I could not imagine life without music. I’m pretty sure my life has a soundtrack. (It’s a pretty good soundtrack, I might add.) I play music when I cook dinner. I have music on when I’m exercising. I often play it when I write sermons. Of course, Christian worship almost always has music. Our worship certainly does. Music is as much a constant necessity in my life as sun, water, and oxygen. I don’t think I could live without it, and I’m pretty sure that I’m not strange in that. Music matters. It teaches. It deepens human experience. It beautifies.
Have you ever wondered why Christians sing? I mean, isn’t it a bit strange that we stop our lives, gather in a sanctuary, and, among other things, sing together? Do you do that at work? While out to dinner? Do you strike up a rousing chorus with others while you’re waiting for the musical fountain to start? Likely not.
Singing is biblical. It’s all over the Bible. Moses’ sister Miriam sings when the Israelites escape Egypt. The psalms are songs intended for worship. Even in Mark’s gospel, right after Jesus redefines the Passover meal as communion, they sing a hymn before heading to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26). Revelation pictures eternity as a time filled with singing, so really what we’re doing in our small way at worship is training for eternity. If you don’t like singing now, well…you might want to start trying. Singing is part of forever.
But we don’t sing only because it’s biblical. We sing because these songs can teach us the Christian faith. It’s crazy how helpful music is in memorization. If I asked you to write out the lyrics to the Star Spangled Banner, I’m sure you could do it but only because you’d be matching the words to the tune. I know my kids are mystified at how much music Jess and I know just by hearing the first few seconds of a song, and then, without trying, we know the words of the song—well, many of them at least.
Songs help us hide God’s Word in our hearts. I still have some passages memorized thanks to my parents playing cassettes of Psalty the singing hymnal in the ‘80s. Often songs and hymns we love are ingrained in our memory and remind us of God’s amazing grace or great faithfulness. So, music is one of the best ways for us to learn the faith. I’m so happy that this church loves music in all its diversity. I’m grateful to have musicians who can seamlessly move from timeless hymns to new choruses to spirituals, all for the purpose of shaping faith.
For the next several weeks our sermons will focus on some of the Songs of the Faith. We only have eight weeks, so, obviously, I can’t get to all the songs we love, but my deep desire is that this helps all of us pay attention to the songs we sing and that we give space for them to shape faith—even if they’re not our favorites or even in a style that we love.
Today I’m focusing on one of the most famous hymns in the western world, “How Great Thou Art.” It’s one of my favorites for sure. Musically lovely. Lyrically deep. We sing four verses with a refrain, so it’s one that is easy to hide in our hearts thanks to the repetition.
Hymns do not appear out of nowhere. Particularly with songs we’ve known for our whole lives, it may feel like they’ve been around forever. I mean, surely Jesus sang “Amazing Grace” with his disciples, right? (No. Wrong. He did not.). Hymns have a history. They have a beginning. They have an ongoing story. Today I’m going to share with you the origin story of “How Great Thou Art.”
The tune we still sing today predates the lyrics. It’s just a Swedish folk tune. In essence, this hymn is a theological connection to the regular life of people in Sweden. They had a lovely song they all knew, and now they were going to have new lyrics to the song. Carl Boberg was the son of a shipyard carpenter. He became a pastor, edited a weekly Christian newspaper, and served in the Swedish Parliament for twelve years. In 1891 Boberg published his poem in his paper and then set it to this familiar folk tune. That’s the basis of the first verse we still sing today.
In 1907 the lyrics were translated into German. In 1927 the lyrics were translated into Russian. That same year a British Methodist missionary named Stuart K. Hine was serving in western Ukraine when he first heard the Russian version of the hymn and filed it away in his memory. A few years later he was in Czechoslovakia in the Carpathian Mountains during a significant thunder storm. The “rolling thunder” he heard conjured up Boberg’s hymn, so he translated the first verse into English. Even today we sing of hearing the “rolling thunder” that displays God’s awesome power. The heavens, indeed are telling the glory of God!
That takes care of the first verse. The second verse is the product of walking through the woodlands of Romania some time later. It begins, “When through the woods and forest glades I wander.” The first and second verses are together a proclamation that God’s glory is revealed in nature—in woods, in birds, in lofty mountains, everywhere we look! Even later on, Hine added a third verse to the hymn—this one shortly before ending his mission work and returning to England. The third verse is a reflection on God’s work in Christ on the cross.
Still, the song was not done. By now the world was in turmoil. The world had suffered through the Second World War. The violence and evil in the world had been made clear through millions dead, the Holocaust, and lives torn apart. In 1948, Hine and a man named David Griffiths visited a camp in Sussex, England, where displaced Russians were being held. Only two in the camp knew Jesus as their Savior. The faith of these two and his experience over the last decade led Hine to write the fourth verse. It’s about the return of Jesus. Christ’s return will inspire joy and worship because the old order of things will be gone. There will be no more crying or pain or death any more. It’s easy to imagine what a lovely thought that would be in the shadows of World War II.
It’s why I shared Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 24. Jesus is talking about the end of time with his disciples just before they are about to go through the horrors of seeing Jesus crucified. When you’re enjoying something like a good movie or amusement park ride, you really don’t want it to end, do you? But if you’re not enjoying it? If you risked going on a scary roller coaster and mid-ride you wished you hadn’t started, then of course you’re praying for the end to come quickly, right? That’s my (strange) way of describing what’s going on here. Many of us live pretty good lives, so we encounter Jesus’ talk of the end and push it to the side because we’re not ready to let go of this life. But when wickedness is staring you right in the face, when nothing is going right, when justice isn’t coming? We pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
That’s the fourth verse of “How Great Thou Art.” It wraps the hymn up nicely. These few moments of singing have shared a glimpse of the whole gospel—the glory of God revealed in creation, the death of Jesus on the cross to break the power of sin, and the return of Jesus to make all things new. Can you believe that almost 70 years went by between Carl Boberg’s first Swedish verse and Stuart Hine’s final one? This one lovely song took two-thirds of a century to write!
One final note on this hymn: It didn’t come to the States until the 1950s. George Beverly Shea included it in the repertoire of Billy Graham’s crusades, beginning around 1955 in Toronto, Canada. So, some of you may have been singing “How Great Thou Art” for your whole lives, but no one in the States was singing it prior to then! It was new. It was “contemporary music.”
So, that’s all wonderful information, but I’d hate to leave you without something to keep wrestling with this week. Actually, I have three brief items, and I suspect many of these will be relevant throughout this series. First, isn’t it amazing how God works across borders and time to continue to speak into our lives today? We keep singing this song, but it came to us from Sweden, Germany, Russia, and England, all the while taking real life experiences and tying them in to who God is to us. Christianity is a faith that transcends borders, languages, and even time.
Second, many great songs give us the gospel in miniature. I’ll admit that the Bible can be intimidating. It’s a huge book with lots of wonderful and hard ideas. But the best of our songs can give us footholds into belief. “How Great Thou Art” does this masterfully. We can go for a walk in Rosy Mound and glimpse the rolling dunes and the frolicking deer and proclaim, “My God, how great you are!”
Finally, good music goes with us wherever we are. So I encourage you to carry this song with you this week. Hum the tune. Meditate on the lyrics. Consider prayers that you can pray that end with your soul singing to your Savior God about how great God is!
Music can do that. It’s a gift from God. It’s a treasure to be tended. This hymn may have come to us from Sweden with love, but I firmly believe that music comes to us from God with love.