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.