Posted by: rcottrill | October 10, 2014

We May Not Climb the Heavenly Steeps

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Words: John Greenleaf Whittier (b. Dec. 17, 1807; d. Sept. 7, 1892)
Music: Serenity, by William Vincent Wallace (b. Mar. 11, 1812; d. Oct. 12, 1865)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: In 1856, Whittier published a poem with thirty-eight stanzas, called “Our Master” (considered his best work). This hymn uses the fifth stanza, and the thirteenth through the sixteenth of the poem. The hymn Immortal Love, Forever Full, is taken from the same poem, simply beginning with its opening stanza:

Immortal Love, forever full,
Forever flowing free,
Forever shared, forever whole,
A never-ebbing sea!

The tune, Serenity, is the melody of a love song by William Wallace (“Ye winds that waft my sighs to thee…”) Uzziah Burnap (1834-1900) adapted part of Wallace‘s the music to make a hymn tune.

Whittier was a Quaker, and he was not completely orthodox in doctrine. He said:

“I see the good in all denominations and hope that all will be…not wasting strength and vitality on spasmodic emotions, not relying on creed and dogma, but on faithful obedience to the voice of God in the soul.”

This ecumenical spirit finds its expression in the fifth stanza of the present hymn, which declares (dubiously, I believe) that Christ is Lord of us all “whate’er our name or sign.” It is true that the Christian’s allegiance is first of all to Christ, but that does not invalidate all creeds or dogmas (doctrines) of the church. If they express and summarize accurately the teachings of the Word of God, they have their place.

CH-5) O Lord and Master of us all,
Whate’er our name or sign,
We own Thy sway, we hear Thy call,
We test our lives by Thine!

In spite of this vague Quaker sentiment, there is enough truth in what he wrote that this, and his hymn Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, are found in many hymnals.

CH-1) We may not climb the heavenly steeps
To bring the Lord Christ down;
In vain we search the lowest deeps,
For Him no depths can drown.

Man’s search for God can be futile and frustrating. How can we grasp the infinite and eternal? “Can you search out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than heaven–what can you do? Deeper than Sheol [the grave]–what can you know?…As for the Almighty, we cannot find Him? (Job 11:7; 37:23). Even Job himself, a great saint who had a deep personal relationship with God, said, “Indeed these are the mere edges of His ways, and how small a whisper we hear of Him!” (Job 26:14).

The bad news is that applying mere human energy and human intellect to it, we’ll never get to know God. But the good news is that the transcendent God has reached down and revealed Himself to us in ways that are within reach. Speaking of the wonderful blessings God has in store for us, Scripture says, “God has revealed them to us through His Spirit” (I Cor. 2:10). With the eyes of faith, enlightened by the Spirit of God, the believer discovers the Lord is near.

When faith reaches out to Him, we find, “Faith has still its Olivet, / And love its Galilee.” In other words, just as the Lord Jesus, during His time on earth, taught people by the shores of Galilee (Mk. 2:13), or from the slopes of the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24:3), so He’s willing and able to teach us today, by His Spirit.

CH-2) But warm, sweet, tender, even yet
A present help is He;
And faith has still its Olivet,
And love its Galilee.

Further, Whittier testifies to the present restorative ministry of the Lord. Whether by natural or medical means, or by a supernatural touch, God is still able to help us in times of pain and distress. Taking his inspiration from the woman who touched the hem of Christ’s robe in faith and found healing, as many crowded around Him (Matt. 9:20-22), the poet assures us of the Lord’s power to heal.

CH-3) The healing of the seamless dress
Is by our beds of pain;
We touch Him in life’s throng and press,
And we are whole again.

1) What, in your view, is the purpose and value of the great creeds of the church (such as the Apostles Creed)?

2) How is the presence of Christ in your life a blessing to you today?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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