Hymn of the Month, November 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, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”
As with most hymns, “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is the product of the work of a group of people. The folk tune, or a version of it, was published in 1665. The tune was named Lobe Den Herren only after Joachim Neander (1650-1680) used it for his German chorale “Lobe den Herren den machtigen Konig der Ehren,” published in 1680.
Joachim Neander was a German preacher who came from a family of musicians and is known as one of the finest hymn writers in the German-speaking church since the Reformation. Neander died at the young age of 30 from tuberculosis, but left behind an enduring legacy of 60 hymns.
Years later a woman named Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878) translated Neander’s hymn into English, thereby making it accessible to English-speaking believers. She did the same with other well-known hymns, such as “Now Thank We All Our God.”
Winkworth began translating hymn texts into the English language during the early years of the Oxford movement. “Leaders of the Oxford movement believed that the English Reformation had gone too far and had thrown out much that was valuable in the pre-16th century church. They realized that hymns had been a significant part of worship, and they revived Greek hymns from the early years of the church, Latin hymns from the Roman Catholic Church and German hymn texts from the Lutheran Reformation.”
“We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Catherine Winkworth (1829-1878), who translated this and a number of other German hymns into English during the 19th century. But for her efforts, we would know nothing of Neander or his hymns today.”
We can but thank God for his sovereign hand guiding his faithful servants to provide us with this glorious hymn of praise!
Quotations from Richard Niell Donovan (lectionaries.org) and Chelsea Stern (umcdiscipleship.org).
“Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” is familiar to many of us. Yet, let’s take time to reflect on what we are singing, because this isn’t a typical hymn of praise.
Like Psalm 103, this hymn is indeed a song of praise, but only indirectly. Content-wise, it comes across as just as much of a call to praise as an exclamation of praise. In this hymn we sing God’s praise by acknowledging who he is, what he has done, and how all that calls us and all creation to adore him. As David did in Psalm 103, in this hymn we address our words to ourselves, each other, and all creation, but ultimately we do so in praise of the God who created us, loves us, and sustains us as a Father through Jesus Christ his Son. That should become evident as we reflect upon this hymn verse-by-verse.
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear, now to his temple draw near,
join me in glad adoration.
This hymn opens with a simple call to praise the Lord, and then immediately proceeds to identify that Lord of whom we sing. Who is he? He is the Almighty, the King of Creation. In other words, he is the God whose “throne is in heaven” (Ps 11:4), the God who “created all the children of man” (Ps 89:47), indeed, the God on whom our health and salvation depend, so much so that we declare here that he is our health and salvation. Apart from who he is and what he has done, most notably through Jesus Christ his Son, we would be most hopeless. In that light, we urge ourselves to praise him, and call each other and others to join me in glad adoration.
That idea of urging ourselves to praise God might sound laughable on the surface, but think about it: the person you listen to most from day to day is you. What you think and say to yourself can make a big difference in the course of a given day, week, or even lifetime. In that light, we who have tasted and seen that God is good (Ps 34:8) would be fools not to remind ourselves of his goodness and subsequently urge ourselves to praise him. Thus, following the lead of Psalm 103, this hymn leads us in doing precisely that.
Praise to the Lord, who o'er all things so wondrously reigneth,
shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen how thy desires e'er have been
granted in what he ordaineth?
In the second verse we go into more detail. After repeating the call to praise with which we began our song, we go on to elaborate on what we sung in the first verse. In particular, we remind ourselves that the Lord who so wondrously reigns over all things also shelters us under his wings, a biblical image meaning that he gives us refuge (see Ps 57:1). Indeed, the Almighty King of creation so gently sustains us.
Consequently, we close out this verse by asking ourselves a pointed question: have you not seen how your desires have always been granted in what God has ordained? That’s not to suggest that God has given us each and every thing we in our sinfulness have ever hankered for, but rather to affirm what David wrote in Psalm 145:19, namely that God “fulfills the desire of those who fear him.” Simply put, the Lord cares for us and provides for our needs. In that light, we ask ourselves this pointed question, again in order to urge ourselves to praise him.
Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee!
Surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee;
ponder anew what the Almighty will do,
if with his love he befriend thee!
In this verse our focus shifts: here we call ourselves to praise the Lord not for his goodness up to this point in our lives, but rather for his goodness today and in the future. Specifically, we remind ourselves that he prospers our work and defends us, and that his goodness and mercy shall surely attend us each and every day. In doing so we echo the well-known words of Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
In that light, in the second half of this verse we urge ourselves to ponder anew what the Almighty will do given the fact that he has befriended us. In the words of the apostle Paul from Romans 8, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Ponder that!
Do you talk to yourself like this? Although we joke about people who talk to themselves, let’s follow the lead of both the hymnwriter and David and talk to ourselves, in this verse specifically by urging ourselves to ponder anew what the Almighty will do given the fact that he has befriended us.
Praise to the Lord, who with marvelous wisdom hath made thee,
decked thee with health, and with loving hand guided and stayed thee.
How oft in grief hath not he brought thee relief,
spreading his wings to o'ershade thee!
In this verse we turn our eyes back to the past, focusing on our lives up to this point. In doing so we provide ourselves additional evidence to consider as we continue to ponder what the Almighty will do in the future.
What else has God done in the past that gives us hope for the future? For starters, he made us with marvelous wisdom, as the well-known words of Psalm 139 testify. He has also decked or furnished us with health, and with loving hand guided us. As the psalmist professed in Psalm 73:24, “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.” On top of that, he has stayed us as well. The word ‘stay’ here is used in an old way that means ‘supported’ or ‘kept from sinking.’ God has done that for us as well, as we go on to point out in more detail in the second half of this verse. In particular, we remind ourselves that God has often brought us relief in time of grief. As David likewise professed years ago, “You have given me relief when I was in distress” (Ps 4:1). In that light, the call of this verse once again is to praise him with joy in the present and hope for the future!
Praise to the Lord! O let all that is in me adore him!
All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before him.
Let the amen sound from his people again;
gladly fore'er we adore him.
With this final verse we close our hymn in much the same way Psalm 150 closes the book of Psalms. In Psalm 150 we hear the psalmist call for praise from every one and every thing in heaven and on earth. In the final verse he shouts, “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!” Here we do much the same, closing our call to praise much as we began in, but on a much grander scale. Instead of merely calling forth praise from ourselves and all who hear, we now urge all that has life and breath to come now with praises before him, the God whom we adore and look forward to doing so gladly forever, as the book of Revelation magnificently demonstrates.
Hymn of the Month, October 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, “O Father, You Are Sovereign.”
A few months ago we reflected upon one of earliest hymns of Margaret Clarkson (1915-2008): “We Come, O Christ, to You.” This month’s hymn comes from the other end of her life, a life of faith in Christ in the midst of unrelenting pain.
Particularly as we think about this month’s hymn, it is Clarkson’s pain and suffering that stands out. As one author has noted, “Throughout her life, she was plagued by pain; initially from migraines, accompanied by convulsive vomiting, and then arthritis—two ailments that accompanied her continually. In Destined for Glory, she related sadly that her mother told her that her first words were “my head hurts.’” This pain would be accompanied by other forms of suffering throughout her lifetime, especially severe feelings of loneliness and isolation. Her whole life was truly marked by pain.
At the same time, Clarkson’s life was also marked by a love for hymns. She found comfort and strength in hymns, both in their contents and in the community of saints that wrote these hymns. As Clarkson later explained, through hymns she began to see the church “as one continuous, living stream of the grace of God” in which she had a place. Time would prove that true in more than one way: she had a place alongside John Newton, Isaac Watts, and others not only as a fellow believer, but also as a fellow writer of rich and edifying hymns.
This month’s hymn, “O Father, You are Sovereign,” was published late in Clarkson’s life, in the midst of a burst of writing after her early retirement from teaching. Severe spinal problems compelled her to retire in 1973, at the age of 58, and though plagued by pain, she wrote most of her books in the decade that followed.
The tune of “O Father, You Are Sovereign” is perhaps best known from the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.” This tune was originally composed by Melchior Teschner of Germany for Valerius Herberger’s hymn for the dying, published during an epidemic. Only later did it become associated with the hymn “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” and even more recently Clarkson’s hymn before us now.
History drawn from the Wheaton College Archives website (http://bit.ly/1yeeAIz) and The Psalter Hymnal Handbook.
“O Father, You Are Sovereign” is a rather easy hymn to understand, but difficult to sing. That difficulty stems not from its tune, but instead from our hearts. Ever since Adam’s fall, we by nature like to think of ourselves as sovereign, that is, having supreme authority, independent of any other person or being. We like to believe that we have that kind of authority over our lives, our possessions, and maybe more. Furthermore, we convince ourselves that we are best qualified to handle such authority—better qualified than even God.
Thanks be to God though, God makes us see our self-deception for what it is. He has done so by his Word and Spirit and continues to do so. Thus, in this hymn we sing of what he has revealed in his Word and applied to our hearts by the working of the Holy Spirit. In particular, we profess that he is sovereign, and we express our confidence in his ability to exercise that sovereignty most wisely for our good and his glory.
O Father, you are sovereign
in all the worlds you made;
your mighty word was spoken
and light and life obeyed.
Your voice commands the seasons
and bounds the ocean’s shore,
sets stars within their courses
and stills the tempests’ roar.
Drawing on the first chapter of the Bible, we begin our song acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all creation. According to Genesis 1, light and life came into being by his mighty word. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. He said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds,” and we hear that it was so. Likewise, he said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and we were created.
That noted, God’s sovereignty over all creation didn’t stop when his work of creating was done. In the second half of this verse, we acknowledge that it continues to the present day. We know that from passages such as Psalm 104, a psalm which testifies to the Lord’s on-going involvement with this world and all its creatures. He was and still is truly sovereign over all creation.
O Father, you are sovereign
in all affairs of man;
no pow'rs of death or darkness
can thwart Your perfect plan.
All chance and change transcending,
supreme in time and space,
you hold your trusting children
secure in your embrace.
In this second verse we focus our attention specifically on God’s sovereignty in all affairs of man, that is, all the events of our lives, events both big and small. We know this from the testimony of Paul in Acts 17, where he told the men of Athens about the God who made us and determined our “allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place.” In this verse we sing to God our conviction that he is sovereign in all affairs of man, so much so that nothing can thwart his perfect plan, not even the pow’rs of death or darkness. According to Paul’s words later in Romans 8, he holds his people, his trusting children, securely—no one can separate them from his love in Jesus Christ his Son. He is sovereign in all affairs of man—period—and therein we rest.
O Father, you are sovereign
the Lord of human pain,
transmuting earthly sorrows
to gold of heav'nly gain.
All evil over-ruling,
as none but Conqu'ror could,
your love pursues its purpose --
our souls’ eternal good.
Here we take the profession we made in verse 2 a step further. In particular, we declare to God that we believe that he is sovereign not only in all affairs of man, but also in our hearts. We believe that God can and does transmute or transform the pain and sorrows of our lives to gold of heav’nly gain, and in this verse we acknowledge that before him. Much as Joseph explained to his brothers in Genesis 50, we now sing that what man intends for evil, God overrules and uses for our souls’ eternal good. God loves us—indeed, through Christ we sing this song to him as our Father—and it is our hope today that God is sovereign in our hearts, especially in the mist of well-nigh overwhelming temptations and trials.
O Father, you are sovereign!
We see you dimly now,
but soon before your triumph
earth’s every knee shall bow.
With this glad hope before us
our faith springs up anew:
our sovereign Lord and Savior,
we trust and worship you!
In this final verse we conclude with praise, joyful praise on account of his sovereignty that will be revealed when Christ Jesus returns in glory. We finish our song with joyful anticipation because on that day we will no longer see him dimly, as we do now according to 1 Corinthians 13:12. Rather, we will personally bask in the glorious and majestic presence of our Father. What is more, we will see every knee bow at the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father, as Paul exclaimed in Philippians 2. Thus, with glad hope we trust and worship our Father in heaven today. Will you? Do you? And do so with longing for the day when we will see and feel his good and glorious sovereignty in its fullness? Think about that.