Hymn of the Month, March 2019
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
For how young it is, “How Great Thou Art” is a surprisingly well-known and well-loved hymn. Countless people, including the likes of Billy Graham and Elvis Presley, have ranked it among their favorites. It even came second in a Christianity Today survey of favorite hymns of all time, right behind “Amazing Grace.”
The words of “How Great Thou Art” in our Trinity Hymnal are ascribed to a British missionary named Stuart Hine (1899-1989), but they originated in Sweden over a decade before Hine’s birth. In 1885 Carl Gustav Boberg (1859-1940), a Swedish lay preacher and poet, was caught in a thunderstorm while taking a walk with some friends. After the storm was over and Boberg was home, he opened a window that faced the newly calm bay near his house. The open window also let in the sound of church bells tolling after a funeral. The contrast between the fierce storm and the calmness afterwards inspired him to write a poem, which he did that very night. Early the next year Boberg submitted this nine-verse poem, titled “O store Gud” (“O Great God”), for publication. Within a couple years it had been paired with a Swedish folk tune and sung in worship. Not objecting to the pairing, Boberg published that tune and his poem together in 1891 in the weekly Christian newspaper that he had recently become editor of. Boberg wrote other poems and later even served in Sweden’s parliament for nearly two decades, but he is best remembered for “O store Gud.”
Boberg’s poem followed a lengthy and circuitous route before Stuart Hine encountered it. In 1907 it was translated from Swedish to German by a businessman who had heard the hymn in Estonia. That German translation then traveled to Russia, where Ivan Prokhanov, a prominent evangelical leader and source of many Russian hymns, translated it into his native language. That was how Hine encountered it, while ministering in Ukraine. In 1934 Hine remembered the hymn, while on an evangelistic mission in the Carpathian Mountains of Eastern Europe. Inspired what he remembered of Boberg’s hymn in its Russian form, Hine wrote the first three verses of “How Great Thou Art” (in both English and Russian). He added the fourth verse after the end of World War II, while ministering to sorrowful refugees who had come to England from Eastern Europe.
Hines wrote two other verses for the Russian version of his hymn, and though neither of them has been published much, one of them is worthy of inclusion here:
When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love He brings me sweet assurance:
'My child! for thee sufficient is my grace'.
As its title suggests, “How Great Thou Art” is a song of praise to God for his greatness. In it we express awe and adoration for his power displayed in creation first of all, and then for his mighty work of redemption. As Psalm 145:3 exclaims, “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised,” and we echo that truth in this month’s hymn.
O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
consider all the worlds thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
how great thou art, how great thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
how great thou art, how great thou art!
We begin this month’s hymn mentioning parts of God’s creation that prompt majestic wonder in us. This world and every other planet, the stars and thunder—these and other parts of his creation display his power. He is the one who made and still governs each one. Scripture declares, for instance, that “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Ps. 147:4). Storms too are under his control: “He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Ps. 135:7). Seeing all this, we sing to him, how great thou art! For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps. 96:4).
When through the woods and forest glades I wander,
and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
and hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze; <Chorus>
We shift our focus in this second verse from the awe-inspiring parts of God’s creation to the serenely wonderful, shifting from the likes of lofty mountain grandeur to gentle brooks and breezes. This verse leads us in imagining a walk through woods and forest glades on a peaceful day, while birds sing sweetly in the trees, a brook gurgles nearby, and a gentle breeze wafts ever-new freshness our way. In this too we see God’s greatness. The trees, for instance, belong to him according to Psalm 148:5, 9. The same is true of the birds: “I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Ps. 50:11). Thus we repeat, how great thou art!
And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
he bled and died to take away my sin. <Chorus>
As much as God’s creation displays his greatness, his work of redemption radiates his greatness even more stunningly. This third verse leads us in recalling that this great God who created and governs both the awe-inspiring and serenely wonderful did not spare his Son, but sent him to die to take away my sin. By nature each of us is a diehard rebel against the great God of heaven and earth. We live in his world, with displays of his power all around us, but do we naturally acknowledge his rule over us and thank him for his daily care? No! In fact, we do just the opposite! God’s gift of his Son is therefore a display of greatness we can scarce take in. “He… did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us…” (Rom. 8:32). And the Son, for his part, gladly bore the burden sinners like us: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John. 10:18). This he did, as 1 Peter 2:24 states, “that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.” Thus we repeat yet again, how great thou art! This is most fitting according to Psalm 40:16: “May those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!’”
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art. <Chorus>
This final verse continues to lead us in singing of God’s greatness in the work of redemption. According to the Father’s plan, Christ shall come again and take all his people to be with him forever. As Paul wrote, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20). There and then we will declare God’s greatness in humble adoration: “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations” (Rev. 15:3)! How great thou art!
Hymn of the Month, February 2019
Researched and written by Rev. Nicholas Davelaar
According to blogger Tim Challies, “‘Abide with Me’ is one of the best-loved English hymns of the past 150 years.” Most of us would doubtless agree, and maybe even go so far as to speculate that it might be one the best-loved English hymns of all time.
The words of “Abide with Me” were penned by an Anglican priest named Henry Francis Lyte. Born in Scotland in 1793 and educated in Ireland, he initially intended to study medicine, but instead became a priest. He served three different congregations between 1815 and 1847.
According to his daughter, Lyte wrote “Abide with Me” during the final year of his life, when his health was particularly poor: “The summer was passing away, and the month of September (that month in which he was once more to quit his native land [to convalesce in southern France]) arrived, and each day seemed to have a special value as being one day nearer his departure.
“His family were surprised and almost alarmed at his announcing his intention of preaching once more to his people. His weakness and the possible danger attending the effort, were urged to prevent it, but in vain. ‘It was better,’ as he used to say often playfully, when in comparative health, ‘to wear out than to rust out.’ He felt that he should be enabled to fulfill his wish, and feared not for the result. His expectation was well founded. He did preach, and amid the breathless attention of his hearers, gave them a sermon on the Holy Communion....
“In the evening of the same day he placed in the hands of a near and dear relative the little hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, with an air of his own composing, adapted to the words.”
A couple months later Lyte died in southern France.
Lyte’s original hymn contained eight verses; few hymnals, even in the 19th century, print all of them. The Trinity Hymnal, like most hymnals, omits verses 3-5:
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,
Come, not to sojourn, but abide with me!
Come not in terrors as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing on Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea;
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me!
Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee:
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me!
In 1861 an English organist named William Henry Monk (1823-1889) composed the tune that accompanies Lyte’s hymn almost exclusively today. One common but disputed story has Monk sitting down at a piano and writing the tune in ten minutes during a committee meeting for the 1861 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern. In any case, William Monk was a skilled musician who not only contributed several tunes for that hymnal, but also served as its musical editor.
Though some people think of “Abide with Me” as a funeral song—and when played too slowly it certainly can feel like one—the hymn’s words make for a rich expression of dependence on God for believers old and young. They flesh out the profession of Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” Built on an awareness of that reality, this hymn is “a sustained call for God’s personal presence in every stage and condition of life.” That’s particularly hard to miss given the plea repeated at the end of each verse: abide with me. In God we hope and rest, and this hymn leads us in acknowledging that to him.
Abide with me: fast falls the eventide:
the darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide:
when other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The first verse of our hymn gets right to the point; in its opening words we call out to God, Abide with me: fast falls the eventide. In form, this plea is based on Luke 24:29. In that verse we hear the two disciples who had walked with Jesus to Emmaus say, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” In content, however, this plea flows from the likes of Psalm 27:9 and John 14:4. In Psalm 27:9 we hear David plead, “Hide not your face from me. Turn not your servant away in anger, O you who have been my help. Cast me not off; forsake me not, O God of my salvation!” Expressed positively, David was pleading with God to abide with him. He felt keenly his need for God and said as much. David needed God’s help, care, and presence no less than we do according to Jesus. In John 15:4 we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.”
Drawing on that reality, we call upon God here, asking him to abide with me when—and because--other helpers fail and comforts flee. This happens especially near death, but also before then, as seen in the life of the apostle Paul. In one of his letters we hear Paul recount a time when all deserted him, all but the Lord (2 Tim 4:16-17). The Lord is the help of the helpless, and so we fittingly close the first verse by repeating its opening plea: abide with me.
Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me.
This second verse doubtless deserves much of the credit for this hymn’s reputation as a funeral song. It leads us in summarizing the testimony of God’s Word concerning our mortality. Our lives are swiftly ebbing: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Ps 90:10). Our glory passes away: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass” (1 Pet 1:24). Change and decay are all around us: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19). Thus we ask the God who never changes, whose years have no end, to abide with me (Ps 102:27).
I need thy presence every passing hour;
what but thy grace can foil the tempter's pow'r?
Who like thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, O abide with me.
This third verse continues the theme of the first two verses, but focuses on the trials and temptations we face. To borrow the words of the apostle Paul, we are in danger every hour (1 Cor 15:30), and who but the Shepherd can guide us (Ps 23; Is 40:11; John 10)? Thus we repeat our call: abide with me.
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if thou abide with me.
We start this new verse with an unmistakable allusion to Psalm 27:1: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” This, we profess, is true even in the face of death. Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory? we ask, in a near quotation of 1 Corinthians 15:55. No, even in death we triumph, if God abides with us. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
heav'n's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee:
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
As we look ahead in this final verse, beyond the neediness, death, temptation, and grief to the glories of God’s heavenly kingdom, we finish our song with a prayer that God keep the cross before our eyes. We desire it to be something like the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through their wilderness wanderings, shining through the gloom and pointing the way to the Promised Land. All we who trust in Jesus Christ are headed for the land where “night will be no more,” where we “will need no light of map or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:5). In that regard, abide with me is not only our plea, but also our declaration of joyful hope. In life and in death, our God will abide with us.
Is that both your plea and your hope?