Sunday, December 12, 2010

Before Jehovah's Awful Throne

Praise for the Lord #64

Words: Isaac Watts, 1719; altered, Charles Wesley, 1737
Music: Louis Bourgeois's Genevan Psalter (OLD 100TH)

The original first stanza of Watts's paraphrase of Psalm 100 went thus:

Sing to the Lord with joyful voice,
Let ev'ry land his name adore;
The British isles shall send the noise
Across the ocean to the shore.

Watts certainly tried to make the Psalms relevant! But in the preface to his Psalms of David Imitated (1719), he explained that he was deliberately paraphrasing the Psalms in more overtly Christian interpretations:
I grant 'tis necessary and proper, that in translating every Part of Scripture for our Reading or Hearing, the Sense of the Original should be exactly and faithfully represented; for there we learn what God says to us in his Word; but in Singing for the most part the Case is altered: For as the greatest Number of the Psalms are devotional, and there the Psalmists express their own personal or national Concerns; so we are taught by their Example, what is the chief Design of Psalmody, (viz.) that we should represent our own Sense of things in Singing, and address ourselves to God expressing our own case; therefore the Words should be so far adapted to the general State of the Worshippers...(Watts)
As for the reference to "the British Isles," Watts justified such national references thus: "David would have thought it very hard to be confined to the Words of Moses, and sung nothing else on all his Rejoycing-days, but the Drowning of Pharaoh in the fifteenth of Exodus."(Watts)

But there was a very practical reason for the omission of this verse in the Wesley version, which appeared in the very first of the Methodist hymnals, the "Charleston Collection" of 1737. John and Charles Wesley were no longer in the British Isles; they were serving as missionaries in the wilds of His Majesty's colony of Georgia when they brought out this little book, published in "Charles-Town" of the South Carolina Colony.

Stanza 1:
Before Jehovah's awful throne,
Ye nations, bow with sacred joy;
Know that the Lord is God alone;
He can create and He destroy.

The first two lines of Watt's original second stanza are these, and it is here that Charles Wesley made his changes:

Nations, attend before His throne
With solemn fear, with sacred joy;

The first line has a bit of a metrical problem, since the natural emphasis of the syllables in the first word (LONG-short) is at odds with that in the rest of the text (short-LONG):

NA-tions, at-TEND be-FORE His THRONE
With SO-lemn FEAR, with SA-cred JOY;

This can be covered up by a tune in triple meter, as in "Father of Mercies" (PFTL#141). But Wesley's alteration irons out the metric difficulty while keeping most of the powerful expressions of Watts.

One of those powerful expressions was "solemn fear," which Wesley references in describing the "awful" throne of God. This is perhaps the main reason this hymn has not caught on better--I have heard it sung only once among the Churches of Christ, and that may have been while I was leading it. The word "awful" has undergone a curious change down through the centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary begins the definition thus:
I. objectively: Awe-inspiring.
1. Causing dread; terrible, dreadful, appalling.
2. Worthy of, or commanding, profound respect or reverential fear.
3. Solemnly impressive; sublimely majestic.
The quotes given by the OED as examples of its usage in an earlier era are enlightening: In Henry VI part 2, act five, scene 1, Shakespeare speaks of "an awefull princely Scepter," thus showing the origin of the word as "awe-full," or "something that fills one full of awe."

We today, however, have stripped this word down to the 4th definition, which the OED labels a slang usage: "Frightful, very ugly, monstrous; and hence as a mere intensive deriving its sense from the contex = Exceedingly bad, great, long, etc." This goes back to the early 19th century, so at least we moderns are not to blame.

Can we reclaim "awful," and this hymn? A simple change to "Before Jehovah's awesome throne" would be more in keeping with the intent of Wesley, Watts, and the Psalmist. Or has "awesome" been trivialized in modern usage as well? The synonyms given in that first definition for "awful" are worth a moment's thought. "Terrible" means something that fills you with terror; and that word is from the Latin for "causing fear," literally to make one shake with fear. "Dreadful" means something that fills you with dread, a kind of fearful anticipation. And "appalling" has to do with causing someone to have a "pall," or to turn pale with fear.

How does the fear of God coexist with coming "boldly unto the throne of grace?"(Hebrews 4:16) Does not "perfect love cast our fear?"(1 John 4:18) We come boldly before the throne, without fear in the sense of dread or terror, because of what Jesus has done to reconcile us with God.(Hebrews 4:14-15) But the profound reverence that God deserves is no less than ever; and when we truly understand the awfulness of the presence of God, we come closer to understanding the full measure of His love that allows us to stand there. It is certainly true, as the last line of the stanza says, that "He can create and He destroy;" and He would be justified to destroy this sinful world. But because of His even greater love, He has chosen to extend grace to those who will accept it.

For this reason the words "sacred joy" are particularly well-chosen. I have heard people ask why Christians will stomp and shout and give vent to their emotions freely at a football game, but not in the presence of God. Without (I hope) sounding judgmental, I suggest that they are hardly the same thing. If you had a personal audience with the President of the United States, would you behave that way? But which of the two would you consider a more significant and memorable event in your life? There are events so profound that they make us quiet with a "sacred joy."

Stanza 2:
His sov'reign pow'r, without our aid,
Made us of clay, and formed us men;
And when like wand'ring sheep we strayed,
He brought us to His fold again.

One of the most profound questions that might be asked about the creation is the same question that a little child learns very early, to the parents' delight (and sometimes dismay): "Why?" Why did God create us, especially in light of our fall from grace? In his sermon, "Sin and its punishments: Objections considered," J. W. McGarvey phrased the problem thus:
Why, it is claimed that if God had foreknown, before He made this race of ours, that such was going to be the result in regard to a very large portion of them, that surely He would have been too wise to have made the first human pair ... thus the creation of man will prove to be a stupendous failure on the part of a God whom we supposed to be infinitely wise.(McGarvey)
McGarvey proceeds to address the question at length in his own philosophical way. (Click here for online text and online audio.) But in brief, I would just add that the Bible addresses this question, both indirectly and directly. Isaiah 45:9, among other passages, calls on the imagery of the potter and the clay: "Woe to him who strives with Him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles?'" God addresses Job directly on the subject in chapter 40, verse 8: "Would you indeed annul My judgment? Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?"

It is a question that, if not beyond our asking, is apparently beyond our answering, or perhaps even our comprehension. And from a practical standpoint, here we are. It is more to the point to ask, "What will God do with us? What does He want?" And here, thankfully, we find a loving Father rather than a distant tyrant or an alien, unknowable entity. "We are the sheep of His pasture,"(Psalm 100:3) a far closer and more kindly relationship in ancient times than in our modern ranching industry. King David grew up with this close sense of responsibility for the sheep under his care: "Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth."(1 Samuel 17:34-35) Jesus proved willing to do even more, for "the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep."(John 10:11) It is this active grace that God chose to display toward us, in spite of our sins. "God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."(Romans 5:8)

Stanza 3:
We'll crowd Thy gates with thankful songs,
High as the heav'ns our voices raise;
And earth, with her ten thousand tongues,
Shall fill Thy courts with sounding praise.

The Ethnologue web site lists 6,909 languages in use in the world today. Some are very widespread--Chinese has well over a billion native speakers in all its dialects--and some are exceedingly rare, such as Yaput, an Alaskan Eskimo language with only 76 speakers listed in the 2000 U.S. Census.(Ethnologue) Worldcat, the largest union catalog of libraries in the world, lists under the subject heading, "Hymns" (where hymnals would be found), over 100,000 entries in 99 different languages, from Afrikaans to Zulu.(Worldcat)

But can it ever be enough to express the praises of God? When we read that "the morning stars sang together" at the creation,(Job 38:7) can it convey the glory of God? Even in the heavenly worship revealed to John, is it any more than He deserves? Is it nearly enough?
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!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" and the elders fell down and worshiped.(Revelation 5:11-14)
But can it ever be enough? We will spend our lives joyfully trying to add our little bit to God's praise, but in the end we must say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty."(Luke 17:10)

Stanza 4:
Wide as the world is Thy command,
Vast as eternity Thy love;
Firm as a rock Thy truth shall stand
When rolling years shall cease to move.

The world is a big place: 7,926 miles across at the equator, with a circumference of 24,901 miles. It has about 196,939,900 square miles of surface area, of which roughly 70% is the precious commodity of water.("Earth") But this earth is only a speck compared to the size of the larger planets in our solar system, which is only a small star system out of billions in our galaxy. Beyond that things get even more incomprehensible. The observable universe is 46 billion light years in any direction--we think, since the expanding universe theory clouds things quite a bit at those distances.(Lineweaver) The actual size of the entire universe involves a guessing game that sounds more far-fetched than anything in science fiction.

But Watts rightly said that the power and love of God make even these things look small; the majesty of the galaxies is a trifle compared to the profundity of His justice and mercy. It was this that Paul wished for his readers, that they "may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passes knowledge, that you might be filled with all the fullness of God."(Ephesians 3:18-19)
Likewise the durability of the promises of God puts this physical universe to shame. One reassuringly familiar thing in all the new discoveries in space science and cosmology, is that all indicators still point to the idea that the universe is running down. It is gradually wearing out, just like a favorite old pair of jeans; it is moving from order to disorder, just as my garage does. Nations, and institutions, and our selves are the same way; it is the most natural thing in the world to slide into decline, and it takes effort to hold back the tendency. Eventually we grow old and wear out.
But God is the Master of this universe, not one of its subjects; His power and will exist beyond its limitations. Thus with God a promise really is a promise, not just in intent but in fact; once it is made it is done. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away."(Luke 21:33) What a blessing to realize the assurance upon which we rest!

About the music: Please see my earlier post on "All people that on earth do dwell".

Watts, Isaac. Preface to The Psalms of David Imitated. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 13 v. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

McGarvey, J. W. Sermons delivered in Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville, Ky.: Guide Printing & Publishing, 1894.

Ethnologue. SIL International, 2010.

Worldcat. OCLC, Inc., 2010.


Lineweaver, Charles, and Tamara M. Davis. "Misconceptions about the Big Bang". Scientific American.

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