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Words: William Walsham How (b. Dec. 13, 1823; d. Aug. 10, 1897)
Music: Munich, from Neuvermehrtes Gesangbuch (1693); harmony by Felix Mendelssohn (b. Feb. 3, 1809; d. Nov. 4, 1847)
Note: William Walsham How, an Anglican bishop, was known for his work with the poor, and with those who worked in the sometimes inhuman conditions of many nineteenth century factories. He was not only a busy pastor, but also found time to write more than fifty hymns.
The tune Munich is the common tune for the hymn, but Aurelia (to which we sing The Church’s One Foundation) works very well too.
Let’s think for a few moments about words. Our language is made up of them, and they’re used in writing, speaking or thinking. (Yes, that too. We can’t think about complex ideas or make plans, without forming words in our minds.) Words can be used to communicate with someone who speaks the same language, or to translate the words of one person into the language of another.
Words can identify concrete things that we can detect with our physical senses (e.g. rocks and clocks), or they can speak of abstracts such as hope, or worry. Words can refer to the thing itself–a door or a dog–or they can be used symbolically, as when someone says, “It rained cats and dogs last night.”
We may fail to understand a message that’s poorly worded, or uses words we’re not familiar with, but in the vast majority of cases we know what is being said. That is because God has designed language to follow certain basic rules. We cannot we accept the strange theory of Lewis Caroll’s Humpty Dumpty and say, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” Communication in that case would be impossible.
Adam, the first man, was not an inarticulate grunting savage–the evolutionist’s foolish notion. Adam was brought into being by our Creator with the gift of speech, as was Eve (cf. Gen. 3:2). In his earliest days Adam was given commands by the Lord (Gen. 2:16-17), and was assigned the task of naming the animals (vs. 20).
The Bible itself is often spoken of as the Word of God (e.g. Rom. 10:17; Heb. 13:7). Though it was written by human beings, they were so superintended by the Holy Spirit that what they wrote was exactly what God Himself wanted to communicate. What we hold in our hands, when we pick up a copy of the Scriptures, is the trustworthy Word of the living God (II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:21).
One who was convinced of that was Bishop How, who wrote a hymn inspired by Psalm 119:105, which says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Published in 1867, the hymn takes its opening phrase as a title: O Word of God Incarnate. That alerts us to the fact that the author is going to make a dual use of the term “word.”
In the Bible, God the Son is also spoken of as the Word (Jn. 1:1; Rev. 19:13). The incarnation (His coming to earth as Man) is described this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
Just as we can translate words from one language to another, so the Lord Jesus Christ translated deity into terms we can better understand. “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). Now, through the written Word, the Bible, we come to know and trust in the living Word, the Lord Jesus. The two are interrelated.
The hymn says:
CH-1) O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky:
We praise You for the radiance that from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.
CH-2) The church from her dear Master received the gift divine,
And still that light she lifteth o’er all the earth to shine.
It is the sacred vessel where gems of truth are stored;
It is the heav’n drawn picture of Christ, the living Word.
CH-4) O make your church, dear Saviour, a lamp of burnished gold,
To bear before the nations Your true light as of old.
O teach your wandering pilgrims by this their path to trace,
Till, clouds and darkness ended, they see You face to face.
1) What makes “the Word” a fitting title for the Lord Jesus, when compared to the words we use?
2) How are the Scriptures like a light?