Posted by: rcottrill | November 15, 2017

O Lord and Master of Us All

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Words: John Greenleaf Whittier (b. Dec. 17, 1807; d. Sept. 7, 1892)
Music: St. Anne, by William Croft (b. Dec. _____, 1678; d. Aug. 14, 1727)

Wordwise Hymns (John Whittier)
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier didn’t consider himself a hymn writer, saying he had no knowledge of music. Even so, several hymns have come from his poems. The hymn O Lord and Master of Us All consists of a number of verses taken from a much longer poem entitled “Our Master.”

It should also be noted that different hymnals have used different verses of the original poem, causing the hymn to look quite different from book to book. And at least one hymnal has the last line of stanza nine as the more expected “the Life, the Truth the Way” (Jn. 14:6).

The tune St. Anne is commonly used with Isaac Watts’s O God, Our Help in Ages Past.

The saying, “You can’t see the forest for the trees,” has been around at least since the fourteenth century. It portrays a person in the middle of a forest, who can see the trees around him, and may even make a careful study of some. But from his point of view he’s unable to appreciate the immensity and grandeur of the forest as a whole. To do that, he must go back (or above) some distance.

It points to the difficulty of one who can get so involved in the details and complexities of his subject that he fails to appreciate the main point, or misses the big picture. For example, consider an orchestra performing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony (the Pastoral Symphony).

¤ A newspaper reporter is there so he can write an article for his paper. He notes that the horn section in the first movement seems too loud, and the violins come in too soon at bar thirty-four. But he describes the depiction of the storm in the fourth movement as particularly well done.

¤ Another who attends the concert is herself a composer. She’s there to study the sonata format of the second movement, and note how it transitions into the scherzo of the third movement.

¤ But what of the one who simply delights in listening to good music? The music lover who attends likely notices none of the things mentioned. He’s there to enjoy the music, to simply let it wash over him, feeling it’s changing moods, and delighting in the experience.

It’s not that the purposes of the first two individuals are unworthy, or of no value. Examining every tree in the forest has its place. But so has the appreciation of the forest in broader terms.

This has its application to the Christian faith. There are 783,137 words in the King James Version of our Bible. And every word is important. It’s all God’s true and trustworthy Word, worthy of our study. But we mustn’t lose sight of the essential message of faith and obedience, sin and salvation, and the centrality of Christ in it all (Lk. 24:26-27, 44-45).

In Whittier’s hymn, he turns us from the many learned volumes about various details of theology, and from the systems, and symbols of various churches and denominations. Whatever “our name or sign,” he paints the Christian faith in broader strokes. To Whittier, the big picture is to follow Christ, the One who calls Himself the Light (Jn. 8:12), the Truth and the Way (Jn. 14:6). The Apostle Paul states it simply: “For me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21).

It’s not at all that the details of theology are unimportant. There is a place to study Bible doctrines and know them well. There is a place for symbols and rituals too, if they represent the reality of the Christian faith, and the gospel.

And what is that? The Christian gospel rests upon a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the faith and confession that He died to pay the penalty for our sins. Without that, doctrine is dead, and symbols become empty playacting.

CH-1) 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.

CH-7) Apart from Thee all gain is loss,
All labour vainly done;
The solemn shadow of the cross
Is better than the sun.

CH-8) Our Friend, our Brother, and our Lord,
What may Thy service be?
Nor name, nor form, nor ritual word,
But simply following Thee.

CH-9) We faintly hear, we dimly see,
In differing phrase we pray;
But dim or clear, we own in Thee
The Light, the Truth, the Way.

1) What does the poet mean by saying, “The solemn shadow of the cross is better than the sun”?

2) What is the author trying to convey by saying “in differing phrase we pray”?

Wordwise Hymns (John Whittier)
The Cyber Hymnal


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