Posted by: rcottrill | March 24, 2014

O God of Bethel

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Words: Philip Doddridge (b. June 26, 1702; d. Oct. 26, 1751)
Music: Salzburg (or Haydn), by Johann Michael Haydn (b. Sept. 14, 1737; d. Aug. 10, 1806)

Wordwise Hymns (Philip Doddridge)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: Salzburg is not the tune given by the Cyber Hymnal, but it’s the one I’m more familiar with being used for this hymn. Johann Michael Haydn was the brother of the more famous composer, Franz Josef Haydn.

P astor Doddridge wrote this hymn for use on January 16th, 1737, at the conclusion of a message he planned to preach on Jacob. After he cheated his brother Esau, the latter had threatened to kill him (Gen. 27:41), and Jacob fled from home. Alone in the wilds he was confronted by God, who reiterated that he (not his elder brother Esau) was the one through whom the Abrahamic Covenant would be fulfilled (Gen. 28:13-15). Given the kind of man Jacob had shown himself to be, this was a demonstration of sovereign grace on God’s part.

In recognition of the fact that he had met Jehovah God in that desolate wilderness, Jacob named the place Bethel, Beyth El in Hebrew, meaning House of God (Gen. 28:17-19). When the Lord met him again in later years, He identified Himself as “the God of Bethel” (Gen. 31:13), and clearly Jacob continued to have a special remembrance of the site (cf. Gen. 35:3), and the Lord had become to him El Beyth El, “God of the House of God” (vs. 7).

The original hymn follows the biblical account closely. However, it has been subjected to seemingly endless tinkering over the years, changes that obscure its connection with what happened to Jacob. For example, some editors have changed “God of Bethel” to “God of Ages,” or “God of our fathers,” or something else. But why? If the Lord calls Himself the God of Bethel, who are we to complain? Can a service leader or pastor not explain the meaning of the phrase. Don’t capitulate; educate!

But now I want to reverse myself in a sense, and point out what I see as a major flaw in this hymn. One that merely changing a few words does not correct. The revision posted on the Cyber Hymnal site has much to commend it. However, it does not entirely remove the problem.

Earlier incidents in the life of Jacob reveal him to have been a cheat and a deceiver. And when he meets God at Bethel, Jacob does not even seem to be a genuine believer. We can see that when, true to form, he tries to make a deal with the Lord (italics mine):

“Jacob made a vow, saying, ‘If God will be with me, and keep me in this way that I am going, and give me bread to eat and clothing to put on, so that I come back to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God’” (Gen. 28:21).

It’s as though he’s saying, If God will do what I want–bring me back home safely–then He can have the privilege of being my God”–which strongly implies that he isn’t Jacob’s God as yet. And we need to notice another thing: the Lord had already promised Jacob that He would do precisely that, bring him safely back home (vs. 15). But Jacob must have the promise actually fulfilled before he’s ready to commit himself.

This is a conditional, I’ll-love-you-if kind of love, and it’s hardly a glowing example of faith! Nor is it, surely, an attitude worthy of being glorified in a hymn. But that’s exactly what Doddridge has done. The hymn changes Jacob’s “my” to the congregation’s “our,” but otherwise the gist of the text is here. Note how closely his original, with it’s repeated “if,” parallels the words of Scripture (Gen. 28:20-22).

3) If Thou, through each perplexing path,
Wilt be our constant Guide;
If Thou wilt daily bread supply,
And raiment wilt provide;

4) If Thou wilt spread Thy shield around,
Till these our wanderings cease,
And at our Father’s loved abode,
Our souls arrive in peace:

5) To Thee, as to our Covenant God,
We’ll our whole selves resign;
And count that not our tenth alone,
But all we have is Thine.

The version in the Cyber Hymnal (a 1781 revision by John Logan) does perhaps make the earlier part of the hymn more worthy of our use. But there is still, in the final stanza, the implication that we’re putting conditions on our allegiance to Almighty God.

CH-5) Such blessings from Thy gracious hand
Our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God,
And portion evermore.

“And [if Thou wilt come through for us] Thou shalt be our chosen God.” How dare we try to make deals with Almighty God, and have the audacity to call them “humble prayers”! Especially since, in infinite grace, He has already promised abundant blessings to us, undeserving as we are (cf. Rom. 8:32; Eph. 1:7; 2:7). The hymn has been greatly improved by some editors by simply omitting the final stanza.

1) Do you agree or disagree with the point I’m making here?

2) What is a more worthy approach to God for Jacob (and for us)?

Wordwise Hymns (Philip Doddridge)
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. Because I have never twigged the ‘conditional’ tone you speak of, I went and fetched my hymnbook to read the hymn over with your comments in mind. Our version is obviously one of the ‘tweaked’ ones because each stanza is a request, and there is no obvious condition making. Our stanzas are different to the ones you quote here, the last one is the closest but even that is not the same.
    How very curious, don’t you think? It is a favourite hymn of my mother’s and of our congregation too; we sing it to the tune of ‘Abridge’.

    • Thanks for your comments. Interesting. As a general rule, I’m a traditionalist. I usually like to see hymns left as they were written. But there are definitely exceptions. We’re not dealing with the inspired Word of God here, just the poetic creations of mere mortals. In the case of O God of Bethel, it sounds as though the version you’re using has resolved the issue I discussed. God bless.


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