Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Child of the King

Praise for the Lord #4

Words: Harriet E. Buell, 1877
Music: John B. Sumner, 1877

Harriet Eugenia Buell (1834-1910) published this poem in the Feb. 1st, 1877 issue of the Northern Christian Advocate, a prominent Methodist journal. In a scene often repeated during the heyday of religious journalism, a songwriter picked up the poem and set it to music, creating a collaboration after the fact. Sumner (1838-1918)was a student of the great gospel songwriter Philip P. Bliss.(Cyberhymnal)

Stanza 1:
My Father is rich in houses and lands,
He holdeth the wealth of the world in His hands!
Of rubies and diamonds, of silver and gold,
His coffers are full, He has riches untold.

In Psalm 50:10 the Lord says, "For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills." I recently watched the series Planet Earth with my daughter, the nature lover; I was literally dumbfounded to see the wealth and variety of life on this planet. When we add to that the treasures that lie beneath our feet, in the deep places of the world, and the unknown reaches of space, surely we can realize that the riches of God are far above anything we can imagine--"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!"(Romans 11:33)

I’m a child of the King,
A child of the King:
With Jesus my Savior,
I’m a child of the King.

Though we claim God as our Father, it is through Jesus that the relationship became effectual. "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'"(Galatians 4:4-6) This new relationship lets us enjoy blessings now, and anticipate greater blessings in the future: "The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him."(Romans 8:16-17)

Stanza 2:
My Father’s own Son, the Savior of men,
Once wandered on earth as the poorest of them;
But now He is pleading our pardon on high,
That we may be His when He comes by and by.


Physical riches on this earth, though, are not part of the promise. Jesus himself warned that "foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."(Luke 9:58) The followers of Jesus cannot expect to fare better; Paul described the apostles as being considered "like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things."(1 Corinthians 4:13) Yet we know that our spiritual welfare is far more important, and it is a greater blessing to know that Jesus is advocating for us before God's throne,(1st John 2:1) than to have all the money in the world.

Stanza 3:
I once was an outcast stranger on earth,
A sinner by choice, an alien by birth,
But I’ve been adopted, my name’s written down,
An heir to a mansion, a robe and a crown.


Sin separates from God, and apart from God we have no hope. Speaking of the time before God's revelation came to the Gentiles, Paul says in Ephesians 2:11-12, "You Gentiles in the flesh... were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world."

An awful thought indeed; we need to go one verse further. "But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ." At the end of the stanza Buell strikes once again the theme of adoption into a parent-child relationship to God, as taught in Galatians 4 and Romans 8.

The second line of this stanza is somewhat troubling--can one be both "a sinner by choice" and "an alien by birth"? The latter expression seems to reflect the concept of original sin, while the former argues against it. Is there a way of reconciling the two expressions? Or did Buell simply choose the latter phrase because it rhymes with "earth" in the preceding line? One wonders what theological vagaries are often committed in hymns for the sake of a good rhyme.

Stanza 4:
A tent or a cottage, why should I care?
They’re building a palace for me over there;
Though exiled from home, yet still may I sing:
All glory to God, I’m a child of the King.


I have trouble with the first two lines of this stanza. (Once again, I'm sorry if this is your favorite song; please refer to my apologies in advance post.) It may tend toward a somewhat materialistic view of our heavenly reward, focusing on the "riches untold" and "palace for me" instead of the simple joy of being in the presence of God for eternity. Wayne Jackson touches on this subject in his excellent "Study of Heaven" in the Christian Courier.

The picture of the Christian as exile is a sound one, though; in Hebrews chapter 11, the "Faith Hall of Fame", verse 13 says that all those heroes of faith "acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth". Peter also called his readers "sojourners and exiles".(1 Peter 2:11) Like Abraham, the great sojourner and exile of Genesis, we need to be "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God."(Hebrews 11:10)

About the music: Sumner stands in the tradition of the first generation of gospel song, before the Southern "quartet style" had emerged. This musical setting is a good example of the typical simplicity of harmony in the early gospel style--the entire first phrase, "My Father is rich in houses and lands", is a prolonged Eb major chord, kept interesting by the accidentals ornamenting the soprano and tenor lines. With a few exceptions for decorative purposes, this song relies on the same three-chord foundation that made country music great.
Cyberhymnal. A Child of the King.


  1. Surprised that you have trouble with: "A sinner by choice and an alien by birth." It's not a "theological vagary" at all, but a precise description of the sinner's condition. We aren't sinners because we sin. We sin because we're sinners, with an inborn nature that is at enmity with God. But the Lord still holds us accountable for our sinful choices.

  2. The hymn "A Child of the King" has a very personal significance for me. The Lord introduced a part of the the hymn to me when I was passing through a very stormy time in my life back in 1995. At the time, the only part of the song I knew was the last stanza. A Christian woman named Susan E. Gammons of Massachusetts wrote a poem around 1900 using part of this hymn. She wrote "Then A tent or a cottage why should I care, Send it ringing afar on the evening air, This world is a camp, and how brief is our stay, Ere the tent that has sheltered is folded away; But mansions eternal await the redeemed, And heaven is fairer than earth ever dreamed." Only later, did I discover that the inspiration for this part of Gammons' poem came from Harriet Buell's earlier poem/hymn "A Child of the King". The hymn has become my life-song. For me, there is no question that the last stanza was inspired by the Holy Spirit. All Praise and Glory to my Lord, "the Savior of men . . ."

  3. I must disagree with Robert. There is simply no Biblical teaching which I can find to affirm that we are "an alien by birthZ" in the sense of being born in sin as Augustine and Calvin taught. Based on passages like Eccl. 7:29 which says that God has made man upright (not guilty of inherited sin), Matt. 18:1-3 which teaches that children are born innocent, 1 Jn. 3:4 which teaches that sin is something we do not inherit, and 1 Jn. 3:8 which says that he who sins is of the devil (not he who is of the devil sins), I have to conclude that yes, do are sinners because we sin. Of course, that topic has been debated by theologians for years.
    That said, I have had trouble with the stanza as well but have a possible explanation. We are "aliens by birth" in the sense of a spiritual birth. Just as we are spiritually born into God's family, becoming His spiritual children, when we are saved (Jn. 3:3-5), we are spiritually born into the devil's family, becoming his children so to speak, when we choose to sin. I know that it's stretching the point a bit, but it's at least a possibility.

  4. Wayne, thank you for reading, and for your good comments here.