Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breathe on Me, Breath of God

Praise for the Lord #77

Lyrics: Edwin Hatch, 1878
Music: Robert Jackson, 1888 (TRENTHAM)

In my paper "'A place in the soul, all made of tunes': what church music collections teach us about history, theology, and culture," I explored in a limited way the historical place of song about the Holy Spirit in the singing of the Churches of Christ. If I may be pardoned the convenience of self-plagiarism, here is the background of the issue:
There has been significant debate over the years, of course, on several fundamental questions. How does the Holy Spirit communicate and operate—through the Word only, or independently from the Word as well? What is the role of the Spirit in conversion, and what exactly is the “gift of the Spirit” in Acts 2:38? How does the Spirit “indwell” the Christian, and what does He do? These are not simple questions to answer, as evidenced by the differences (though sometimes exaggerated) between the views of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.(Foster, 97) By the turn of the century there was general consensus that the miraculous gifts of the first century had ceased, but other aspects--especially the nature of the Spirit’s work in conversion and indwelling--were vigorously debated on the pages of the Gospel Advocate and other journals during the 1890s.(Foster, 99-100) When the charismatic movement of the 1950s and 1960s began to impact the Churches of Christ, this old fault line emerged again in exchanges between heavyweights such as Guy Woods, J.W. Roberts, James D. Bales, and Roy Lanier.(Foster, 102-103) Abilene minister E.R. Harper (a staunch “Word-only” advocate) perhaps best stated the fears of the times in his 1976 book Order in Reverse, in which he outlined an inevitable slippery slope from the “personal indwelling” position held by many conservatives to the full-blown charismatic practices of the Pentecostals.(Foster, 103-104)
This history seems to have led to, or at least abetted, only limited adoption of songs about the Holy Spirit in the hymnals, and in the actual repertoire, of the Churches of Christ. (Of course, this is probably true generally when one looks at the numbers of songs written specifically about each Person of the Trinity.) But as time went by, the number slowly increased, largely by adopting hymns that discuss (relatively) less controversial aspects of the Spirit's work, such as fruit-bearing and sanctification. Many of our hymnals now include such hymns as "Spirit of God, descend upon my heart," "Gracious Spirit, dwell with me," "Holy Spirit, faithful Guide," "Holy Spirit, Truth divine," and the hymn under discussion.

Edwin Hatch (1835-1889) wrote very few hymns, and this is the only one to achieve wide circulation. He was a scholar of Biblical languages, and was best known in his field for a concordance to the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, a rich resource for the backgrounds of Biblical Greek.("Hatch.") Oddly enough, his hymns include another on this same subject that seems almost like a reworking of its ideas, "Holy Spirit, breathe on me" (not to be confused with any of several contemporary worship songs using the same line). "Breathe on me, Breath of God" was first published in a privately published pamphlet, Between Doubt and Prayer, in 1878.("Breathe") It was originally intended as an ordination hymn.(Hymnal 1982, v.3b, 951)

Stanza 1:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what Thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

Describing the Holy Spirit as the "Breath of God" may seem an odd figure at first, and perhaps it is best to begin by noting that there is no indication that Hatch intended any detraction from the personhood of the Spirit. (The pronouns of direct address found throughout the rest of the hymn should be enough evidence.) I believe Hatch, as a linguist, was simply playing on the Greek pneuma, which means either "breath" and "spirit" depending on context. There is an even more direct source of this metaphor in John 20:22, where the resurrected Christ, "breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit.'"

Christ's action may seem a little unusual as well, until we remember Genesis 2:7, "then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." Just as Adam needed the "breath of life" to become a living man (both physically and spiritually), it is the Holy Spirit's "breath of life" that revives us from spiritual death in sin; "if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness."(Romans 8:10)

The Bible represents the "breath of God" as immensely powerful: "Then the channels of the sea were seen, and the foundations of the world were laid bare at Your rebuke, O Lord, at the blast of the breath of Your nostrils."(Psalm 18:15) "By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their host."(Psalm 33:6) Only such power could create that greatest wonder of all His creation, a living soul. God declares that the eternal sentience that each of us possesses is "the breath of life that I made,"(Isaiah 57:16) and Job says truly that "it is the spirit in man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand," that is, capable of a moral sentience.(Job 32:8)

When that precious soul is stained with sin and has become spiritually dead, only an equal power can revive it. Jesus said in John 6:63, "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." Here we see the means by which the Spirit begins His wonderful transformation, using His "sword of the Spirit,"(Eph. 6:17), because "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."(2 Timothy 3:16)

Yet even after this rebirth, the initial "sanctification of the Spirit,"(1 Peter 1:2) the "washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost,"(Titus 3:5) there is still a ways to go! "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life."(Romans 6:22) And, "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit."(Galatians 5:25) It is this continuing process of sanctification that Hatch addresses in this hymn, as we are built up(Eph. 2:22) and strengthened(Eph. 3:16) by the Holy Spirit of God.

Hatch looks at this from the standpoint of our imitation of the character of our Lord. In Ephesians 4:31 Paul warns us that it is possible to "grieve the Holy Spirit of God," and if we would avoid this we must seek to think and act as He has shown us. Paul expands on this idea in a very practical way: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you."(Ephesians 4:31-32) We must put away those fleshly things that offend the Spirit, and imitate the godly habits instead. "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. . . . and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord."(Ephesians 5:1-2, 10)

Stanza 2:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with Thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Almost every religion, however far-fetched, has some ritual of purification; it is as though we perceive, even in the midst of our sins, how wonderful it would be had we never taken that wrong path. The law given at Sinai had numerous and visible symbols of purification, keeping the issue of purity ever front of mind for those living under that dispensation. But in Hebrews 9:13-14 we read that a final, perfect purification is now available: "For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?" Jesus framed His mission in just these terms, in His "High Priest's" prayer: "And for their sake I consecrate Myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth."(John 17:19)

That purification, that sanctification, is begun when the blood of Christ is applied to wash away our sins in the ritual of baptism.(1 Peter 3:21; 1 John 5:6). But it continues as long as we live in the flesh, as John so beautifully describes: "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in Him purifies himself as He is pure."(1 John 3:2-3)

This pursuit necessarily begins with knowledge of and obedience to the will of God. "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."(Romans 12:2) Jesus promised that God would "sanctify them in the truth," because "[His] word is truth." If we do not learn God's will and yield to it, we cannot be pure; but if we do, we cannot help but become so. Key to this, of course, is the doing. Our aim is "to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God."(1 Peter 4:2)

Hatch's hymn ties together the doing of God's will with endurance, and rightly so. As I write this, we have completed a little over a quarter of the year 2011. I suspect that for many of us, an honest accounting of New Year's resolutions from January would show that most of them did not survive these three months intact. They may not have made it three weeks, or even three days. Our spiritual resolutions sometimes fare no better. "For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised."(10:36) Here we may well appeal "to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being,"(Ephesians 3:16) "that we may continue to run with endurance the race that is set before us."(Hebrews 12:1)

Stanza 3:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with Thy fire divine.

We are at war, or we have already surrendered, whether we realize it or not. Peter informs us of this in his usual terse fashion: "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul."(1 Peter 2:11) Paul himself described this struggle against the fleshly passions in Romans chapter 7, at length exclaiming, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?(v.24) It is a fight to the death, but a fight we can win. Paul, ever the lecturer, goes into more detail in Galatians:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.(Galatians 5:16-25)
Yes, it is a struggle; but by the Spirit's help we can choose the right and reject the wrong. We can start within our own thoughts, "for those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit."(Romans 8:5) "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire,"(James 1:14) and if we dwell on these fleshly desires we will almost certainly give in to them. Of course, telling ourselves not to think about something is not much of an option either; instead, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."(Philippians 4:8)

"For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."(Romans 8:13) "So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus."(Romans 6:11) We know that we are supposed to leave that "old man of sin" dead in the water (literally!) of baptism, but I must confess that the "old man" shows a remarkable tenacity. I suspect most of us need to be much more serious and dedicated in our efforts to make progress in "putting to death the deeds of the body" that grieve the Spirit within us.

It was the custom when I was younger (I haven't heard this done in a while) for our youth to sing the text of Galatians 2:20, accelerating the tempo with each repetition until it could go no faster. Singing Scripture is certainly a wonderful way to memorize, but we also need very much to mull over this verse at a slower, more thoughtful pace: "I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ, liveth in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

Stanza 4:
Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with Thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."(John 6:63) In this declaration Jesus once again associated the Spirit's life-giving work with the power of the inspired Word. It is that Word of God that shows us the way to forgiveness, and giving access to spiritual life; it is that Word that continues to guide us and sanctify us.

But in some fashion, the Spirit's work relates as well to the resurrection, and to the eternal life to come. It is difficult sometimes to separate figurative from literal "life" in such discussions; and perhaps no separation is intended, and both are equally true. Romans 8:11 says, "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you." Though the immediate discussion is connected to spiritual death and spiritual life, our hope for physical resurrection is equally dependent on Christ's physical resurrection--"knowing that He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into His presence."(2 Corinthians 4:14) Galatians 6:8 is even more explicit concerning the Spirit's role: "For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life." Spiritual life here, and eternal life to come, both flow from the working of the wonderful Holy Spirit of God.

A note on the rhyming: Before we criticize Hatch's rhyming of "die" and "eternity," we must note that John Donne's famous sonnet "Death be not proud" ends in a couplet using almost the same words: "One short sleep past, wee wake eternally, / And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." Hatch was no doubt familiar with that poem, and perhaps others using such rhymes.

Of course it is almost certain that the pronunciation was considerably different in Donne's day; just how much is a matter of debate. In the dialects of north England and Scotland, "die" might still be heard pronounced "dee," as in the Scottish song "Annie Laurie," which ends with the line "And for bonnie Annie Laurie / I'd lay me doon and dee." Other views that I have seen kicked around on poetry blogs suggest that "eternally," a relatively recent import from Latin in Donne's time, was perhaps pronounced "eternal-lie," rhyming with our standard pronunciation of "die." Yet another solution arises in this University of Kansas production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, where "eye" and "insufficiency" are made to rhyme as "aye" and "insufficienc-aye," odd-sounding to the American ear but well within the scope of some living dialects of British English.

None of this helps us Americans much, of course, because these words just don't rhyme unless we pronounce them in a fashion unnatural to our dialect; and I suppose a forced pronunciation of "dee" or "eterni-tie" in Hatch's hymn would be far more distracting than the dissonance of the rhyme in our current pronunciation. At least we can understand why he wrote it that way, and know that it wasn't a want of skill.

About the music:

Robert Jackson (1842-1914) composed TRENTHAM for the hymn "O perfect life of love" by Henry W. Baker, one of the founding editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The text and tune first appeared in the publication Fifty Sacred Leaflets in 1888. Over the years, however, it has become more associated with Hatch's "Breathe on me, Breath of God."("TRENTHAM")

The editors of the Psalter Hymnal Handbook call TRENTHAM a "serviceable tune . . . barely adequate for the fervor of this text."("TRENTHAM") Serviceable is about right, and could be said of many good hymn tunes. Whether it matches the "fervor of this text" is another matter; fervor can be loud and boisterous, but sometimes it is quiet and intense. The latter mood is helped by TRENTHAM's narrow melodic range, which has an almost chant-like quality.


Foster, Douglas. “Waves of the Spirit against a rational rock: the impact of the Pentecostal, charismatic, and third wave movements on American Churches of Christ.” Restoration Quarterly 45/1-2 (2003): 95-105.

"Edwin Hatch." Cyberhymnal.

"Breathe on me, Breath of God." Cyberhymnal.

The Hymnal 1982 Companion, ed. Raymond F. Glover. New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1994.

"TRENTHAM." Psalter Hymnal Handbook, quoted at

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