Hymn of the Month, August 2015
Researched and written by Shelby Breedlove and Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Many of the hymns we sing are gems of wisdom, guidance, and admonition, drawn from God’s Word and set to music so that the word of Christ might dwell in us richly. Let’s take some time to dig into another of these this month, “Be Thou My Vision.”
History: The hymn’s inspiration
Some scholars believe that the words to this hymn were inspired by the man commonly known as Saint Patrick (c. 385 - c. 461). According to tradition, Patrick was born along the banks of the River Clyde, in what is now called Scotland. When he was 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland. There he devoted his life to Jesus Christ. He eventually escaped, but he never forgot this experience, and around the age of 30 he returned to his former captors with only one possession, a Bible. God blessed his preaching and witness richly: it is estimated that over 200 churches were established in Ireland through his efforts, and 100,000 converts were baptized.
History: The hymn’s text
The hymn’s original text is attributed to Dallán Forgaill, a 6th (or 8th) century monk, as a tribute to Patrick’s wholehearted loyalty to God. The text remained a part of Irish monastic tradition for centuries before later being set to music. The earliest existing manuscripts of the poem, found in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, have been dated as early as the 8th century.
More than a thousand years later, Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1931), a Dublin native, translated the poem from Old Irish into English prose. In 1905 she published it in Eriú, a journal of the School of Irish Learning. Eleanor Hull (1860-1935) subsequently versified the text and published it as part of a collection, The Poem Book of the Gael (1912).
Given this history, we ought not be surprised to see aspects of traditional Irish culture reflected in the language of this hymn. For instance, Helen Phelan, a lecturer at the University of Limerick, has noted, “One of the essential characteristics of the text is the use of ‘heroic’ imagery to describe God. This was very typical of medieval Irish poetry, which cast God as the ‘chieftain’ or ‘High King’ who provided protection to his people or clan.”
History: The hymn’s tune
When Hull’s versification was paired with a lovely Irish tune in The Irish Church Hymnal in 1919, its popularity was sealed. The tune was a folk melody taken from a non-liturgical source, an unpublished collection of Irish folk songs by Patrick Weston Joyce.
Following its original publication in Ireland, the hymn appeared in a number of British hymnals. It came to the attention of editors in the U.S. after World War II, and has become a standard in most hymnals today.
History taken from Wikipedia.com, sharefaith.com: http://bit.ly/1I2keyP, songsandhymns.org: http://bit.ly/1KAeoFX, and umcdiscipleship.org: http://bit.ly/1h5CUVJ.
“Be Thou My Vision” is a well-loved hymn, and it’s not hard to see why. Altogether its five verses constitute a simple, heart-felt prayer, a prayer that both refocuses our hearts on our Triune God and expresses our hope in him.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, save that thou art--
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
In this first verse, we ask God to work in us in such a way that he is our vision, that he is what we see. Every day we need to see who he is and what he has done and is doing in order to navigate the day’s temptations and trials, big and small. Not only that, but the true hope and joy that sustain our hearts grow out of that vision, that perspective. It’s not for nothing that we acknowledge to God that he is our best thought, by day or by night, that waking or sleeping, his presence is our light. Likewise, we hear David say much the same thing at the close of Psalm 36: “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.” Thus we pray in song for God to work in us in such a way that he continues to be our vision.
Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
thou my great Father, I thy true son;
thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.
We go on in the second verse to ask God to work in us in such a way that he is our wisdom, that he leads us and guides us to keep his word faithfully. More and more, we want our lives to look like what Jesus said in John 14:23: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Thus we pray in song together, Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word; I ever with the and thou with me, Lord.
Be thou my battle shield, sword for my fight;
be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
thou my soul’s shelter, thou my high tow’r;
raise thou me heav’n-ward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.
Regularly throughout Psalms we hear God spoken of as a shield. In Psalm 33:20, for instance, we read, “Our soul waits for the LORD; he is our help and our shield.” In this verse we profess to God that he is our shield or, to put it differently, our soul’s shelter or high tower.
Before and after making that profession, however, we plead with God to be our shield and to raise us heavenward. We not only believe that he is our shield, but we also rely on him to be that for us today! Even with all our modern conveniences, life can be difficult and even painful. Be thou my battle shield… raise thou me heavenward, O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
thou mine inheritance, now and always:
thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my treasure thou art.
In Matthew 13 Jesus told a couple parables to impress upon his hearers the incomparable value of God and his kingdom. The kingdom is like “treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Similarly, the kingdom “is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” In this verse of our hymn we acknowledge that before God. Yes, our hearts naturally gravitate toward earthly riches and man’s empty praise, but here and now we profess that God is more valuable. Here and now we tell him that he is our inheritance, now and always.
High King of heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
This closing verse is a jumble of confidence and need that not only fittingly brings this sung prayer to a close, but also fittingly expresses what is going on in our hearts and lives in this life. We who believe in Jesus Christ can and do call upon God as the High King of heaven, who has given us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. We, however, have yet to reach heaven’s joys, and there are plenty of temptations and trials that might befall each of us before then. Thus, even as we rejoice with confidence in this final verse, we plead that God would work in us in such a way that we would reach heaven’s joys and that all the way there he would still be our vision.
Is this, together with the cries of the previous verses, your prayer through Jesus Christ? May God work in all our hearts that it might be.
Written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
Published in the Courier of Russellville, Arkansas on July 31, 2015
Last year the New York Times ran a story about Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York. It focused on his recent work on a number of social causes.
The story itself was predictable, except for the following paragraph, which came at the very end.
“But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: ‘I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.’”
Really? What gives him reason to believe that?
What does the Bible say? Does the Bible give him or any of us reason to trust in what we’ve done?
No. Absolutely not.
For instance, in Acts 4:12 we hear the apostle Peter say this concerning Jesus: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
Peter was quite clear: salvation is not a do-it-yourself project. We are reconciled to God only in Jesus Christ, on account of who he is and what he did, particularly in his death and resurrection.
Similarly, we hear Paul explain in 1 Tim 2:5-6 that “there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
One of the Protestant Reformers, writing nearly five centuries ago, considered the question of why the Son of God is called “Jesus,” meaning “savior.” On the basis of those passages and others, he plainly stated: “Because he saves us from our sins. Salvation cannot be found in anyone else; it is futile to look for any salvation elsewhere.”
And then, just in case any of his readers didn’t fully understand him, he went on to ask, “Do those who look for their salvation and security in saints, in themselves, or elsewhere really believe in the only savior Jesus?”
Answer: “No. Although they boast of being his, by their deeds they deny their only savior and deliverer, Jesus. Either Jesus is not a perfect savior, or those who in true faith accept this savior have in him all they need for their salvation.”
Where do you stand today? Whom or what is your confidence in?
Think about it.
For further study, read Romans 3:19-26 and Colossians 1:19-20.