How Great Thou Art

How Great Thou Art

Liturgy Lesson: October 6, 2019
Call to Worship: Psalm 8
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Adoration: How Great Thou Art (#44)
Confession of Sin: Prayer
Song of Confession: Not What My Hands Have Done (#461, vss. 1-3)
Assurance of Pardon: from Heb. 9 and 10
Hymns of Assurance: Not What My Hands Have Done (#461, vss. 4-5); My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone
Catechism/Congregational Prayers
Reading of the Word: Luke 12:49-59
Gloria Patri – #735
Sermon – Rev. Eric Irwin
Supper: I Will Sing of My Redeemer (#650); There is a Redeemer
Closing Hymn: All for Jesus (#565)

“All sounds of the earth are like music.”
– Oscar Hammerstein

“There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st. But in his motion like an angel sings.”
– William Shakespeare

This week we will look at a hymn that was ranked second (after “Amazing Grace”) on a list of the greatest hymns of all time in a survey by Christianity Today magazine. Across the pond in the U.K., it holds the top spot on the hymn charts (if there is such a thing), having been voted by the BBC as the people’s favorite. It has been translated into hundreds of languages and been performed across the globe in every conceivable musical style. It also has the auspicious honor of being perhaps the only hymn to win a Grammy, courtesy of an Elvis Presley rendition all the way back in 1967. As far I know, it appears in every single hymnal published since 1960.

And yet, with all the hype and hyperbole surrounding this familiar hymn, this is the first time since I have been on staff at CPC that it has been programmed in one of our Sunday morning worship services. That’s a little over 4 years’ worth of liturgies that have neglected one of the most beloved hymns in all the English language. That’s like going your entire college life without having a hamburger. Inconceivable!

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t consider “How Great Thou Art” to be fast-food fare. It’s much better than that. Yet we all know that hymns, like hamburgers, run the gamut. One can enjoy McDonald’s while “In the Garden” or feast on a thick, juicy, organic, all-the-fixin’s gourmet burger that has enough flavor for “A Thousand Tongues.” And, to extend the metaphor even further, both are not just a matter of taste. There are, of course, questions of nutritional value and quality. But that is a subject for another liturgy lesson.

So, you may wonder two things. First, why has this great hymn not rung in our rafters since the Obama era? And, why, after all that time, are we finally singing it this Sunday? Good questions. My response to the first is…well…it’s complicated. Many factors contribute to what gets served up at our weekly feast. Songs are not always chosen based entirely on high-minded criteria, like theological content and musical quality. They are also chosen for other, less-worthy, reasons like preference, style, and who happens to be on the music team that Sunday. Other determinants include the debate, coin toss, or rock-paper-scissors match at our weekly staff meeting, or whoever pays me the most to green-light their request.

There is one other important factor, which basically answers the second question: fittingness.

Fittingness (n.) – the quality of being suitable; the quality of having the properties that are right for a specific purpose.

We are singing this hymn on Sunday because it fits. That may sound like pragmatism, but it’s not. Here are three ways this hymn fits in the context of Sunday, Oct. 6th, 2019 at CPC Issaquah.

  1. It fits the fingers of our organist for this week. Jim Whitman is a multi-dexterous maestro who plays the pipes like a great conductor plays the symphony. “How Great Thou Art” is based on a Swedish folk melody with a few tricky cadences. This rhythmic lilt can be confusing for a congregation if not led with clarity and strength. Jim is the right man for the job. He plays this hymn better than anyone I’ve heard. Jim is not on the organ bench every week (we have a rotating group of 4 organists!), but more importantly, given his age, has entered the coda of life’s opus, and we should cherish these days having such a talented and willing servant support our singing. Do you have any idea how many churches don’t have an organist, let alone one of this quality? Did you know that there is now a whole online industry of pre-recorded tracks that congregations are using to accompany their singing because there is no one to play even the most basic musical backing for the hymns? We are privileged and blessed, and we should be deeply grateful!
  2. It fits the narrative flow of our liturgy. Our liturgy follows a historic model of worship that tells a pretty simple story. Creation, Incarnation, Re-creation (see Is. 6:1-8, or…well…the whole Bible!). We re-enact this story when we gather together. This shapes us at the level of our imaginations. When we sing hymns that tell the Great Story, we invite the gospel truth to migrate from head to heart. We seek embodied, incarnate worship, full of regular practices that are not merely informative, but transformative. This is where the great hymns help us. “How Great Thou Art” is basically a 4-verse summary of our story. God created the universe full of wonder (vs. 1). We behold the work of his hands and are stirred to worship (vs. 2). God sends Jesus into the world to save (vs. 3). He shall come again and take us home (vs. 4). The way the story ends? All creation joining together in declaring “How Great Thou Art!”
  3. It fits this week’s call to worship, Psalm 8. Our worship service is not a meeting about God, it is a meeting with God. It is a dialogue. God speaks to us and we respond. It makes sense, then, that our sung response to the spoken or preached word of God would be related or correlated to what we just heard. In the context of conversations, have you ever had someone respond with a statement that is utterly random or disconnected from what you just said? Makes you feel like they aren’t really listening, right? Well, we dare not do that with the living God. Our worship should enable us to hear God and give relevant and right response to him. In this manner, the great hymns help us practice reflective listening skills with the Word of God. “How Great Thou Art” certainly does this when paired with Psalm 8. Bud Boberg, the great nephew of the Carol Boberg (the patriarch of this hymn) says, “My dad’s story of its origin was that it was a paraphrase of Psalm 8 and was used in the ‘underground church’ in Sweden in the late 1800s when the Baptists and Mission Friends were persecuted.”

There you have it, my best 3-point Presbyterian sermon on the use of this hymn in our worship. Now, let’s look to the story behind the hymn. I will give some comments, tell you a personal story about the hymn, and then refer you to an excellent online video and a few short recording clips that will hopefully endear you more to this timeless classic.

In 1885, Carol Boberg, a 26-year-old minister in the south of Sweden wrote a poem which he called “O Store Gud” (“O Mighty God”). The first stanza, literally translated to English, says:

“When I consider the world which You have made by Your almighty Word,
And how Your wisdom guides the web of life
And all creation feeds at Your table,
Then my soul bursts forth in song of praise,
‘Oh, great God! Oh, great God!'”

Carl Boberg himself gave the following information about the inspiration behind his poem:

“It was that time of year when everything seemed to be in its richest colouring; the birds were singing in trees and everywhere. It was very warm; a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon and soon there was thunder and lightning. We had to hurry to shelter. But the storm was soon over and the clear sky appeared. When I came home I opened my window toward the sea. There evidently had been a funeral and the bells were playing the tune of ‘When eternity’s clock calls my saved soul to its Sabbath rest.’ That evening, I wrote the song, ‘O Store Gud.'”

This has overtones of Psalm 8:3-4:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”

Thus, in the heart of this young Swedish minister, the famous opening line of the eight Psalm “O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth” was distilled into the simple, “O Store Gud!” (O Great God!).

It would take another 40 years for this hymn to reach the English-speaking world, and another 70 before it took hold on American soil. But after Billy Graham and his singing sidekick, George Beverly Shea, got a hold of it, it became a generational favorite in churches across the country.

I often get asked to sing at memorial services or funerals, and I would say that this is the most requested hymn of them all. A few months ago, I was invited to sing at the bedside of a woman who was deathly ill. She was unresponsive, and her breathing was labored. She had that pale, slack-jawed look in her face that told us the light was going out. I took up a chair next to the bed and placed my hand gently on hers. For over 30 minutes I sang many of the great hymns. There was the occasional uptick in the rhythm of her inhale, but overall there was minimal response. Her daughter, who was sitting in the corner of the room, assured me that her mother was listening, and she gave me one final request: “Can you sing ‘How Great Thou Art’? It was one of her favorites.” I began to sing the first line…

“O Lord my God, when I…”

I had not even finished the first five notes when she squeezed my hand so hard it made me jump in my seat and stop singing. After sharing a look of mutual surprise with the daughter (who was smiling through tears), I quickly resumed the verse. I sang slowly and deliberately through the rest the hymn, trying to savor this moment of unexpected delight. For the entire song, this frail woman clung tightly to my hand, but I know she was clinging even tighter to every word and note of the hymn. By the time we finished, and she released her grip, my hand was more pale than her face, which had now taken on a warmer color and a more peaceful expression. I quoted Psalm 23 to her, lightly kissed her forehead, and said goodbye. Her daughter informed me that she died the next morning. It gave me such joy to consider that the last thing she heard sung on this side of eternity was…

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!”

If you have time, I highly suggest watching this video link with the full and fascinating history of this hymn’s journey from humble beginnings in Sweden to worldwide fame. It is about 15 minutes long. The first 10 minutes are the hymn story, and the last 5 minutes are a beautiful choral version of the hymn.

Suggested video
And, a few recordings for you to enjoy…
George Beverly Shea (from a live Billy Graham Crusade)
Elvis Presley’s Grammy-award winning version
Kate Smith’s version (Liturgy Lesson Editor’s choice)