Saturday, February 15, 2014

Father and Friend

Praise for the Lord #140

Words: John Bowring, 1824
Music: HESPERUS, Henry Baker, 1866

Sir John Bowring (1792–1872), son of an Exeter wool merchant, was a man of remarkable accomplishments in a number of fields. His intelligence, energy, and uncanny ability to learn new languages led to a lengthy and often controversial career in international trade and politics, culminating in his appointment as the fourth governor of Hong Kong (1854-1859). Along the way he published translations of poetry in half-a-dozen different European languages and wrote major works on political science, history, linguistics, and prison reform (Stone).

Bowring's "Father and Friend" first appeared in the 1824 edition of his popular devotional collection Matins and Vespers (London: G. & W.B. Whitaker), which was dedicated to fellow poet and sometime hymnwriter Anna Laetitia Barbauld ("Again the Lord of Light and Life"). The preface to this volume contains this worthwhile sentiment on the nature of good hymn-writing:
I trust I have never forgotten that the substance of piety is of higher interest than any of its decorations,--that the presence of truth is of more importance than the garment it wears (vii).
Bowring understood the reason that so few of the great English poets have written great hymns, and that so few of the great English hymnists are considered great poets in the broader sphere of literature. Though a man of considerable literary accomplishments, in his hymns he spoke in an intimate, unassuming style that has worn well over the centuries. Other well-known hymns by Bowring include "God is love; His mercy brightens," "Watchman, tell us of the night," and "In the cross of Christ I glory."

John Bowring had a penchant for describing God as "Father and Friend." In his Matins and Vespers, his devotional poem for Tuesday evening (p. 26ff.) includes the stanza,
Appalling Power! Thy awful majesty
Might scatter us in dust--but, lo! Thy grace,
Milder and softer than the early dew,
Invites us to Thy presence. Lord! forgive
Thy trembling children--Father! Friend! receive
Their tribute, humble and unworthy too.
And at the end of the same poem,
Source of joy!--my Friend! my Father!
In Thy presence let me be,--
Here the flowers of Virtue gather,
Blooming for eternity.
The poem for Thursday morning opens with a similar theme:
Come forth in thy purple robes again,
Thou brightest star of heaven!
Another day the Guardian of men
Has to His children given.
Receive the gift with gratitude;
My soul! to thy Maker ascend,
And bear thy songs to the Source of good,
To thy Father and thy Friend.
"Father and Friend" must have meant more to Bowring than just the pleasing assonance and rhythm of the phrase. It expresses both the immanence and transcendence of God--the fact that "the God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, . . . is actually not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:24, 27). There is much more to say on the subject of how God chose to bridge the gap between Deity and humanity, but for now let us follow Bowring's text, which celebrates what we can learn through the "general revelation" of God through His creation.

Stanza 1:
Father and Friend, Thy light, thy love,
Beaming through all Thy works we see;
Thy glory gilds the heav'ns above,
And all the earth is full of Thee.

Bruce Demarest's classic work, General Revelation: Historical Views and Contemporary Issues (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982), suggests the following conclusions that a reasonable person can make from God's revelation through His creation (p. 242-243, quoted & summarized by Rick Wade):
  • He is uncreated and universal: "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man" (Acts 17:24).
  • He is transcendent: "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).
  • He is immanent: "Yet he is actually not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).
  • He is the Creator: "We bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them" (Acts 14:15).
  • He is self-sufficient, and our Sustainer: "Nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything" (Acts 17:25).
  • He is eternal: "Your throne is established from of old; You are from everlasting" (Psalm 93:2).
  • He is majestic: "The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty" (Psalm 29:4)
  • He is powerful: "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"(Romans 1:20).
  • He is wise: "O LORD, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom have You made them all; the earth is full of Your creatures" (Psalm 104:24).
  • He is good: "Yet He did not leave himself without witness, for He did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17).
  • He has a sovereign will: "He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place" (Acts 17:26).
  • He has standards of right and wrong: "For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them" (Romans 2:14-15).
  • He should be worshiped: "For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, 'To the unknown god.' What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:23).

Bowring opens with the claim that God's "light" and "love" are seen "through all [His] works." He expands on the idea in the last two lines of the first stanza: "Thy glory gilds the heav'ns above," that is, God's physical creation of light is seen in the heavens; "And all the earth is full of Thee," suggesting that the love of God is observed directly in His provision for our physical needs on this earth.

Light was the subject of the first recorded command of God, in His first recorded words: "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3). Light was the positive, energetic exercise of God's will. The earth was "without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep" in verse 2, but God's voice brought forth light and made things begin to happen. Without the light of our sun, this earth would be a dead world, lost in the dark. Its life-giving energy allows us to see where we are and what we are doing, and provides warmth, energy, and growth without which we could not long continue. But God's light, in its metaphorical sense, is even more important. It is a favorite theme in the Psalms:
Send out Your light and Your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling! (Psalm 43:3).
You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your presence (Psalm 90:8).
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path (Psalm 119:105)
Without the light of God's truth, we would be just as lost and dead as a world without a sun. But God was not content to reveal this light through the words of Scripture; He also sent His Son, "to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:79). When Jesus made that wonderfully outrageous claim, "I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12 ESV), He was declaring himself to be the life-giving sun of our spiritual world. "In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4-5). When we see glory of the physical sun that "gilds the heavens above," we can be reminded that Jesus' glory fills a heavenly realm that "has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb" (Revelation 21:23).

Just as God has revealed His glory in the heavens, He has revealed His goodness in the fullness of good things in this earth. When the creation account in Genesis 1 comes to the actual shaping of this earth into a home suitable for humanity (v. 10), we read after each phase that "He saw that it was good." The Hebrew word for "good" in these instances, טוֹב (towb), could also be used to describe a "good" field, or "good" tree, a "good" herd, in the sense of fertility and productiveness (Strong's H2896). God did not just make it "good enough!" Genesis goes on to tell us that, "the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there He put the man whom He had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food" (Gen 2:8-9a). It was a good world when it was made, but God prepared something even better when He made Eden--a perfect home for the humanity He had created.

Even though this world is fallen (Genesis 3:17-19), and we have often done a sorry job of its stewardship, it is still an amazingly beautiful and abundant place. We need only look to the other planets in our solar system, and then back at our earth again, to see what a precious and beautiful thing it is--teeming with life, abundant with provision and care from our heavenly Father. Truly the Psalmist said, "The earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD" (Psalm 33:5; cf. Psalm 119:64).

Stanza 2:
Thy voice we hear, Thy presence feel,
While Thou, too pure for mortal sight,
Enwrapt in clouds, invisible,
Reignest the Lord of life and light.

Though in one sense God's "ways are past finding out" (Romans 11:33)--we do not, and really cannot, understand everything He has done--He "did not leave himself without witness" (Act 14:17). David's beautiful 19th Psalm affirms,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
And the sky above proclaims His handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
And night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
Whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world.
(Psalm 19:1-4)
But in a way, our knowledge of Him is similar to Robinson Crusoe's discovery of the footprints in the sand. We conclude from the evidence of His works that there is a God, and that He has certain qualities; but "no one has seen God" (John 1:18), at least not in His true splendor. One of the few approaches to that kind of encounter is revealed in this strikingly odd event in the Hebrew Testament:
Moses said, "Please show me Your glory." And [God] said, "I will make all My goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you My name 'The LORD.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live." And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by Me where you shall stand on the rock, and while My glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen" (Exodus 33:18-23).
There is a similarity here to the Transfiguration of Christ, and also to Jesus' appearance to John at the beginning of the Revelation:
And after six days Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them, and His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah." For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified (Mark 9:2-6).
In the midst of the lampstands one like a Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around His chest. The hairs of His head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. In His right hand He held seven stars, from His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead (Rev 1:13-17).
In both the latter cases, we are struck by the fact that the true appearance of Jesus in His glory inspired terror; how remarkable it must have been, to see a familiar Friend so transformed! We have to conclude that we humans simply cannot handle the truth of God's glory. We cannot stare at the sun (at least not for very long) because its power can destroy our sight. How much more would it be to look on the Creator of that sun? He is the One "who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see" (1 Timothy 6:16).

The reason we cannot stand this light, of course, is simple: "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5), but "people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil" (John 3:19). We need to be "delivered . . . from the domain of darkness" (Colossians 1:13); but how would the light of God's infinite holiness be mediated to "those who walk in darkness" (Isaiah 9:2, cf. Matthew 4:16)? More on this later!

Stanza 3:
We know not in what hallowed part
Of the wide heav'ns Thy throne may be;
But this we know, that where Thou art,
Strength, wisdom, goodness, dwell with Thee.

I once asked my daughter, when she was a small child, where she thought God lives. She was fairly certain that He does not live on a cloud up in the sky (as seen in many artistic portrayals for children), because they are just made of water. Since she was very interested in outer space--at the time she could name not only the planets of our solar system, but many of their moons--I asked her if she thought God lives in space. After one of those sidelong looks that precede her more thoughtful statements, she said cheerfully, "God lives on top of space!" That answer settled the question in her mind, and after nearly two decades I cannot improve on it. The Creator of this universe was somewhere before the universe existed, and will be there (wherever, and whatever, "there" is) when this universe comes to an end.
Of old You laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but You are the same, and Your years have no end. (Psalm 102:25-27).
With this in mind, we have to agree with Bowring that, "We know not in what hallowed part / Of the wide heav'ns Thy throne may be." We know vastly more about the "wide heav'ns" than did the science of Bowring's day; but the more we learn about the depths of space around us, the more we realize how little we know, even about the physical universe. It should be a lesson to us that, if we really understand so little of what we can see, we should be hesitant to make pronouncements about what might be beyond that. I read somewhere recently the profound statement that "science cannot prove the existence of an afterlife." No, it cannot, for the same reason that a yardstick cannot give you the temperature. It's the wrong tool for the job.

 Unlike almost all of the ancient systems of belief, the followers of Jehovah never even tried to locate their God on the top of a high mountain, or in some remote sanctuary on this earth. Isaiah 40:22 expresses the Hebrew concept of God's relationship to this world: "It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in." Isaiah speaks poetically, of course, but the point is clear: God is so great that He cannot be properly described in terms of having a dwelling place on this earth. As our horizons have expanded beyond this planet, just in this moment of time in human history, we find that Scripture anticipated us: His glory is "above the heavens" as well (Psalm 8:1).

Leaving aside the question of where it is located, what do we know about the dwelling of God? John's Revelation gives us word-pictures of extravagant beauty, but Bowring's hymn chooses to focus on qualities and ideas rather than physical appearances: "Strength, wisdom, goodness, dwell with Thee." Scripture tells us that God's presence is characterized by many such qualities, of which these are just a few:
  • It is a place that is eternal: "Thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity" (Isaiah 57:15).
  • It is a place of goodness and purity: "I dwell in the high and holy place" (Isaiah 57:15).
  • It is a place of justice and righteousness: "LORD, who may abide in Your tabernacle? Who may dwell in Your holy hill? He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart" (Psalm 15:1-2).
  • It is a place of peace and refuge: "Let me dwell in Your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of Your wings!" (Psalm 61:4).
  • It is a place of fellowship: "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God" (Revelation 21:3).

Certainly it is a far cry from any place we know upon this earth--but if we follow His will, and He dwells in us, we can see glimpses of it. A good Christian home, and a good Christian congregation, can be a little bit of heaven on earth, if God dwells in them. But God does not choose to force His way into our homes, or into our assemblies; if we want God to dwell with us, we will have to submit to His will, and make our homes and congregations places where God's presence is welcome.

Stanza 4:
Thy children shall not faint nor fear,
Sustained by this delightful thought:
Since Thou, their God, art everywhere,
They cannot be where Thou art not.

The fact that we cannot physically locate God does not detract from our ability to be connected with Him; far from it! Tacitus records that when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem and entered the temple in 63 B.C., "it became commonly known that the place stood empty with no similitude of gods within, and that the shrine had nothing to reveal" (Histories, bk. 5, para. 9). Worthy historian though he was on other topics, Tacitus had no grasp of what the Jews really believed. When the temple was first built on that site, Solomon said in his dedicatory prayer, "But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built!" (2 Chronicles 6:18). God manifested His presence there in a special way, in keeping with the religious economy of that dispensation; but the ancient Hebrews had a far more expansive view:
Where shall I go from Your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. (Psalm 139:7-10)
How one feels about that watchfulness, of course, depends on one's relationship with God. C. S. Lewis summed it up rather well in Mere Christianity when he described the difference between an impersonal "creative force" behind the cosmos (shades of Star Wars?) and the personal God of Scripture:
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children (27).
Those who walk with God take comfort in that omnipresence, of course, and can say with David:
Hear my cry, O God,
Listen to my prayer;
From the end of the earth I call to you
When my heart is faint.
Lead me to the rock
That is higher than I
(Psalm 61:1-2)
But how does the sinful, imperfect creation get into such a close relationship with the all-wise, all-powerful, and terribly holy Creator? Can He truly be "Father and Friend?" This is a problem that any serious religion has to address. If God is wise enough and powerful enough to create the cosmos, how can we who are so weak and limited in wisdom and power expect to understand Him, and why would we expect Him to care about us? Throughout history people have vaguely understood the necessity of that distant, dimly understood Deity, and have tried to approach Him through lesser gods and demi-gods that are more like us and less like Him. But "friendship" with God is not the friendship of equals. In fact, references to friendship between God and humanity are very scant in the Hebrew Testament. Abraham is twice called the אָהַב ('ahab, "friend") of God , (2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8), in the sense of one who loves God and is loved by God (Strong's H157). James tells us that "The Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"--and he was called a friend of God (2:23). God favored the obedient Abraham with His friendship in the sense that Abraham was in a special relationship, under God's protection and care. But only once in the Hebrew Scriptures is the common term for "friend" or "companion" (רֵעַ rea`) used to describe God's relationship to a human being: "The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Exodus 33:11).

Yet even this "face to face" relationship, as mentioned previously, was qualified; Moses could only see the "back" of the Lord's glory (Exodus 33:18-23). There was just no bridging that gap from Creator to Friend, until God presented His solution. That solution was even more unexpected: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which means, God with us" (Matthew 1:23; cf. Isaiah 7:14). If it was odd for Moses to see God's "back" from a cleft in the mountain, it was even more wonderfully strange that night when common shepherds looked down into a feeding trough and saw the Creator of the Universe. John's gospel account states with simple grandeur: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). The beloved apostle went on at greater length in the opening of his first letter:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life--the Life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us--that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
Perhaps the rambling style of that paragraph-sentence conveys the difficulty of describing what it was actually like to know Jesus as a Man upon this earth! But certainly John gets across the main point: He was my Friend; I saw Him, I touched Him.

Jesus Christ is the means by which God chose to become our Friend as well as our Father. (Ironically, Bowring, the author of this hymn, was Unitarian.) This new intimacy with God is perhaps best revealed in the 15th chapter of John, when Jesus told His disciples:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you (John 15:12-15).
The Son of God is the living bridge between Creator and the created; He was human in every physical way, yet "in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Colossians 1:19). The "unapproachable light" of God's glory is mediated through His Son, the "Light of the World" (John 8:12). "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6).

About the music:

Henry Baker (1835-1910)--not to be confused with Henry Williams Baker (1821-1877), editor of Hymns Ancient & Modern--read for the Bachelor of Music degree at Oxford (New College), graduating in 1867. Among his fellow students was the well-known English composer Charles Hubert Parry (1848-1918), future teacher of Vaughan Williams and Holst (Williams 109). Baker, however, turned to a career in civil engineering, eventually traveling to India where he worked in the railroad business (Cyberhymnal). Such a mix of interests is really not that surprising--the ancient Greeks placed the study of music theory alongside mathematics, geometry, and astronomy, and some of the best music students I have taught were also math or engineering majors.

Baker apparently wrote this tune early in his student days and laid it aside; James Love dates it to 1854 (69). Later, a friend submitted it without his knowledge to a competition, sponsored by London's Penny Post, to find a suitable tune for John Keble's hymn "Sun of my soul". Baker's tune was first published in the Hymnal for Use in the English Church (London, 1866) compiled by John Grey (QUEBEC).

Bowring's text presents a bit of a problem for matching with a tune; it is Common Meter (, but the first two lines substitute trochees for the initial iambs:
Fa- ther and Friend, Thy light, Thy love
ing through all Thy works we see.
This creates an initial triplet rhythm with a heavy downbeat, unlike the usually strictly iambic Common Meter rhythm:
Praise God from whom all bles- sings flow;
Praise Him all crea- tures here be- low.
Bowring does not maintain this substitution in all the stanzas, which makes a musical setting all the more tricky. Triple meter makes the best of the situation, giving the opening lines a strong rhythmic cast and glossing over the inconsistencies in later stanzas. The same kind of tune is employed to help with similar problems in the hymns "Father of Mercies", "Jesus, Thou joy of loving hearts", and "Faith of our Fathers".

Baker's tune manages these rhythmic wobbles (which are even more pronounced in "Sun of my soul", the text with which it was originally matched) through a crafty use of repeated notes. Each line of music, in fact, begins with three repeated pitches in even quarter notes, which allow the emphasis to shift according to the demands of the poetry. The range of the tune is remarkably simple; with the exception of one note, it could be played on the piano in a "five-finger" position (the thumb resting on tonic and each successive finger on the next note of the scale), covering a mere five steps of the scale.


Bowring, John. Matins and Vespers: with hymns and occasional devotional pieces. 2nd ed. London: G. & W.B. Whitaker, 1824.

"Henry Baker (1835-1910)." Cyberhymnal

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Love, James. Scottish Church Music: Its Composers and Sources. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood, 1891.

"QUEBEC." Hymnary.org

Stone, Gerald. "Bowring, Sir John (1792–1872)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online ed., May 2009.

Strong's H157 (הַב 'ahab). Hebrew Lexicon. Blue Letter Bible.

Strong's H2897 (טוֹב towb). Hebrew Lexicon. Blue Letter Bible.

Strong's H7453 (רֵעַ rea`). Hebrew Lexicon. Blue Letter Bible.

Tacitus. Histories, from The Complete Works of Tacitus, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. New York: Random House, 1942.

Wade, Rick. "The doctrine of revelation: how God reveals His nature and His will." Probe Ministries.

Williams, Charles Francis Abdy. A Short Historical Account of the Degrees in Music at Oxford and Cambridge. London: Novello, 1893.

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