God, All Nature Sings Thy Glory

God, All Nature Sings Thy Glory

Liturgy Lesson: June 20, 2021
Call to Worship: Psalm 8
Prayer of Invocation
Hymn of Praise: How Great Thou Art (#44)
Prayer of Confession
Assurance: from Isaiah 43
Hymns of Assurance: God of Grace; Be Unto Your Name
Reading of the Word
Doxology: #731
Sermon: Rev. Eric Irwin
Tithes and Offerings
The Lord’s Supper: Behold the Lamb; Let All Things Now Living
Closing Hymn: God, All Nature Sings Thy Glory (#122)

Happy Father’s Day! To celebrate, we will start with some musical dad jokes listed in reader-friendly categories for people with low tolerance (a.k.a. “groan-ups”).

Today while practicing a hymn with my son, Daniel, he said, “I think at measure #16 I need to add a breath mark,” and I broke into tears. He’s almost 15 years old and is still calling me by the wrong name.

Today, my other son, Benjamin, asked for a Steinway and I said no. He called me the cheapest dad in the world. I’m not buying it.

Conservative parents should not take their kids to symphony concerts. Too much sax and violins!

Why did the pianist keep banging his head against the keyboard?
He was playing by ear.

During rehearsal before worship, the guitarist told me that if I didn’t take his tempo he would hit me in the head with the neck of his guitar. I responded, “Is that a fret?”

Accordion to a recent study, 90% of people don’t notice when you replace any given word in a sentence with the name of a musical instrument.

What do you say when a Kazoo player sneezes?

The other day while singing in the shower, I had suds in my mouth. This is called soap opera.

What’s the difference between a soprano and God? God doesn’t think he’s a soprano.

For most folks, the urge to sing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is always just a whim away, a whim away, a whim away…

Apparently while Bach was composing the opening movement of his great Mass, one of his kids spilled milk on the manuscript. Fortunately, the damage turned out to B minor.

How many classical composers does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Just one, but it usually requires four movements.

And this last one…

I will now attempt to pivot from the ridiculous to the sublime using the above image as a transitional metaphor. During his life (left image), Beethoven cooked up countless masterpieces, many of which accomplish his stated purpose for music: “It [music] should strike fire from the heart of man.” No work captures this composer’s credo more than the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, where Beethoven’s scorching brilliance reaches peak intensity. Even though his cold body (right image) is now de-composing, his music blazes on, emitting heat from the fire to whoever will come close enough to truly listen.

It is Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy” that provides the tune for this week’s highlighted hymn. Beethoven made the bold (and revolutionary) decision to add a chorus into the final movement of his symphony; as such, he broke with the classical convention for the genre. Beethoven’s unique brilliance in expanding the musical possibilities of the day made him an important bridge between the Classical era and the Romantic style that his music would come to personify. Beethoven’s home country of Germany was in many ways the ideological and aesthetic birthplace of Romanticism, which was a cultural movement whose ideas came to dominate all of Europe by the mid to late 19th century. Romanticism, as expressed in literature and art, was a decisive break with the structure and order of the previous century. It emphasized emotion, individuality, and the “noble savage” in nature who stood apart from society’s conventions, which were seen as corruptions and constraints on personal liberty.

The cultural and spiritual repercussions of this movement are far-flung and way beyond the scope of this platform. Needless to say that Christians are right to be suspicious of Romanticism and would be wise to consider its role in what Carl Trueman calls the “inward turn,” the psychologizing of modern man (for more on this, see his brilliant book Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self). The greater emphasis on emotion and experience as arbiters of truth can be seen clearly in the poetry of the 19th century. This, in particular, greatly altered the content of the hymns of the church, which became much more testimonial and less theological by the turn of the 20th century. Just have a look at the contrasted hymns below (separated by only about 80 years), which are symptomatic of the shift. Exhibits A and B are not intended to be entirely reflective of each era, but in them we can see the century-long glacial creep that moved the focal point of worship from God’s reality to human experience.

Worship the King (1833)
O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

O tell of his might and sing of his grace,
whose robe is the light, whose canopy space.
His chariots of wrath the deep thunderclouds form,
and dark is his path on the wings of the storm.

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

In the Garden (1913)
I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses;
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.

I don’t intend here to belittle the importance of the language of personal devotion in our hymns. As a passionate, high-feeling artist, I know the important role that emotions play in our worship. In fact, they are a crucial component in how God has designed us to respond to His truth and love. The language of intimacy with God is central to the Psalms, and a constant reminder that we are to “love the Lord with all our heart.” But that biblical injunction also includes “…with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:37). We are called to sing with our spirit, but also with our understanding (1 Cor. 14:15).

In the church’s worship, music can be a powerful aid in this wholistic response to God. Unfortunately, music in worship often has an “inward turn” and can be used primarily for aesthetic pleasure. Often it is lamentably offered up as performative (glory of man) and not illustrative (glory of God). In both cases music’s innate power is being misused or even abused. Every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of light (James 1:17), and music serves to illuminate the beauty of who He is. Therefore, music is always the signpost, not the destination. In church worship practices, the pursuit of emotional ecstasy unmoored from the truth of God is dangerous. What the worshipper thinks is an experience of God may just be an experience of the music. The “feels” should always be in response to the “reals” (who God is) and the “reveals” (His Word and Creation).

Fortunately, the recent renaissance in great hymn writing has brought a correction to this “inward” bend. There has been a rediscovery and re-setting of old or even ancient hymn texts that have biblical and poetic integrity.

In addition, more and more well-balanced hymns are being written every day, giving the contemporary church a fuller library of rich and affective songs in their vernacular heart language. The first “pioneers” of this resurgence can be found in the latter part of the 20th century, which brings us to our hymn for this week…

God, All Nature Sings Thy Glory
Text: David Clowney, 1960
Tune: ODE TO JOY, Beethoven

I once heard a lecture on church music where the speaker said it was wrong for contemporary churches to use any art or music from the Romantic era. He said that there are a host of problematic and potentially poisonous ideologies that are carried into the heart of the worshipper by these works. He therefore outlawed Beethoven and his contemporaries from church. This puritanical approach is understandable as a reaction to the narcissism of our age, but it betrays a pretty anemic view of common grace (the way God uses all people to bring providential care and blessings). Furthermore, banning Beethoven and the others fundamentally misunderstands the nature of music, which is primarily about General Revelation, what I like to refer to as “the doctrine of the undeniable.”

General Revelation refers to the obvious testimonies of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty that are written in the book of nature and on the pages of each human heart. God’s general revelation (a.k.a. “natural revelation”) is given to all men through that which he has made, wherein he communicates His existence, His power, His character, and His glory, such that men are left without excuse (Rom. 1:20). The Psalms speak of how the signature of God’s handiwork is inscribed in the natural world.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.

(Ps. 19:1-4)

In other words, nature is a megaphone for its maker. Everything from mountains to marigolds shouts his splendor and sings of the superabundant riches of his love. General revelation is a monumental topic that has occupied whole volumes and theological treatises. The Belgic confession, written in 1561, is a clear and comprehensive statement of the Reformed doctrines. Article 2 of that confession (on the means by which we know God) says this: “We know by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to see clearly the invisible things of God.

This has huge implications for music. If God can be discovered through the beauty and order we find in the world around us, then music, as part of that created order, becomes a powerful testimony to God himself. A classical understanding of music is that it testifies to the transcendent. The music of the spheres (musica mundana) is mirrored in man-made music (musica humana). In this way, music becomes a bridge to the knowledge of the divine, a tool to bolster belief, an avenue toward the contemplation and adoration of God himself.

With this understanding, the Romantics (including Beethoven) can be redeemed. His music can be effectively used to point our hearts heavenward and not inward. More than that, our imaginations can be reformed toward the truth when this sort of affective music is paired with a hymn text like the one that David Clowney has written. “God, All Nature Sings Thy Glory” is four-verse masterpiece that speaks to both general revelation and the heart of the gospel. It is one of the very few hymns that I have found that deals faithfully and excellently with the topic of imago dei, how man and woman are created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27). He even makes mention of music itself, reminding us of its true purpose. Here is the hymn text:

God, all nature sings thy glory, and thy works proclaim thy might;
ordered vastness in the heavens, ordered course of day and night;
beauty in the changing seasons, beauty in the storming sea;
all the changing moods of nature praise the changeless Trinity,

Clearer still we see thy hand in man whom thou hast made for thee;
ruler of creation’s glory, image of thy majesty.
Music, art, the fruitful garden, all the labor of his days,
are the calling of his Maker to the harvest feast of praise.

But our sins have spoiled thine image, nature, conscience only serve
as unceasing, grim reminders of the wrath which we deserve.
Yet thy grace and saving mercy in thy Word of truth revealed
claim the praise of all who know thee, in the blood of Jesus sealed.

God of glory, power, mercy, all creation praises thee;
we, thy creatures, would adore thee now and through eternity.
Saved to magnify thy goodness, grant us strength to do thy will;
with our acts as with our voices thy commandments to fulfill.

A hymn like this helps us to consider the beautiful mind of the Maker. God put a rainbow in the sky for Noah, he didn’t just place black-and-white letters on the clouds, “N-O-M-O-R-E-F-L-O-O-D-S.” In the garden of Eden he gave Adam every plant that was not just useful for eating but also pleasing to the eye. He made the world prismatic and symphonic. He paints a new sunset every night and calls forth a trillion melodies from birds the next morning. He speckles the wings of the butterfly and choreographs the stars in their orbit. And that’s just the beginning. There is enough evidence in one ultrasound to silence the staunchest atheist. I could go on and on.

Poets through the ages have bent all their powers in proper acclaim and rightful reverence to God’s artistry in nature. He crafted all beautiful things to display his abundant goodness. His intent is to stir our heart toward astonishment and adoration of Him. Brothers and Sisters, the ONLY right response for us as creatures is to pour out gratitude and praise to Christ, through whom all things were made, and through whom we have access to the Father. He crafted the cosmos and sustains it all, and He is the rightful recipient of our worship, for he is more astounding and marvelous than the entire opus. Jonathan Edwards said that all created things were but “diffused rays” of that true Sun. C.S. Lewis would encourage us not just to look to these things, or even at these things, but rather to look along them. “One’s mind should run up the sunbeam to the sun.

Four hundred years ago a pastor at a small country parish in England wrote a poem that perfectly encapsulates all of this. It is a partner piece to David Clowney’s hymn, and a beautiful meditation on the heart of our Composer God whose purpose in His redemptive music has always been to draw us to himself. For Him, music has always had a right and glorious “inward” turn. I’ll leave you with this.

The Pulley
By George Herbert

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by,
“Let us,” said he, “pour on him all we can.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersèd lie,
Contract into a span.”

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure.
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that, alone of all his treasure,
Rest in the bottom lay.

“For if I should,” said he,
“Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature;
So both should losers be.

“Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.”