would dwell with them forever. Now does it sound familiar? (See Philippians 1:6, 1:27, 2;12-16, 3:7-8, 3:12-14, 3:20. In fact, just read the whole letter. It’s brilliant.)

Despite the trials and struggles that they (and we) endure, I still wanted the song to feel joyful and uplifting. We don’t travel to the promised land alone. The God of all grace dwells in us together by his Spirit as we walk “side by side” on our journey, and as we fix our eyes “upwards” on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, and “onwards” to the land that he is preparing for us.

This song has had about 10 different bridges. My apologies to those who learned one of the old ones. I’ve settled on this one because it gives some explanation to the phrase “Onwards and upwards” so that it’s not just a “chin-up” kind of cliché. The song slowly builds from the beginning to the end, giving the effect of people joining in the journey, encouraging one another on the way.

© 2013 Liz Gordon

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