Like Button

Sunday, April 24, 2016

How Great Thou Art

I'm writing about one of my all-time favorite hymns this Sunday.

The famous hymn, How Great Thou Art, was originally a poem entitled "O Store Gud" written by a Swedish pastor after experiencing the might of God's nature in a thunderstorm and the beauty of God's nature in the forest and stream he speaks of in the second verse. He wrote it in 1886, but it was translated in the 1930's by a missionary to Russia, Reverend Stuart K. Hine. Reverend Hine added the third verse in Russia, and the fourth in England.
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 power 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!"
The song is a prayer. One of the fascinating aspects of this prayer is that there are no requests. It is a prayer of adoration. This is almost unheard of in our time. We are a generation of self-centered people who defend and encourage self-centered attitudes and actions. We are the focal point of our own universe. Even in our prayers we are asking God for what we want, for what would make us happy. This prayer focuses entirely on God and His greatness.

Let's listen in as the hymnist talks to God. Note first the address: "O Lord, my God." "Lord" speaks of God's sovereignty, His lordship. In theological terms, it speaks of the transcendence of God, the God above all.

"Lord" isn't a familiar term to modern day Americans. We are an independent nation that worships freedom and independence. We prefer not to recognize anyone as master over us. We have no present-day role to use as an example of the meaning of the term. But we must learn to recognize -- "realize" (that is, to make that which is true real to ourselves) -- that God is Lord. This isn't an opinion. This isn't an option. Any view that strays from the position of God's absolute sovereignty is in error.

The second aspect of the address, "O Lord, my God," is the term "my". To call Him God is correct. There is none other. He is the one and only God. But the term "my" personalizes the relationship between God, the Sovereign, and me. Theologically, this speaks to His immanence.

Martin Luther said that Christianity is a religion of personal pronouns. We constantly read expressions like "my God," "My people," "my Lord." This points to the personal facet of God, the amazing truth that God is interested in me. No other religion in the world carries this concept of personal relationship. But Jesus said that God knows the number of hairs on my head. That's personal. He wants us to know Him. That's astonishing. We can pray with Moses, "Teach me Thy ways, O Lord, that I might know Thee." (Exo. 33:18-23)

The prayer goes on to recognize God through creation. This is a common occurrence in Scripture (e.g., Psa. 19; Rom. 1:20). All of creation points to its Maker. All created things bear the fingerprints of their Creator.

One consideration of nature is "worlds". The word covers many concepts. Above us there are a myriad of galaxies, stars, solar systems -- worlds. But in the microscopic level there are chemical structures made up of molecular structures comprised of atomic structures -- worlds. In our world there are food chains, life cycles, ecosystems, weather patterns -- worlds. God’s hands, the hymnist says, made each of these. (This takes us back to the personal God.) And each of these, as in the thunderstorm, is a picture of God's power.

The only reasonable response to a glimpse of this sovereign, yet personal, transcendent, yet immanent God is, "How great Thou art!" The hymnist sings it with his innermost being, his soul. The soul encompasses one's mind, will, and emotions. A glimpse of God must impact us at these deepest of levels, or it wasn't real. The soul turned toward God has no room for self.
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.
Paul says "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8) The recurring theme of God's love appears all through Scripture (e.g., John 3:16; Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 8:32). It seems, however, that we have taken that grace for granted, as if we somehow deserve God's love. The hymnist didn't see it that way. "I scarce can take it in," was his thought.

Romans says that God was perfectly willing to reveal His glory by demonstrating His wrath (Rom. 9:22). We have gone to great effort to earn His wrath (Romans 6:23). We are, according to Scripture, God-haters (Rom. 8:7; James 4:4). Yet, Christ demonstrated grace - unmerited favor - on the cross. If I have personal worth, intrinsic value, then there is no grace. He merely practiced wise economy. But the fact is Christ died for us because He wanted to, not because I was so valuable.

"On the cross . . . He bled and died." Crucifixion was the worst way to die. Physically, it was designed for the utmost in pain and torture without immediate death. The whipping, the nails, the continuous physical torture of merely breathing while every bone came out of joint, all designed for slow death. Emotionally, it was devised to humiliate. It was a public torture in which the criminal carried his own instrument of death. He hung naked on the cross in front of all that watched. But the only record of Christ crying out was at the spiritual torment of the cross. At the moment of separation from His Father, He cried, "My God, why have You forsaken Me?" He had never been separated from God. He had never known sin. Yet He became sin for us.

Perhaps most remarkable about that day on the cross was the simple, inescapable fact that Jesus chose to do it. No one required it of Him. He could have said, "No." The hymnist recognized this fact. "My burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin."

How can we see this and not answer with the writer, "Then sings my soul, 'How great Thou art!'" When we take for granted the immense love and grace demonstrated on the cross, we display our ignorance and self-centeredness.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, "My God, how great Thou art!"
The last verse is a common concept among hymn-writers. Many hymns looked to the return of Christ, to the day that we would be with Him. It was a joyous thought. The prospect of being in the presence of the Almighty God, the company of our Lord and Savior, was too wonderful to imagine.

We were designed for that condition. It was Adam's original condition in the garden, walking with God. We are incomplete here without that fellowship, so we immerse ourselves in spurious pursuits to fill that void. Meanwhile, Jesus promised to prepare for our arrival (John 14:2,3). What delight to know that He is anticipating our coming! Would that we would see it with such joy.

Hine had no misconceptions about that day. We have ideas of sightseeing in heaven or visiting with biblical characters. He saw his proper response to God's presence as bowing in "humble adoration." Bowing to anyone is not a popular concept in our culture. We are proud people who defer to no one. But Scripture readily reveals that this is the most common position of anyone who came in contact with God. We have failed to see the difference between coming boldly into the presence of God and coming arrogantly into the presence of God. That we can stand in His proximity at all should utterly amaze us. Somehow we have contracted a cavalier attitude that God is some "big guy" upstairs who winks at our sin because He loves us. We mustn't fall into that thought trap.

The hymn is aptly titled, "How Great Thou Art!" It speaks of God's sovereignty as Lord -- His transcendence -- as well as his personal care for us -- His immanence. In it we see Him as the joy of our souls and the sole worthy focus of our hearts. And we see ourselves as needy, sinful people. We see the need to turn the eyes of our souls to Him. He must increase, and I must decrease.


Craig said...

Great hymn!

Stan said...

One of the very best.