Friday, August 24, 2007

Good and bad in the same hymn

We sang one at Bible study Wednesday evening which had both extremes in the lyrics.

Frederick Lehman's "The Love of God" has an excellent closing stanza:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were ev'ry stalk on earth a quill,
And ev'ry man a scribe by trade;
To write the love
of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll
contain the Whole,
though stretched from sky to sky

It's a very Biblical image, echoing the apostle John in his gospel.

However, the opening stanza suffers from terminology which is not just outdated, but very easily misunderstood:

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches the lowest hell.

I'm a firm believer in keeping the original poetic language in older hymns as much as possible. However, the term "hell" today is pretty much reserved for profanity or a single, capital-H location. At the time this hymn was composed, certain dens of inquity were called "hells" (such as "a gambling hell"). With the change in usage since then, the hymn now seems to posit the love of God in the midst of Perdition, where it is not. At least, not since Christ preached to the spirits in prison, anyway.

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