How Great  Thou Art is as close as a hymn can come to a ‘controversial hymn’ these days.  N.T. Wright targeted the final verse in his book on the resurrection, using it to highlight the problems of the contemporary escapist eschatology that dominates evangelical thought.

Though most people don’t realize it, the hymn is actually a translation of a swedish hymn by Carl Gustav Boberg, whom I (alas) couldn’t find much information about in my few minutes searching.

The first English translation was by E. Gustav Johnson, and it’s worth repeating here in full:

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 with love benign,

Refrain:
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God! (repeat)

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 crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.

And when at last the mists of time have vanished
And I in truth my faith confirmed shall see,
Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee.

The contemporary version, written by Stuart Hine and immortalized by Elvis, Andy Griffith, and a host of other artists at the end of their careers, retains many of the same elements:

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;

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;

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.

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, “My God, how great Thou art!”

Let’s deal with the final verse first:  yes, it certainly sounds escapist.  After all, Christ is taking us home…which is to say that this isn’t our home.  Certainly that implies some place in the sky where we will sit around and do nothing except play harps to Jesus.  Right?

Possibly.  But the first few verses and their (overly?) robust view of creation and the way it speaks of God’s glory have to at least mitigate that reading, as they counteract the notion that our current home is an evil place to be avoided.  What’s more, the Swedish covenant church, where the first translation comes from, has Lutheran roots, not dispensational roots.  Additionally, if Wikipedia is to be trusted (and hey, for this sort of thing, why not?), the author of the second translation–Stuart Hine–was influenced primarily by Charles Spurgeon, a hero for young Reformed thinkers everywhere.  So to point to dispensationalism as the root of the final verse is problematic.

In fact, Johnson’s earlier translation retains a better sense of that Lutheran theology:  When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling….

But Hine’s addition strikes all the right theological notes.  The presence of sin is assumed in the wonder that he has as he thinks upon the atonement, the Christ who “gladly bearing” bleeds and dies to remove our sin.  This is no Christian deification of nature:  the God who speaks in the stars and seas is the one who dies on the cross for us.

And he is the one whose return we look forward to.  The hymn ends, appropriately, with this longing.  It is a longing grounded in the wonder we have at the resurrection of our savior, a resurrection which carries with it the promise of his return.  Again, Johnson’s verse captures the longing more eloquently:

Upon the shores where earthly ills are banished
I’ll enter Lord, to dwell in peace with thee.

The longing to go home, to go to a better country, is not necessarily the longing to escape.  It is, as Chesterton argues in the beginning of Orthodoxy, the longing that’s at the heart of the Christian romance.  We shall arrive at our home someday, only to discover that we have been there all along.  And as Johnson writes, we’ll enter, to dwell in peace with our Savior.

See also Sherry’s background over at Semicolon.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Just a brief correction; the English translation was by Stuart K. Hine, not Stuart Kline. I don’t want to be picky, but his daughter is a colleague of mine in Wycliffe Bible Translators (www.wycliffe.org.uk)

  • s-p

    It is interesting how we read into hymns our own “traditions”… I’m glad we don’t do that with any other sacred texts. :) Seriously, one does not have to be a dispensationalist to have a “longing to depart and be with Christ”, or “long to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2Cor.5), just someone who sees the beauty of God in all things yet dying, and knows that all that is mortal will be swallowed up in immortality some day.

  • Eddie,

    Egads! I knew that—that’s what I get for writing it late last night after hours of health-care debating. I’ll go ahead and change that, and thanks.

    S-P, Heh. I think that’s exactly right….

    matt

  • jeff allen

    Matt, you will be interested to know that” How Great Thou Art” is in the LDS hymnbook and is often a choir special.

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