June 12, 2014 Leave a comment
By the Bohemian Brethren
A fellow pastor in my circuit and I decided to use the First Lesson for Holy Trinity Sunday, Genesis 1:1—2:3, to launch a four-Sunday sermon series on the creation of the world. The maxim has been attributed to St. Augustine that all of theology is either implicit or explicit in the first three chapters of Genesis, so we certainly were not going to do poorly by carefully covering one-third of that. In addition, we thought it would prove a timely series in the United States’ increasingly atheistic and evolution-saturated culture.
With a series such as this, I like to have a series hymn that the congregation can sing all four Sundays. Repetition is the mother of learning, and music can be a wonderful aid in the learning process too. A good hymn intentionally repeated can go a long way in impressing important spiritual truths on the hearts and minds of God’s redeemed people.
However, I was unable to find a good creation hymn in Christian Worship, The Lutheran Hymnal, or the couple hymn blogs operated by confessional Lutherans to which I subscribe. I toyed with the idea of penning my own – an introductory stanza, seven stanzas highlighting the divine activity on each of the first seven days of earth’s existence, and a closing doxology. But then I came across hymn #67 in the “Schöpfung und Regierung” (Creation and Governance) section of Northwestern Publishing House’s old German hymnal, Evang.-Lutherisches Gesangbuch für Kirche, Schule und Haus (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnal for Church, School, and Home).
Titled “Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer” and attributed to the Bohemian Brethren, the hymn seems to be a free paraphrase of Psalm 104, and therefore offers a number of excellent devotional thoughts and truths fueled by the creation account and creation itself.
The original German reads:
1. Gott, Erd und Himmel samt dem Meer
verkünden deine Kraft und Ehr,
auch zeigen alle Berg und Thal,
daß du ein Herr seist überall.
2. Die Sonne geht uns täglich auf,
es hält der Mond auch seinen Lauf,
so sind auch alle Stern bereit,
zu preisen deine Herrlichkeit.
3. Die Tier und Vögel aller Welt
und, was das Meer im Schoße hält,
zeigt uns frei an ihm selber an,
was deine Kraft und Weisheit kann.
4. Du hast den Himmel ausgestreckt,
mit Wolkenheeren überdeckt
und seiner Wölbung Majestät
mit goldnen Sternen übersät.
5. Du bists, der alle Ding regiert,
den Himmel und das Erdreich ziert
so wunderbar, daß es kein Mensch
erforschen noch ergründen kann.
6. Wie mag doch unsre Blödigkeit
ausgründen deine Herrlichkeit,
so wir ja Dinge nicht verstehn,
womit wir allezeit umgehn!
7. Wie lieblich ist, Herr, und wie schön,
was du geschaffen, anzusehn!
Doch wie viel lieblicher bist du,
o Herr, mein Gott, in deiner Ruh!
8. Du schließest Erd und Himmel ein,
dein Herrschen muß voll Wunder sein,
du bist ein Herr in Ewigkeit
von unnennbarer Herrlichkeit.
9. O Vater, Sohn und Heilger Geist,
dein Name, der allmächtig heißt,
sei stets von uns gebenedeit,
sei hochgelobt in Ewigkeit.
My initial literal translation:
1. O God, earth and heaven together with the sea
proclaim your power and honor,
and every mountain and valley show
that you are a Lord over all.
2. The sun rises upon us daily,
the moon also holds its course,
so too all the stars are ready
to praise your glory.
3. The beasts and birds of all the world
and all that the sea keeps in its lap,
informs us openly all by itself
what your power and wisdom is capable of.
4. You have stretched out the heavens,
covered them with hosts of clouds
and their vault’s majesty
sown over with golden stars.
5. You are the one who rules all things,
adorns the heavens and the kingdom of the earth
so stunningly, that there is not a single person
who can investigate or fathom it.
6. How in all the world may our stupidity
comprehend your glory,
if we do not even understand things
with which we are occupied all the time!
7. How lovely, Lord, and how beautiful it is
to consider what you have created!
Yet how much more lovely you are,
O Lord, my God, in your rest!
8. You enclose earth and heaven,
your ruling must be full of wonder,
you are a Lord into eternity
of inexpressible glory.
9. O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
your name, which is called omnipotent,
continually be blessed by us,
be highly praised into eternity.
The biggest danger was lying latent in st. 3. In fact, in the first draft of my translation, I had: “Just by existing teach us well | How far your wisdom does excel.” I eventually changed it because I didn’t like the lack of poetry. The potential doctrinal misunderstanding of which I was initially ignorant finally became clear in my first re-translation: “Just by existing do make known | The depths of strength and sense you own.” I was confusing the natural knowledge of God with the revealed knowledge of God. The natural knowledge of God – found in creation and in our conscience – certainly does show us some extent of God’s power and wisdom, but not anywhere close to the full extent. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ alone (Col 2:3), and Christ, though responsible for creation (John 1; 1 Corinthians 8:6), is not revealed in creation itself. He is revealed only to us by his Spirit through his Word (1 Corinthians 2:9,10). The original German was somewhat ambiguous, so I made sure to be clearer in my final product below.
The end of st. 8 might also raise an eyebrow at first: “Forever will your glory shine | Which man cannot see or define.” Obviously, all believers in Christ will one day see God as he is (1 John 3:2). However, it remains true that as we are now, we cannot see or fully define the glory of God (Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16). We must first be changed, and God promises we will be (1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
Finally, I made the final stanza a bit more Christ-centered than the original, for which I’m sure the Christian reader will find no need to forgive me.
As to the origin of the hymn, I only know that Michael Weisse published the first hymnal used by the Bohemian Brethren in 1531. I was unable to access a copy of that hymnal to see if this hymn traces back that far. It could also conceivably have come from their later descendants, the Moravians. The NPH hymnal suggests the tune, “Vom Himmel hoch” (From Heaven Above to Earth I Come), but I recommend and will be using “Wo Gott zum Haus” (Oh, Blest the House, Whate’er Befall).
Certainly, as Lutherans, we value the Second Article of the Creed (redemption) more highly than the First Article (creation and providence). But I pray that this hymn gives us appropriate opportunity also to express our praise to the triune God for First Article truths, which are rendered that much more glorious through the lens of true faith, created and sustained by Second Article truths.
O God, Earth, Heaven, and Sea Proclaim
1. O God, earth, heav’n, and sea proclaim
The pow’r and honor of your name;
From valleys low to summits grand,
Creation shows your vast command.
2. The sun comes up, day in, day out;
The moon still runs his monthly route;
The stars at dusk prepare to sing
The brighter glory of their King.
3. All beasts and birds on earth’s broad face,
All creatures in the seas’ embrace
Just by existing do make known
Some scope of strength and sense you own.
4. You have stretched out the sky and made
The clouds its covering and our shade,
And space, whose vault our sight exceeds,
Have sown with golden stars like seeds.
5. To search out or to comprehend
How you adorn the heav’ns and tend
To ev’ry detail on earth’s span—
This goes beyond the reach of man.
6. For we attempt, with puny brain,
To trace your glorious ways in vain,
Since e’en affairs routine and stale
We analyze to no avail.
7. How lovely, Lord, to contemplate
The masterworks you did create!
Yet lovelier and far more bless’d
To view you in your Sabbath rest!
8. The earth and heav’n, by you contained,
Awaken awe for your wise reign.
Forever will your glory shine,
Which man cannot see or define.
9. O Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Who can the name Almighty boast,
Through Christ receive our endless praise
Here and through heav’n’s eternal days.