(June 14, 2015: First Sunday of series on “Our Favorite Hymns”…this week’s hymn was “How Great Thou Art.”)
Genesis 1:1—2:9; Revelation 22:1-5, 12-14
Today’s hymn is a favorite of many people, and a favorite for singing at funeral services, probably because of that last verse about going home. It’s only been in most hymnals since the 1950s, although its original version dates back about sixty years or so before that.
It was originally written in Swedish, under the title “O Mighty God.” The tune is an adaptation of a Swedish folk tune. And what we have in our hymnal is not the first English version of the song. E. Gustav Johnson translated it first, in 1925, directly from Swedish (“How Great Thou Art” as we have it now was not translated directly from Swedish; I’ll explain that in a moment). This is his version—note it has five verses, not four.
O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of Thine,
And how Thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life in love benign,
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
When I behold the heavens in their vastness,
Where golden ships in azure issue forth,
Where sun and moon keep watch upon the fastness
Of changing seasons and of time on earth,
When I behold His Son to earth descending,
To help and heal and teach distressed mankind;
When evil flees and death in fear is bending
Before the glory of the Lord divine,
When, crushed by guilt of sin, before Him kneeling
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel His balm and, all my bruises healing,
He saves my soul and sets my heart at ease.
When finally the mists of time have vanished,
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished,
I enter, Lord, to dwell in peace with Thee.
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
Thanks be to Thee, O mighty God!
Those words are directly translated from Swedish, as I mentioned, unlike the more familiar song. It came into being in a much more roundabout way.
Carl Boberg wrote the original hymn in 1885. Twenty-two years later it was rediscovered by an Estonian by the name of Manfred von Glehn, and he translated it into German. Then in 1912 the Reverend Ivan Prokhanoff translated this German version into Russian.
In 1923 Stuart Hine and his wife were missionaries in western Ukraine. He discovered this Russian version of the hymn, and he translated it into English, and brought it back to England with him when he and his wife returned there in 1939, as the Second World War was beginning. Dr. Edwin Orr of Fuller Theological Seminary brought it to the United States, where it became popular because of its use by the Billy Graham Crusade.
The more appropriate Old Testament reading for the first two verses might have been Psalm 8, the one that begins with, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” and then goes on to marvel at creation and our place in it before the Creator. But there’s something I want to point out in the two texts I chose, from the first and the last books of the Bible.
We begin with the stories of creation from Genesis 1 and 2…
These two stories are quite probably from two different sources, two different traditions. The reason we think that is because the two have very different points of view, and they use different names for God.
The familiar one from Genesis 1, in which God speaks everything into existence over the period of six days, demonstrates the orderliness of God’s creation, the way God’s very word pushes the forces of chaos out of the way so that light and dry land and plants and creatures may emerge. In this story, human beings are created on the sixth day, last of all. God is referred to throughout this story as Elohim, and is very much a transcendent God—he stands above and outside of all creation.
I would imagine that this story, with its description of God bringing order out of chaos, was very precious to the exiles in Babylon, whose entire existence had been thrown into chaos, and their children who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the ruined city and Temple.
The two stories are placed one after the other in Genesis 1 and 2, so that the first one provides a sort of broad overview, and then the second one zooms in for a close-up. But there are a lot of details that are very different.
In the second story, beginning with Genesis 2, verse 4, God is called by God’s Name, which we generally don’t say (and haven’t said for long enough that we’ve sort of forgotten how to pronounce it), but which is probably something like Yahweh—meaning, “I am who I am.” The story begins with barren ground, and God planting a garden, and forming one human being out of dirt—the God portrayed here is immanent (he is within creation and interacts with it as a character in a story, walking in the garden in the cool of the evening, having conversations with the people there, looking for them when, later, they hide from him, even sewing clothing for them when that becomes necessary).
In Genesis 1, animals are created before humans; in Genesis 2 one human is created first, and gets to name the animals as God parades them before him. After all that happens, and none of the animals is a suitable partner for the man, God creates a woman, beginning with a rib from the man’s own body.
But then something goes terribly wrong, something that involves forbidden fruit and a talking snake and a whole lot of buck-passing. And God realizes that the man and woman—who are identified as Adam and Eve soon after this—could eat from the Tree of Life, and they’re sure not ready for that, so God sends them out of the garden, away from the Tree of Life, with the way back in barred and guarded by cherubim.
Now we will take a quick look at the very last chapter of the very last book of the Bible, the 22nd chapter of Revelation…
Having heard Genesis 1 and the beginning of Genesis 2, you may recognize at least one commonality. Revelation 22 is the description of the new heaven and new earth, the Holy City in the midst of it all, with God’s Presence right in the center. And this Holy City has a stream that runs from God’s throne, something like the stream that watered the garden of Eden, only better. And on either side of that crystal stream grows the Tree of Life—the very same Tree of Life that stood in the garden of Eden—only now God’s faithful are allowed to eat the fruit of this tree.
In Genesis we saw how God intended us to be, the life God meant for us to live, before sin came into the world and made that life impossible for us. But in Revelation, when the work of Jesus is completed and all sin and evil are conquered and destroyed, we find ourselves, in a way, back in that garden. The only thing is, now the garden is part of a city. God’s original plan—for us to live in his presence forever, without sin providing a barrier between us and God—will be fulfilled; but the work of our own hands, cities and houses and gates and walls, are incorporated into the final realization of that plan, with all the unintended consequences of human effort removed.
Joey Jeter, retired professor of preaching at our Brite Divinity School in Texas, told a story once about Fred Craddock being asked to preach on “the overall message of the Bible.” Fred got up and gave detailed directions from the Atlanta airport to his home in the hills of northern Georgia. He described the road and various landmarks, and even recommended a few places where a traveler might want to stop and look at the scenery. He told the listeners where they could find a key if he and his wife weren’t home yet, and that they would find lemonade in the refrigerator. Then he sat down.
Joey was puzzled. “He was supposed to preach on the message of the Bible…” And then, realization struck him that that was precisely what Fred had done—for the message of the Bible is going home, how to get there, and what to see and do on the way.
In Genesis we see what home was like at first—and at the end of Revelation we arrive back at home, which has changed, but is still where God’s presence dwells. And in the meantime we live our lives, and we praise God in houses of worship and in creation, and we sin and need redemption, which Jesus died to provide for us.
The thing I love about “How Great Thou Art” is that it tells that whole story in four familiar verses: Creation, which is awesome, causes us to praise God, the Creator; Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection cause us to praise God, our Savior; and one day, when the work Christ began here is finally completed, we will praise God eternally, at home.