Posted by: rcottrill | February 16, 2011

My God, How Wonderful Thou Art

Words: Frederick William Faber (b. June 28, 1814; d. Sept. 26, 1863)
Music: Ortonville, by Thomas Hastings (b. Oct. 15, 1784; d. May 15, 1872)

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal

The son of an Anglican clergyman, Frederick Faber began as a Calvinistic Protestant, but he was eventually drawn into the Roman Catholic Church. There, feeling the loss of Protestant hymn-singing, he set about to create some hymns that Catholics could sing–hymns in the style of Cowper, Newton and Wesley. The result was a book published in 1849, called Jesus and Mary: Or, Catholic Hymns for Singing and Reading. He eventually published three volumes of hymns, but the one named is generally considered to be his best work.

Many of his hymns contain Catholic elements unacceptable to evangelical Protestants. However, with those altered (or with certain stanzas omitted) they sometimes work quite well. (See, for example, the note on Faith of Our Fathers.) It is worth remembering that there are areas of doctrine where Catholics and Protestants share common ground. One of these is surely the worship of God expressed in this beautiful hymn. Faber gave it the title “The Eternal Father,” but it is now generally known by the opening line.

The original hymn had nine stanzas. The Cyber Hymnal (currently) has omitted the following one.

O then this worse than worthless heart
In pity deign to take,
And make it love Thee for Thyself
And for Thy glory’s sake.

Its description of the human heart as “worse than worthless” is perhaps true in one limited sense. In his fallen state, man is unable to make himself acceptable to God, or worship Him in a worthy way. However, God loved us enough to send His Son to die for our sins (Jn. 3:16). We are unworthy of that love, yes. But not worthless to Him.

Many hymnals today limit the number of stanzas still further, using five of them (CH-1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Even in this reduced state, the overwhelming emotional impact of the hymn is great. Faber heaps one exclamatory phrase on another to express his holy awe. “How wonderful…how bright…how beautiful…how dread [filling one with dread or reverence]…endless wisdom, boundless power…awful [awe-inspiring] purity.

In modern conversation, by repetition and misuse, we have weakened some of the words Faber uses (It’s wonderful when our football team wins. Clothing fashions today are dread[ful]. And dogs digging through our garbage in the alley can be an awful nuisance.) But for Faber, these expression meant filled with wonderment, gripped by reverent fear, and overwhelmed with holy awe. We need to reclaim some of that sense of standing before the Almighty, infinite Lord of all.

The majesty and bright glory of God’s throne (CH-1) is reflected in the Word of God (Ps. 104:1-2), and reference to the mercy seat carries us back to the holy of holies in the tabernacle of Israel (Lev. 16:2). The eternality of God, with His eternal years (CH-2) is spoken of in Ps. 102:24, 27; cf. Isa. 57:15). His infinite wisdom is referred to by Paul (Rom. 11:33). The psalmist also speaks of the trembling awe (CH-4) with which he approaches the Lord (Ps. 119:120). The comparison of God’s love to that of a human father or mother (CH-6) is also a biblical analogy (Ps. 103:13; Isa. 49:15; cf. Matt. 7:11).

My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty, how bright;
How beautiful Thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light!

Father of Jesus, love’s Reward!
What rapture it will be
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And gaze, and gaze on Thee!

Questions:
1) What are some of the things about God that should fill us with holy awe and reverence?

2) Why do you feel that so often our praise and worship lacks this? (This lack may not be your experience in your own church, but you have likely witnessed it.)

3) What kind of remedies would you offer to counteract this lack of reverence?

Links:
Wordwise Hymns (none)
The Cyber Hymnal


Responses

  1. Hello. I have had this site bookmarked for a while now and do come from time to time. This is a wonderful work you’re doing here. I love the old hymns and love reading the stories and circumstances of their being written.

    I have just started a new blog devoted to Elizabeth Prentiss and invite you to visit when you can. Hopefully, my name above is linked to it. I hope it’s alright that I’m linking to your site here on the sidebar of the new blog .

    Thanks for your service.

    • Thanks for your encouraging note, Maxine. Yes, it’s great that you’re providing a link to my sight. My study of hymns over the last 40-50 years has been a blessing to me. Now my blog enables me to bless others too! The present project of “Reflections” on our hymns will take about 3 years to complete posts on about 750 songs. By then, I may be ready for the old folks home, anyway! 🙂


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