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!”