Sunday, March 12, 2006

All my hope on God is founded

Unfortunately I missed the sermon on this hymn today (and I missed singing the hymn) because I was instructing the children in the parish room. So forgive me if what I say here betrays ignorance of what was said in the pulpit.

There's nothing wrong with this hymn in the New English Hymnal (thankfully) but in the absence of any horrors to report about that book today I thought I might say a bit about verse 2 of All my hope, and request information from those who have access to bad hymn books that bowdlerise that verse. I know that I've been to places where the words are badly mangled.

The hymn is by Robert Bridges (published 1899), inspired by, but by no means translating, Meine Hoffnung stehet feste by Joachim Neander.

One thing that clearly causes confusion is this (in verse 2):

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil he buildeth,
Tower and temple fall to dust.

Now who are the 'he' and the 'his' in this verse?

In the first verse "he" was God (He doth still my trust renew... through change and chance He guideth...He alone calls my heart to be His own).

Some hymnals (including those on the internet: those are the only examples I've found, but as I say I don't have immediate access to the likely culprits such as Hymns Old and New or Mission Praise)--some hymnals, as I say, put in some capital letters to help us to see whether 'he' refers to God or not at various places in this hymn. Well that's all fine and helpful, or it would be, if they didn't put a capital H on both 'his' and 'he' in this verse.

But alas they do.

And that's plainly wrong.

"What with care and toil he buildeth" clearly refers to man: it's man who builds towers and temples with toil and care, and then they fall to dust. In contrast to that, says Bridges, "God's power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower." Introducing that with "But" shows that this is in contrast to the towers and temples that others put such effort into.

So we should understand that the efforts of human beings are worthless when they build temples that are destined to fall to dust (unlike the temple that is God's power). "He", then, in that sentence should not have a capital H, for it is not God who puts care and toil into building towers, is it?

(I suppose there's another interpretation that says that we men are the temple that God builds with care and then (to his disappointment) we fall to dust--but surely that is far too hopeless a picture of God's powerlessness to save, and anyway it's betrayed as false by the reference to God by name in "But God's power..." which shows that we were not talking about God in the previous sentence. ----Previous sentence it would be if the NEH had a full stop there, as is required by the sense.)

What about the previous "his" in line 2 of verse 2? "Sword and crown betray his trust." Should that have a capital H (or be rewritten as "betray God's trust": I've seen that somewhere)? Let's think about it.

If we read that as God's trust, then we are saying that the human endeavours in which we take earthly pride, including warfare and political power (sword and crown) betray God's trust in us. We have to understand that there is something we are trusted to do by God, and all those actions of ours let him down. What is that? I see no indication that there is any mention of God trusting us. Rather the hymn is about us trusting God.

Better then to read "betray his trust" to mean "betray man's trust". That is, we put our trust in earthly glory, in princes and armies, in things that we think won't let us down or will save us from trouble. But all these things betray our trust. Our towers and temples fall to dust. It is our trust that is betrayed not God's, but if we trust in God, he will not let us down. This then makes clear sense of why the next "he" is also man.

What's more it's obvious that this has to be the sense if we look at the passage of I Timothy 6.17 from which Neander, and thence Bridges, got his inspiration. This is what he is paraphrasing: "As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy."

So the thought is "Don't rely on the powers that be here, but on the power of God, because the powers that be here on earth let you down, but God doesn't".

So there should be no capital letter on 'he' or 'his'. Both refer to man, not God.

As for the version of this hymn that you can find at, aaaagh!