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Monday, January 13, 2020

A Fresh Look at "How Great Thou Art"

We have covered the topic of hymns and the use of music in Christendom before. The overarching goal is to have us treat songs as we do everything that comes our way. That is, we need to filter all through doctrine. We've also noted the role of music. Its primary function is not to take the place of teaching, but rather to supplement teaching and for praise (Psalm 150; etc.).

I have nothing against the hymns. There are many hymns I love and cherish. If you follow this blog, you know I was raised in a conservative Catholic diocese and parish. We had hymns, many (most?) of which contained dangerous heresy. So the word "hymn" does not absolve us of the duty to test all things.

We've seen in our studies on this topic how some hymns used historically in Evangelical or Fundamental Christendom can also contain terrible error. We compared some hymns to certain contemporary Christian songs as examples of why doctrine is what matters. We also revealed how the trappings surrounding the hymns are also inconsequential (robes, organs, altars, beats, etc.).

We examined some of the criticisms of contemporary music by "discernment" ministries. In some cases we turned their man-made standards onto certain hymns. We've looked at other "sacred hymns." The Bible must be our arbiter.

If you search the internet for a list of the most popular hymns, there is only little variation. On one particular list, "How Great Thou Art" comes in at number 2 (behind "Amazing Grace"). As an aside, both of these hymns appear on the CD, "How Great Thou Art: 30 Catholic Songs of Worship." This does not taint the hymns, but it does reveal that the doctrines are only particular to Evangelical Christianity because we filter them as Evangelicals. There's nothing wrong with filtering (when possible), it is what a biblical mind should do.

So let's take a closer look at the beloved hymn.

O Lord my God,
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all
The works Thy Hand hath made,
I see the stars,
I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy pow'r throughout
The universe displayed

Lovely. No doctrinal complaints. The creation surely shows his handiwork. But on its own, It could be sung by a follower of just about any religion in the world. It is only "deep" and "doctrinal" because we want to perceive it that way.

I once worked with a number of African Muslims (including an Imam). When a beautiful butterfly flew into our workplace I commented how idiotic it is to believe that such a creature happened by accident for no reason. The Muslims agreed. But that hardly made them Christians. Fortunately, we were able to have other conversations about the uniqueness of Christ and his work on our behalf. Nothing in the verse would objectionable to them.

When through the woods
And forest glades I wander
I 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
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!

 This second verse is only slightly better in that it includes "Savior God." But, again, completely applicable across almost any and all religions.

When Christ shall come,
With shouts of acclamation,
And take me home,
What joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow
In humble adoration
And there proclaim

Ah, finally the name of Christ! This mention does exclude the religions which deny the second coming of Christ, but says nothing about qualifying for salvation. In addition, it neglects the fact that not every believer's hope is in the heavenly places. For many, their hope is on the earth and he will come back and rule and reign here. Those of us who understand the distinction between the "parousia" and the "epiphenea" of the Lord may get something out of this verse, but that truth is not clearly taught here (I doubt the writer understood it anyway).

In the end, it is nice song. Nothing wrong with it. It's not sinful. And it does allow us who know the true God to praise him for his creation and the promise of the return of Christ. But that hardly makes it deep, sacred, or particularly doctrinal. As we have noted in studied on the name of the Lord and in the scriptures use of pronouns, the Lord knows who are his and he knows our hearts. You can sing "How Great Thou Art" and include in your hymnal and on a CD, but if you don't know the Savior personally through resting in his finished work, it's useless.

Yesterday in our local meeting, one of these songs we sand was "Reckless Love." I'm not a big fan of the song for a number of reasons, but be that as it may, it's just as focused as "How Great Thou Art" and in some ways even more so.

O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
O, it chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn't earn it, I don't deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
O, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God

"I couldn't earn it" is more Evangelical that anything in the "sacred hymn." I'm not a big fan of either Elevation Music or Hillsong Worship, but the lyrics in Hisllsong's "The Passion" are equal to or superior to most of the lyric on the top hymns list. Certainly these lyrics are far more precise and doctrinal than anything in "How Great Thou Art:"

The passion of our Saviour
The mercy of our God
The cross that leaves no question
Of the measure of His love 
Our chains are gone, our debt is paid
The cross has overthrown the grave
For Jesus' blood that sets us free
Means death to death and life for me 
The Innocent judged guilty
While the guilty one walks free
Death would be His portion
And our portion liberty

I've covered this before, but the lines, "the cross has overthrown the grave," and "death to death," have more truth about what was accomplished in the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ than almost any hymn about the cross.