Posted by: rcottrill | November 22, 2013

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

Words: Early Greek hymn (probably from the 4th century), the Cherubic Hymn, in the Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem; paraphrased by Gerard Moultrie (b. Sept. 16, 1829; d. Apr. 25, 1885)

Music: Traditional 17th century French melody; harmonized by Ralph Vaughn Williams, and becoming the hymn tune Picardy, used with this text in The English Hymnal, 1906.


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Note: There were some who believed this hymn was written by the James who was the early leader of the church at Jerusalem, and who gave us the epistle that bears his name. However, the hymn likely came from a time later than that, around AD 350. Even so, that makes it one of the earliest Christian hymns still in use. Gerard Moultrie’s English version was published in 1864.

The opening summons of this great hymn, is adapted from the book of Habakkuk, where it comes at the conclusion of a stern series of condemning “woes” from the Lord, upon Chaldea (or Babylon) the enemy of His people Israel (Hab. 3:5-20).

Babylon was a rising power, and an invasion of the southern kingdom of Judah was threatening. The prophet was aware of the sins of his own people, and concerned about that, but he couldn’t understand how God could make use of a heathen power to chasten them. The Lord’s answer was that those who were in a right relationship with Him should continue to live by faith (Hab. 2:4).

Though Jehovah may sovereignly choose to use Babylon to discipline His wayward people, He is fully aware of the sins of that godless nation, and Babylon will be punished.

“Woe to him who increases what is not his” (vs. 6); “woe to him who covets evil gain for his house” (vs. 9); “woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed” (vs. 12); “woe to him who gives drink to his neighbour [tempting him to drunkenness]” (vs. 15); “woe to him who says to wood, ‘Awake!’ [that is, who engages in idol worship]” (vs. 19).

In contrast to the latter terrible sin of idolatry:

“The Lord is in [and ruling from] His holy temple [His heavenly sanctuary, cf. Ps. 11:4]. Let all the earth [all mortal flesh] keep silence [hush] before Him” (vs. 20).

The idols of the heathen will never “awake” and speak to them. They will remain silent. And that is what those who make them and bow to them need to do. To hush, and hear the voice of Almighty God, speaking through His prophet. There ought to be an awed silence before the sovereign Lord of the universe, because He is about to act in judgment on the sins of His people, and ultimately on that nation He will use for the purpose.

Though Habakkuk 2:20 is used, not only in the present hymn but, in some churches, as a brief Introit, inviting the people of God to a meditative silence prior to the service, or prior to the sermon, it’s important to see it in its context in Scripture. A holy God is calling sinners to account (cf. 1:12).

This hymn would be fitting for the Christmas season, but it was used in ancient times in connection with the Eucharist (the Communion Service, or Lord’s Supper). It emphasized the solemnity of that occasion. Think of who it is that came to die for our sins. He is not only fully Man, but fully God. He is “Lord of lords, in human vesture” (CH-2), and demands “our full homage” (CH-1).

CH-1) Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

The fact that He is attended by the angels of heaven at once shows His superiority to them (cf. Heb. 1:4-14), and shows the great importance of the incarnation and what followed it. Two particular ranks of the holy angels are singled out for mention.

1) The seraphim–worshiping angels. (The “im” at the end of the word makes “seraph” plural in Hebrew.) Isaiah tells us of a heavenly vision he had of seraphim hovering around the throne of God. Their work seems to be to exalt and glorify God (Isa. 6:1-3).

2) The cherubim–guardian angels. Cherubim (more than one) were assigned to guard the entrance to the garden of Eden, after the fall, preventing Adam and Eve from returning (Gen. 3:24). But their main duties seem to be associated with the throne of God, as guardians there (Isa. 37:16). That is why, when the Lord prepared to reveal His presence in the holy of holies of the tabernacle, the images of two golden cherubim were placed above the mercy seat (Heb. 9:5).

The hymn writer pictures these heavenly beings as part of a heavenly procession when Christ descends to this earth. We do know that the angels “desire to look into” the great thing the Lord has done to purchase our salvation (I Pet. 1:12).

CH-3) Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

CH-4) At His feet the six wingèd seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the Presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

1) Does your church use this hymn, either for the Lord’s Supper or for the Christmas season?

2) To your knowledge, what is the attitude of your congregation at the Lord’s Supper? (And what can we do to foster a sense of holy awe there?)


Wordwise Hymns
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