This is the third and final week of my Scripture in Music series, a brief class for Sunday School. You can read the previous two weeks here and here. This week’s handout can be downloaded here.
One of the most traditional ways people encounter scriptural music is through Hymns. As in, let’s all turn to number 32 and sing “How Great Thou Art”, ladies take verse two, guys on verse three, altogether on the final verse. These are often thick bound books (usually red or blue) and containing a wide spectrum of quality, origin and scriptural relevance. Whether or not hymns are a way that you personally like to worship, they have been part of the tradition of the church for centuries (and some of those hymns are still sung today)! They are in many ways as much a part of the life of a service as scripture itself. Today we’re going to make use of the back of the hymnal to find some of the scripture these songs are based on, and explore the history of two Hymns centering around the awesomeness of God; “How Great Thou Art” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”
Hymn 101 (in my church Hymnal) – Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence
This Hymn dates back to one of the oldest liturgies, the liturgy of St. James back in the 4-5th century. The medley is French, from the 17th century Picardy and the arrangement in most Hymnals is from the early 20th century. Picardy is sung in a minor key, with an 8:7:8:7 Trochaic meter, which means that the first syllable is stressed and the second is not. The title and opening verse are a combination of Habbakuk 2:20 and Psalm 2:11, and the last verse is derived almost verbatim from Isaiah 6:1-3.
The song is often sung at Christmas as it speaks of Christ’s coming, though the tone is tone is reverent and deferential more than happier tunes likes “Joy To the World”. I’ve personally always found the tune to be haunting, and a little difficult to stay on key when singing, especially in the jumps.
Let’s take a moment to listen to the Hymn sung in a mixed choral arrangement. Pay attention to the phrasing and emphasis of each verse, tempo, and crescendos versus decrescendos.
Most hymns have a tune that is repeated a number of times. What are the ways in which this choir and the text itself invite emphasis on certain verses or phrases?
We often don’t think much about angels in terms of day to day Christianity. What do you think about their inclusion at the end of the Hymn and in the passage from Isaiah?
How does the hymn speak of the various levels of the world, heaven, earth, hell? How is this point emphasized in the melody?
Why does the composed of this piece combine the Psalm and Habbakuk in the initial verse?
Hymn 32 – How Great Thou Art
This hymn was originally a poem by Carl Gustav Boberg, a Swedish poet who reportedly wrote it after witness a great storm appear and disappear suddenly. The Hymn is in many ways a paraphrasing of Psalm 8, though there are a number of other scriptural allusions as you’ll see from the handout. The version sung in most churches (including ours) is a translation by Stuart K. Hine done in 1949. He added verses 3 and 4, so half the song we are singing is not the original! These verses were inspired by the missionary Hine’s time with the exiled Polish community during and after World War 2. The song was popularized in the Christian community by Billy Graham’s crusades and has been performed countless times by singers of all stripes. There are 1700 recordings in existence to date of this song.
Let’s read Psalm 8 and then listen to the Mormon Tabernacle choir’s version of the song. Again listen for the ways certain phrases are emphasized.
How do you react to this Hymn in contrast to the previous one?
Do verses 3 and 4 feel like part of another song?
Which Hymn (sections of scripture) relate most to your feelings about God and your relationship to him?
How can we think more about the words we are singing and the scriptural basis for them?
How has listening to both these hymns changed your perspective on the scripture they are based on> How about the hymns themselves?
You can read more about this hymn and its various translations here.