Words: Paul Gerhardt (b. Mar. 12, 1607; d. May 27, 1676)
Music: St. Catherine, by Henri Frederick Hemy (b. Nov. 12, 1818; d. June 10, 1888)
Note: This wonderful hymn was written three hundred and sixty years ago, later to be translated (and paraphrased) in English by John Wesley, yet its message is still stirring and relevant. The tune, St. Catherine, is the one commonly used as well for Faith of Our Fathers.
Paul Gerhardt based his hymn on a meditation and prayer by John Arndt, in a book published in 1612 called Paradiesgartlein (Little Garden of Paradise). Gerhardt’s original had sixteen stanzas, but Wesley reduced the number to nine. Of these hymn books now usually use CH-1, 2, 3, 8, and 9. You will notice some differences between the version I have below and the one found in the Cyber Hymnal. I think mine is likely closer to the original.
The passion and power of this great hymn is almost overwhelming. Few hymn writers I know can match the author’s hunger for God, and his earnest pleading that his heart be mastered by the purifying love of God. (One of the closest is perhaps George Croly with his Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.)
CH-1) Jesus, Thy boundless love to me
No thought can reach, no tongue declare;
Unite my thankful heart to Thee
And reign without a rival there.
Thine wholly Thine alone I am;
Be Thou alone my constant Flame.
Does this passionate prayer not remind you of the words of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1-2)?
Of the four stanzas commonly omitted from Wesley’s version, CH-6 is worth including here. It shows that the love of which the hymn speaks is not merely shallow emotion and sentiment. It is inseparably linked to a desire for holiness. To have the fullness of God’s love within will bring about a moral transformation, and a flaming hatred of sin. To love what God loves is to hate what God hates.
CH-6) More hard than marble is my heart,
And foul with sins of deepest stain;
But Thou the mighty Saviour art,
Nor flowed Thy cleansing blood in vain;
Ah soften, melt this rock, and may
Thy blood wash all these stains away!
John Wesley says that the words of CH-2 were the cry of his own heart in 1738, shortly before his conversion experience on May 24th of that year.
CH-2) O, grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell but Thy pure love alone!
Oh, may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown!
Strange fires from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought, be love.
The “strange fires” of which CH-2 speaks allude to Leviticus 10:1-2, where the Lord destroyed Nadab and Abihu for using profane or unauthorized fire to burn incense in the tabernacle. The fire was to have come from the altar of sacrifice in the courtyard (16:12), a fire which God Himself had ignited (9:24).
Nadab and Abihu had substituted something foreign and unworthy for the work of God. And since the rising smoke of the incense was to picture praise and prayer ascending to God (cf. Ps. 141:2), what they did represents a fleshly religiosity and a carnal substitute for true worship, rather than being founded upon the shed blood of the sacrifice (picturing Christ).
One other stanza deserves a brief comment. In CH-3, the hymn writer personifies “Love,” making it a reference to the person of Christ. The “healing beams” allude to a messianic prophecy of Malachi that “the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings [or beams]” (Mal. 4:2). The final fulfilment of this awaits the second coming, but His soul restoring touch also can be experienced personally, here and now.
CH-3) O Love, how cheering is Thy ray!
All pain before Thy presence flies;
Care, anguish, sorrow, melt away
Where’er Thy healing beams arise.
O Jesus, nothing may I see,
Nothing desire or seek, but Thee!
1) Do you (or does anyone you know) have this kind of passion for God? (If not, why not?)
2) What examples are you aware of when individuals or churches have tried to substitute “strange fires” for the real thing?