Sunday, March 30, 2014

Father of Mercy, We Bow Before Thee

Words: Unknown (st. 1); George William Walton, 1985 (st. 2)
Music: Adapted from "Lascia ch'io pianga," from Handel's Rinaldo

This is another little gem handed down through "the old blue book," Great Songs of the Church. Wayne Walker notes that it was picked up by Tillit Teddlie in his Great Christian Hymnal No. 2 (1965), and by Lloyd O. Sanderson in Gospel Advocate's Christian Hymns III (1966), which shows that it had some currency (Walker). A quick Internet search for the title shows that it is available in PowerPoint, and is in use by congregations today in that format as well.

The original version published by Jorgenson in 1937 presented just one stanza, author unknown. It is an invocation of prayer, asking for audience with God and His blessing on our petitions.

Father of Mercy,
We bow before Thee;
Bless us, O bless us,
And hear our prayer.

The expression "Father of Mercy," found in 2 Corinthians 1:3, was discussed at some length in the preceding post on the hymn "Father of Mercies, Day by Day." That hymn, however was a hymn of praise of God's attributes, and thanksgiving for His care; "Father of Mercy, We Bow Before Thee" is an expression of our desire to enter into His presence in worship. In this context, there is greater emphasis on God's mercies as expressed in His willingness to reconcile a sinful humanity to Himself; because of His mercy, He desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4). The greatest measure of His mercy, of course, is that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). Even before we showed the least inclination to return to Him, He made the way at His own terrible cost. And it is His mercy, "slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 86:15), that causes Him to give this wicked world more time to repent, "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).

It is this "Father of Mercy" whom we approach in worship. He is loving and merciful, and approaching His presence should fill us with love, joy, and comfort. It should also fill us with respect and reverence for One who has done such things for us that He did not have to do, and that we did not deserve--the "fear of God" rightly understood. Robert Nisbet's commentary on Psalm 128 expresses the thought beautifully:
It is that [fear] which they who have been rescued from destruction feel to the benefactor who nobly and at the vastest sacrifice interposed for their safety--a fear to act unworthily of his kindness. It is that which fills the breast of a pardoned and grateful rebel in the presence of the venerated sovereign at whose throne he is permitted to stand in honor--a fear lest he should ever forget his goodness, and give him cause to regret it (150-151).
Coming into His presence in worship, then, we bow before Him. Americans in particular do not like to bow; we eliminated that custom from public life early on in our nation's history, replacing it with the more egalitarian handshake. But when we approach the Creator of the universe, we had better divest ourselves of any such notions. We can approach Him only because it is "His good pleasure, which He purposed in Himself" for us to have fellowship with Him (Ephesians 1:9). And though Hebrews 4:16 assures us that we can come "boldly before the throne of grace" (or "with confidence", ESV), we dare not come casually or carelessly. Alexander Campbell wrote thoughtfully, in his Christian System:
Christians need not say, in excuse for themselves, that all days are alike, that all places and times are alike holy, and that they ought to be in the best frame of mind all the time. For even concede them all their own positions: they will not contend that a man ought to speak to God, or to come into the presence of God, as they approach men. They will not say that they ought to have the same thoughts or feelings in approaching the Lord's table, as in approaching a common table; or on entering a court of political justice, as in coming into the house of God. There is, in the words of Solomon the Wise, a season and time for every object and for every work: here is the Lord's day, the Lord's table, the Lord's house, and the Lord's people; and there are thoughts, and frames of mind, and behavior compatible and incompatible with all these (248).
The opening seven verses of the 95th Psalm give us an excellent exposition of what it means to bow down to God in worship. It begins with an intent to approach God, with a joyful purpose in separating from the world for a time in order to praise our Father:
Oh come, let us sing to the LORD;
Let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our Salvation!
Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise! 
The Psalmist then considers the reason we worship, and just Who it is before whom we stand:
For the LORD is a great God,
And a great King above all gods.
In His hand are the depths of the earth;
The heights of the mountains are His also.
The sea is His, for He made it,
And His hands formed the dry land.
And on consideration of these things, the Psalmist knows just what is appropriate:
Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.
It may or may not be demeaning to bow down to a fellow human being, but it is simply appropriate to bow down before our Creator! There is no shame in it, but rather joy, because He is truly worthy of our worship. And someday, of course, "we will all stand before the judgment seat of God," where, "'As I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God'" (Romans 14:10-11, cf. Isaiah 45:23). We will be the better prepared for that day, if we engage in frequent and sincere worship that humbles our hearts before our loving Father.

Additional stanzas:

On two different occasions editors have added stanzas to "Father of Mercy", desiring to get more than just one stanza's use out of a very appealing tune. Lloyd O. Sanderson completely reworked the text for Christian Hymns III (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1966), where it is titled "Father, Hear Our Prayer" (#166):

Father in heaven,
We come before Thee:
Possess us, and bless us,
And hear our prayer.

Father of mercy,
Grant us this favor:
Possess us, and bless us,
And hear our prayer.

Father, we need Thee,
Living and dying:
Possess us, and bless us,
And hear our prayer.

The trick of maintaining the last two lines of each stanza as a refrain was a good idea, and suits the simplicity of both the text and the music. But in my opinion the decision to alter the meter in the third line, requiring a pick-up note for the first syllable of "Possess", mars the great beauty of this music--the breathless silences between the phrases.

"Father of Mercy" appeared in Great Songs of the Church, Revised (Abilene, Tex.: ACU Press, 1986) with supplemental stanzas written by George William Walton (b. 1941), former chairman of English at Abilene Christian University (McCann, 108).

We seek Thee, Father;
Reveal Thy glory.
Strengthen, O strengthen,
The vision that we share.

Lay hands upon us,
O risen Jesus.
Touch us, O touch us;
Our confidence increase.

Comforting Spirit,
Come and indwell us.
Breathe now, O breath now,
The promise of Thy peace.

In Praise for the Lord only the first of these stanzas is included; and though I cannot read the minds of the editors, I believe Walker is correct in guessing that they were concerned about possible objections to the content of the other stanzas. I have heard criticism of the contemporary song "Glorify Thy name" on the same grounds, that it directly addresses each Person of the Trinity, instead of addressing the Father as we are given example in the Lord's Prayer; for a thoughtful review of this question in general, I recommend Wayne Jackson's article "May a Christian address Christ in praise or prayer?" from the Christian Courier. But if a hymn is clearly just affirming a traditional view of the Trinity, I do not see the problem with it in the first place; and it is curious that the same objections are not raised about the traditional Doxology, or William McKay's "Revive us again".

Other concerns, however, may have caused these stanzas to have been deleted. The expression "Lay hands upon us, / O risen Jesus" is striking, but also puzzling. Jesus laid hands on the sick to heal them (Mark 6:5), and on the children to bless them (Mark 10:16); but the strongest association of "laying on hands" in the language of the New Testament is to the imparting of spiritual gifts. Though it certainly is meant in a metaphorical sense, it is a rather loaded expression. The final stanza probably raised some eyebrows as well; the line "Come and indwell us" broaches the question of when and how the Spirit enters into the heart of the believer. Reading it literally, one might object that the Spirit already indwells the Christian, individually (1 Corinthians 3:16) and as a part of the collective body of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19). Again, in a metaphorical sense, this expression says no more than does "Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me", but the way it is phrased could be problematic for some worshipers.

About the music:

The music to which this text is set has frequently been misidentified as an aria from the opera Semele (1743) by George Frederick Handel. It is actually the opening 8 measures of a melody best known as "Lascia ch'io piango", a popular aria from Handel's opera Rinaldo (1711). In the video below it is sung by the French coloratura soprano, Patricia Petibon, an outstanding interpreter of Baroque repertoire.

Like many other composers, Handel was not above repackaging a good tune from an earlier work. John Walter Hill discovered the earliest form of this melody in Handel's Almira (1705), Act 3, Scene 3, as an "Asiatic dance"(or what passed for a Western conception of an Asiatic dance in 1705). It was recast as an aria in the third part of his 1707 oratorio Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno ("The triumph of time and truth"), with the text "Lascia la spina" (Hill).

Handel finally found the perfect fit for this music--if enduring popularity is any measure of its success--as "Lascia ch'io pianga" in the opera Rinaldo of 1711. But after looking through the score of Semele, the only trace of this melody I can find is a faint similarity to the opening phrase of the air "Your tuneful voice my tale would tell," Act I, Scene 2, no. 18. Even there, the minor key context obscures the resemblance. It seems clear that the source of our hymnlet under consideration is the well-known "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Rinaldo, and that the attribution to Semele is a simple error that has been frequently repeated.

The dance origins of this melody may seem obscure to us today, but original audiences would have recognized it immediately as a sarabande, a slow and sedate dance in triple time with a trademark emphasis on the second beat. Long after it was out of fashion for actual dancing, the sarabande style continued as a purely instrumental genre for listening, as seen in the keyboard works of Handel and J.S. Bach, and in the revival of this style by 20th-century composers such as Ravel and Debussy.


Campbell, Alexander. The Christian System. Nashville, Tenn.: Gospel Advocate, 1956.

Hill, John Walter. “Handel's retexting as a test of his conception of music and text relationship,” Göttinger Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft, III, Gedenkschrift für Jens Peter Larsen (1989); quoted in Gregory Barnett, "Handel's borrowings and the disputed 'Gloria'." Early Music, vol. 34, no. 1 (Feb. 2006), p. 91 n. 17.

McCann, Forrest. Hymns & History: An Annotated Survey of Sources. Abilene, Tex.: ACU Press, 1997.

Nisbet, Robert. The Songs of the Temple Pilgrims. London: Nisbet & Co., 1863.

Walker, Wayne S. "Father of Mercy (1)." Hymn of the Day. 2005.

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