Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Awake, my tongue, thy tribute bring

Praise for the Lord #63

Words: John Needham, 1768
Music: "DUKE STREET," John Hatton, 1790

John Needham (fl. 1746-1786?) was a Baptist minister in the great English port city of Bristol, not to be confused with his better-known contemporary, John Turberville Needham, a biologist. We know neither his date of birth nor date of death, but he was associated with a Baptist church in Bristol by 1746, serving as assistant to the elderly John Beddome (1674-1757, father of Benjamin Beddome, "God is the Fountain whence," PFTL #184). Needham became co-pastor in 1750 along with a Mr. Thomas, but conflict within the congregation over the co-pastor situation led to his departure to another smaller Baptist congregation, which met from 1752-1787.(Burrage, 41-44)

In 1768 he published his only known work, Hymns, devotional and moral, which included 263 hymns. Several of these remain popular, including "Holy and Reverend is the name" and "Rise, O my soul, pursue the path."

Stanza 1:
Awake, my tongue, thy tribute bring
To Him who gave thee pow'r to sing;

Praise Him who is all praise above,
The source of wisdom and of love.

"For with You is the fountain of life; in Your light do we see light."(Psalm 36:9) Every time we see the light of day, it is God's light we see, and it is because of Him that we are here to see it. Needham begins his hymn of praise with a recognition that "every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights."(James 1:17)

Even our ability to sing God's praise is owed to the wonderfully complex vocal apparatus which He appointed to us alone of His creation. The process by which the mind conceives of music and words, then delivers the orders to all the physical parts that are engaged to produce it, fills heavy volumes of scientific studies; but the smallest child can do it. I appreciate the songs of birds--and we should take a lesson, perhaps, from their habit of greeting the day with song. I am awed by the mournful songs of whales, those majesties of the deep ocean. But none of these compare with the mystery that a parent witnesses as the child makes its first attempts at communication--acts of volition, coupled with a skill unique among created beings to communicate that thought to another.

What do we do with that ability? Even as children we made good and bad uses of it. The same voice that might sing a nursery rhyme or song from Bible class might be used later to sing a song taunting another child, rubbing in some humiliation. We see adults creating music, often primarily for simple profit and worldly glory, that may be relatively innocent but often tends toward worldliness and even outright lewdness. As James 3:10 says, "From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so." We should never forget who gave us the power to speak and sing. We are His creation, and these gifts ought not to be misused. Best of all, let us use them first for His glory!

Stanza 2:
How vast His knowledge! How profound!
A deep where all our thoughts are drowned;
The stars He numbers and their names
He give to all those heav'nly flames.

1 Corinthians 1:25 begins with the jarring statement, "For the foolishness of God is wiser than men." That is to say, one supposes, if God had any foolishness in any part of His "manifold [many-faceted] wisdom,"(Ephesians 3:10) it would still be wiser than the most profound thought of the wisest man that ever lived on this earth. Job, in all his troubles, saw very well this inscrutable "beyond-ness" of God's thinking:
If one wished to contend with Him, one could not answer Him once in a thousand times. He is wise in heart and mighty in strength--who has hardened himself against Him, and succeeded? ... Who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number. Behold, He passes by me, and I see Him not; He moves on, but I do not perceive Him.(Job 9:3-4,10-11)
When God finally spoke to Job--I cannot really say that God answered him--Job's immediate and honest response was, "I am unworthy--how can I reply to You? I put my hand over my mouth." We always have questions--it is certainly part of being human!--but we have to remember that "The secret things belong to God."(Deuteronomy 29:29) Though God has revealed much, in His wisdom He has also left much unrevealed. Habakkuk found this out when he tried to question God's plans, and was answered, "Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told."(Habakkuk 1:5) He too came to understand the limits of human wisdom. As Job aptly said, "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know."(Job 42:3)

Stanza 3:
Through each bright world above, behold,
Ten thousand thousand charms unfold;
Earth, air, and mighty seas combine
To speak His wisdom all divine.

Continuing the thought begin in the 2nd stanza, Needham expands on the as-yet-unmeasured vastness of our God's creation as evidence of His surpassing wisdom. David the Psalmist said, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?"(Psalm 8:3-4)

The primitive awe felt by our ancestors is undiminished by our greater knowledge of the universe. In 1994, and again in 2004, the Hubble telescope was aimed at single, tiny specks of our sky in what are called "deep field" observations, using all the sensitivity of this amazing instrument to pick up the faintest traces of light from distant objects. The area observed in the recent "ultra deep field" was equivalent to a grain of sand held at arm's length; it discovered 10,000 previously unknown galaxies. If an average galaxy has about 100 billion stars (passing over that staggering thought to reach an even more staggering!), this keyhole-view of a speck of sky contains about a quadrillion stars, or 1,000,000,000,000,000.(Anderson)

In one sense, this might be comforting. If we multiply this number to cover all of the speck-sized points in the sky (a task which I will forego, as it taxes my ability to count zeroes accurately), we would find a number that makes the U.S. national debt look reasonably small. But as Ryan Anderson, a Cornell University graduate student in planetary science, observed:
It is easy to get lost in these mind-boggling numbers. They are so overwhelmingly huge that the human mind cannot rationalize them. But at the very least, we can get a sense of things. The Ultra Deep Field shows us just how big the universe is and how small and fragile we all are.
This is what Bill Watterson's Calvin intuitively understood, and it is a good first step toward faith, or at least a step away from human self-absorption and self-sufficiency:
Yes, David the Psalmist said, "What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?" But he also continued, "Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor."(Psalm 8:4-5) The Caddo Indians long ago looked at the vastness and power of creation around them (easy to see in the big skies of the southern U.S. plains!) and told stories about the great Caddi-Ayo, the "Sky Chief" who created all things.("Caddo Legends") In this they showed greater wisdom than many people today, and proved the truth of Romans 1:19-20,
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.
But only by revelation can we know how much God loves us, and how much He longs to elevate us from our fallen state and bring us home to Him. This is the subject of the next stanza.

Stanza 4:
But in redemption, O what grace!
Its wonders, O what thought can trace!
Here wisdom shines forever bright:
Praise Him, my soul, with sweet delight.

Tony Darnell, an astronomer, teacher, and author of a popular astronomy web site, said of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image,
I felt I was looking at the most important image humanity had ever taken. It was important because for the first time, I got a real feeling for just how immense the universe actually is. It's absolutely mind-blowing if you stop to think about it..."(Darnell)
He's right, and I admire the scientist who is also enough of a philosopher--that is to say, enough of a human being--to stop and consider what it means as well as how it works. But there are two even more important images that are imprinted in the pages of Scripture and on the hearts of millions today: the images of a Child in a manger, and a Man on a cross.

The truly "immense" and "mind-blowing" thing that we have to grapple with is not the creation, but a Creator who "made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."(Philippians 2:7-8)

Someday the stars will fade; "they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe [God] will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed."(Hebrews 1:11-12) But the profound wonder and beauty of God's plan for redemption will shine for all eternity:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"(Revelation 5:11-13)
About the music: DUKE STREET is a widely used hymn tune, also appearing in Praise for the Lord with the texts "Come, Holy Spirit, Guest divine" (#94) and "Jesus shall reign where'er the sun" (#370). Named for a street in the township of Windle in Lancaster, England, where the composer lived at the time, it is linked to 26 different texts on the Cyberhymnal site, the some others of which are "I know that my Redeemer lives" and "From all that dwell below the skies."("Tunes by name")

Almost nothing is known of John Hatton. He was from Warrington, Lancashire ("Warrington" was apparently not part of his name as sometimes listed), lived on Duke Street in Windle, Lancaster, and died in St. Helens, Lancaster, in 1793.(Butterworth & Brown, 37) No other works by this composer are extant. DUKE STREET first appears in Henry Boyd's Select Collection of Psalm and Hymn Tunes (Glasgow, 1793), but without attribution. In the Euphonia (Liverpool, ca. 1805), edited by William Dixon, it is attributed to John Hatton and appears under its familiar tune name.(Cowan & Love)

If Hatton was destined to be a one-hit wonder, he could have done much worse. DUKE STREET has some of the rugged simplicity of the old psalm-tunes by which it was doubtless inspired, together with a bit of classical elegance of the music current to its era. The opening phrase marches confidently up to the top of the scale and back, contrasted by a more static second phrase; the third phrase retraces the first, but this time with an arpeggio leaping through the tonic triad, and the final phrase walks once more up to the top of the scale before settling to a close. Almost all of the movement is stepwise, and the leaps are confined within the tonic and dominant 7th chords. The march-like opening phrase, and the ascending triad in the third phrase, give the tune something of the character of a trumpet voluntary.


Burrage, Henry S. Baptist hymn writers and their hymns. Portland, Maine: Brown, Thurston & Co., 1888. http://www.archive.org/stream/baptisthymnwrite00burr.
"Tunes by name." Cyberhymnal. http://www.hymntime.com/tch/tun/tun.htm.

Anderson, Ryan. "How big is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image?" Curious About Astronomy, 2007. http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/question.php?number=720

"Caddo legends and traditional stories." Native Languages of the Americas. http://www.native-languages.org/caddo-legends.htm

Darnell, Tony. "Hubble Deep Field." DeepAstronomy.com. http://www.deepastronomy.com/hubble-deep-field.html.

Butterworth, Hezekiah, and Theron Brown. The story of the hymns and tunes. New York: Doran, 1906. http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015024179650

Cowan, William, and James Love. The music of the church hymnary and the Psalter in metre, its sources and composers. Edinburgh: Frowde, 1901. http://books.google.com/books?id=EOYTAAAAYAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s

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