Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

This hymn text is taken from the Liturgy of St James, a long service developed possibly during the lifetime of the Apostles. Used primarily by the Early Church in Jerusalem, it was named after James, the martyred brother of Jesus. The liturgy was shortened in the 5th century, for apparently the Early Church was quite fervent in its ritual prayer. The whole liturgy is still prayed in churches of the east, particularly the Mar Thoma Church of India. Whilst it is not our tradition, we are privileged to be able to sing this excerpt, profound and scripturally-rich in its text.

The text exhorts us to keep our thoughts on things of heaven, not earth, seeking to fulfill Paul’s command to “fix yours eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith. . .” (Heb. 12: 2) In an age where the secular world pervades even the Church and its attitudes, we learn that the Early Church sought to “ponder nothing earthly-minded, for with blessing in His hand Christ our God to earth descending comes our homage to demand.” Some people would write this hymn off as a product of Gnosticism, a type of philosophy/theology which encouraged the subjugation of earthly desires to the cultivating of spiritual pursuits. This sometimes led to a type of works righteousness which favoured the idea of one “earning” heaven through their ascetic life. Gnosticism at its most heretical said that Jesus could not have been true man, for anything in the flesh is sinful; therefore, Jesus was only a spiritual being. Yet, this hymn is clear to subvert such an idea right away in stanza two: “King of kings yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood, Lord of lords in human vesture, in the body and the blood, He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.” This incarnational stanza affirms that portion of the Nicene (and Apostles’) creeds which we should frequently confess, “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man. . .” As Advent comes ever closer, we remember that Christ can relate to our sufferings because He likewise took on human form and suffered—much more so than that with which we must contend. He was the spiritual “King of kings,” but he was “born of Mary,” sung about by the angels in Luke 2.

The third stanza conveys the dramatic scene of Christ’s imminent return, describing the “host of heaven, spread[ing] its vanguard on the way as the Light of Light descending, from the realm of endless day. . .” This second coming is referred to in Acts 1: 10, 11. After having watched Jesus’ ascension, two angels tell the Apostles, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.” The final stanza echoes the words of the Sanctus in the liturgy, which themselves hearken back to Isaiah 6:3 and refer to the everlasting praise of God offered by the seraphim around His throne, constantly singing “Alleluia, Lord Most High!”

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

          Joachim Neander, a German Calvinist, began his life as an unruly child and teenager, not caring much for religion or spirituality.  A pastor from Bremen led him to change his ways, and he soon became a believing Christian.  He was influenced by “Pietism,” a spiritual movement in the church which placed emphasis on emotion and feelings, sometimes at the expense of intellect or objective faith.  As a Calvinist, Neander believed in the complete and demanding sovereignty of God—notice how powerfully God is portrayed in this text.  Neander enjoyed the beauty of God’s creation, which is evident in the natural imagery of the line:  “Who, as on wings of an eagle, uplifteth, sustaineth.”  A rather strict aesthetic (he denied his own physical needs), he died at age 30 of tuberculosis.  The valley in Germany in which he often strolled, and in which he found a cave in which he particularly liked to study, has been named after him:  it is the Neanderthal.  (“Thal” being old German for “valley.”)  It was in this valley that the skeleton of Homo neanderthalensis was discovered in 1856.

          Christian orthodoxy ascribes to God three primary attributes.  He is omniscent (all-knowing), omnipresent (present everywhere at all times) and omnipotent (all-powerful.) This hymn focuses upon His omnipotence particularly as found in Nehemiah 9: 6, “You [God] alone are the Lord.  You made the heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them.  You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship You.”  Recognized in this verse and in this hymn is God’s sustaining power over all creation.  The eighteenth-century Deists believed God made the world but then abandoned it.  Christianity has always held that God “still preserves” the world, to paraphrase from Luther’s Catechism.  Consider Neander’s second stanza, “Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth, Who, as on wings of an eagle, uplifteth, sustaineth.”  (An allusion to Isaiah 40: 31.)  The third stanza juxtaposes God’s creative abilities with His sustaining capacities—“Praise to the Lord, who hath fearfully wondrously, made thee;  Health hath vouchsafed and, when heedlessly falling, hath stayed thee.”  (This is an allusion to Psalm 139: 14, “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;  Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”)  On a side note, these old hymns are so rich with scriptural allusions that we frequently do not even realize that we are singing scripture—but we are committing scripture to memory and imbuing it within ourselves. God will bless us through His Word!

          Being the post-Pentecost season, we may be tempted to think that, after the Ascension, Christ has abandoned us to our own devices.   (The Deists built an entire worldview around this philosophy/theology.)  But, we have been given the Holy Spirit through our baptism and it is this Spirit which sustains us.  Christ is not physically present on earth, but His Holy Spirit is active through the Church Universal. Because of this, we can praise God in the words of Neander’s final stanza:  “Praise to the Lord!  Oh let all that is in me adore Him!  All that hath life and breath, come now with praises before Him!  Let the Amen sound from His people again;  gladly forever adore Him!”

The Neander valley, painted by Gerardus Johannes Verburgh, 1803.

Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven

Although he was an Anglican vicar, he had initially considered studying medicine. Although he was tolerant of his repeated transfers to different churches, he eventually gave up the ministry in an effort to regain his health. Although he published three volumes of poetry, only two of his texts remain in popular usage, “Abide with Me” and “Praise, My, Soul, the King of Heaven.” Henry Lyte (1793-1847), an Englishman, seems to have been a writer who was profoundly mystified by the sadnesses of life. In 1818, he was deeply moved by the death of a fellow clergyman, writing “He died happy under the belief that though he had deeply erred, there was One whose death and sufferings would atone for his delinquencies, and be accepted for all that had incurred.” Lyte himself underwent a spiritual change as he continues, “I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.” He wrote “Abide with Me” in 1820 under similar circumstances.

This hymn is a free paraphrase of the praise-filled Psalm 103. Yet, this hymn is apparently not representative of his work, as one scholar observes that “it is with the tenderness and tearfulness of the Psalms that he is most deeply penetrated,” and that Lyte had a “habit of isolating the sad part of a psalm.” Perhaps that this hymn was based on such a joyous psalm has contributed to a longevity not experienced by Lyte’s other hymns.

“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” is certainly a joyous expression of praise—no matter the tendencies of the hymnwriter—but it is also faithful to the theological nuances of the psalm. The psalm begins with the “upbeat” litany, “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise His holy name.” Yet, both the psalm (and consequently the hymn) continue with the reason why this praise is rendered; we praise because it is God “. . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.” In the paraphrased words of the hymn, we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.” In verse 13 of the psalm, God is compared to a father, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him.” This is paraphrased in the hymn in stanza three as, “Fatherlike He tends and spares us; Well our feeble frame He knows; In His hand He gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes.” Is this good news or bad news? Is this law or gospel? Is this upbeat or unduly morose? Many in our culture would find these lines depressing, for they acknowledge human frailty; we have “foes” from whom we need rescuing. We have diseases which need healing. We sin constantly and need forgiveness. A Father who gave His Son as redemption for our sins is the Gospel which this hymn proclaims.

This hymn is characteristic of all good hymnody (and of every psalm) in that law is presented with gospel. The law without the gospel is depressingly burdensome, and cannot by nature be focued of Christ Jesus, who redeemed us from the law. The gospel without the law cannot by nature be the true gospel, for it ignores the power of what Christ Jesus has accomplished. The complexity of the Christian life is such that the sorrow and sadness of sin will be experienced by everyone on this earth. But the joy of forgiveness and redemption will be experienced, too, at least by every Christian. This hymn reminds of the natural tension between law and gospel, and the supremacy of the true gospel through Christ.

Below are pictures from a book in my collection, Poems, Chiefly Religious, published by Henry Lyte in 1883. This was a presentation copy from the author, which he signed himself. (Although, disappointing, he modestly did not sign his actual name!)

–Benjamin Kolodziej


“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies”

This joyous morning hymn comes from Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who along with his brother, John, founded the Methodist Church as a “renewal” movement of the Church of England. Charles wrote thousands of hymns, many of which are beloved in Christendom. His, for example, is “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” In the first stanza of this morning hymn can we see the unmistakable imagery of Charles Wesley, “Christ, whose glory fills the skies, Christ, the true and only light, Sun of righteousness, arise, Triumph o’er the shades of night. . .” This stanza echoes Wesley’s famous Christmas hymn, but derives inspiration from Malachi 4: 2, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” This is no doubt a foreshadowing of the “Son” of righteousness who will bring healing in His wings. As at Christmastide (actually, 21 December), when the days begin to lengthen and we are reminded daily in nature that Christ is the Sun of Righteousness, this hymn reminds us that the Sun of Righteousness is present daily—even with more certainty than that with which we greet the daybreak. The stanza continues with veiled references to Christ, the “Dayspring from on high” and the “Daystar, in my heart appear.” The Dayspring reference can be traced to Isaiah 9:1, “The people in darkness have seen a great light,” this light sometimes being translated as “dayspring.” The Daystar is also that “bright, morningstar” which can often be seen right before dawn. Since this star is actually a planet (Venus), its theological import is even more precise. Just as a planet merely reflects the light of the sun, so, too, does Christ reflect the light of God the Father.

Notice Wesley’s text painting in the second stanza, “Dark and cheerless is the morn unaccompanied by Thee; joyless is the day’s return, Till Thy mercy’s beams I see, Till they inward light impart, Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.” Just as the morning is not the morning without the sun, our faith is meaningless without Christ. To use a cliché befitting a church committee, the astute reader of music notes may have an “ah-ha!” moment. (Apologies for the cliché—it won’t happen again.) Wesley now speaks of “inward light” which warms “my heart.” Charles Wesley may begin his texts with grand, universal, celestial themes, but he quickly personalizes them so that we realize we are not singing about a metaphorical Deity, but One who relates to us personally. The Wesleys both believed in a sort of “heartfelt” faith as opposed to one that was “intellectually objective” (although one might argue that those two “poles” are not incongruous), and such was partly a reaction to the Deism of the time which posited that God started the heavens in motion, but now has left humanity to its own devices and remains personally unknown to us.
The third stanza prayerfully implores Christ to “Visit then this soul of mine, pierce the gloom of sin and grief; fill me, radiancy divine, scatter all my unbelief; more and more Thyself display, shining to the perfect day.” Here Wesley compares “sin and grief” to unbelief—a useful thought in today’s world in which the endless questioning of authority (particularly of organized religion) is somehow a badge of honor and announces one to be a true “intellectual.” Unbelief is the result of sin, and belief can only come from Christ. Just as Christ derives his essence from the Father, we likewise derives our spiritual capabilities as a Christian from Christ Himself. We are able to be justified only through Christ’s redemption, and we are only sanctified through the word of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we would do well to remember this every morning when we rise to greet the sun!


“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

This hymn text is based on 1 Tim. 1: 17: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.” Such an ascription of praise and worship was expanded by the English Baptist preacher Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908) into the four stanzas of the hymn which we sing as the exit processional today. Consider the text: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes, Most blessed, most glorious, O Ancient of days, Almighty, victorious, Your great name we raise.” The first phrase, then, uses the imagery and words from 1 Timothy. The phrase “in light inaccessible” recalls Moses’ inability to look upon God directly and the Old Testament allusions to God’s face being too resplendent for human gaze. Notice also the frequent use of light/dark imagery in this hymn. The term “Ancient of Days” is an expression found three times (only in Daniel) in Scripture to refer to God’s unchanging nature.

Consider the third stanza: “In all life Thou givest, to both great and small; in all life Thou liveth, the true life of all. We blossom and flourish like leaves on a tree, we wither and perish, but naught changest Thee.” One must consider the theological implication of this last phrase: “But You never change.” This concept, that God never changes, is called the “immutability” of God, and is widely discussed and debated in theological circles today. Indeed, we know that He is the same, “Yesterday, today, forever.” We also know that God the Father is the Creator of the universe, the Son is the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit is the Preserver of the faith–the nature of the Triune God does not change. Yet, we know that He spared His people when implored to by Moses, He saved Nineveh, and most Christians believe that God hears and acts on their own prayers. Yet, God’s reply to our prayers has no bearing on His nature. Further, we are reminded in this stanza of the sting of death and that ultimately “we wither and perish,” further reminding us of the difference between human nature and God’s nature. Recall Psalm 90: 5-6 (this is a psalm devoted to God’s omnipotence upon which Isaac Watts based his text “O God, Our Help in Ages Past) which states: “You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered.”

The tuneful melody of this hymn comes from Wales. Its driving, cheerful, triple meter is characteristic of Welsh hymnody. An early version of this tune from the late 18th century has been found, with the original text dealing with the flight and fancies of a cuckoo bird (called “Y Gog Lwydlas.”) Perhaps the less said of this, the better!

Here is an organ setting of this hymn composed by Benjamin Kolodziej, St John’s Organist and Choirmaster: