“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ ” Ephesians 3:17-18
“How great thou art” comes with a complicated story and a straightforward message from the heart.
The writer of the hymn, Carl Gustaf Boberg was a Lutheran pastor in Sweden, he was well-known as a preacher, poet and editor of a weekly journal The Witness Of Truth, from 1890 to 1916, he went on to become member of the Swedish parliament from 1912 to 1931. In the summer of 1885, according to tradition, Boberg and some friends were returning home to Mönsterœs from Kronoböck, where there had been an afternoon service. The Swedish summer weather was changeable and dark storm clouds gathered in the sky. The pleasant afternoon became altogether different with lightning flashes followed by rolls of thunder, strong winds and driving rain. When the storm passed there was a rainbow in the sky.
When Boberg arrived home, the tradition goes, there was a great calm; he opened the window and saw water in the bay of Mönsterœs gleaming like glass; from woods nearby he heard birds singing and there were church bells ringing in the distance. His experience is said to have inspired the writing of a hymn in praise of God’s creation and of God’s love for us. O, store Gud (Oh, great God) was published for the first time in the newspaper Mönsterås-Tidningen on March 13, 1886, it found its way into churches where it was sung to a Swedish folk tune.
In 1907 O, store Gud was translated into German by Manfred von Glehn, who gave it the title “Wie gross bist Du” (How Great You Are). In 1925, forty years after it was written, E. Gustav Johnson translated the original Swedish lyrics into English and came up with O mighty God.
“O mighty God” doesn’t sound much like the hymn we have ‘How great thou art’, the reason being that the hymn came to us by a much less direct route. In 1912, Ivan Prokhanoff, who was working as an evangelist in Russia translated von Glehn’s German version of the hymn into Russian and the hymn became known among the tiny groups of evangelical Christians with whom Prokhanoff was associated through his All Russian Evangelical Christian Union.
It was in one such small community in the Carpathian mountains in the western part of the Ukraine that the English evangelist Stuart Hine was working with his wife in 1933. With dark shadows across Europe in the form of Stalinist Communism to the east and the rising power of National Socialism in Germany to the west, a little group of Ukraine Christians living in Czechoslovakia because the borders drawn in 1921 had cut them off from the rest of their country, were singing a hymn of great power and joy.
The outbreak of war in 1939 forced Stuart Hine and his wife to leave their mission work and to return to England for their own safety. Hine translated three verses of the hymn into English, the first three verses of our hymn “How great thou art.” In 1948, with the whole of Europe in chaos after the horrors of war and millions of displaced people still seeking to return to home and security, Stuart Hine is said to have been inspired to write the fourth verse, an assurance that for Christians there will ultimate be a true home with Christ.
The hymn as we have it was complete, but it was still a while before it would find its way into our hymnbooks. ‘How great thou art’ made it onto a world stage in 1957 when soloist George Beverly Shea sang it at the Billy Graham Crusade at Madison Square Garden. The Crusade ran for sixteen weeks and Shea sang the song some 108 times.
Beginning in rural Sweden, through Germany, the Ukraine, England and the United States, “How great thou art” has stood the test of time, translation, culture and history. Its power lies in the strength of its theology, it’s about present, past, and future, it is about about God’s presence in his creation; it’s about what God has done through Jesus; it’s about what God will do at the end of time.
In the first two verse we think about the present, we think about the created world. Boberg draws on the words of Psalm 8; words where the Psalmist looks up at the sky in sheer wonder that the power behind the universe should be concerned with a mere mortal like himself. Boberg contrasts the two sides of nature in the two verses: in the first you get the big picture, the awesomeness of the night sky, the terror of the rolling thunderstorm; in the second verse, there is a shift, there is a gentleness and tranquillity, woods, glades, birds singing, even the mountains are about grandeur rather than menace.
In the third verse, we think about what God has done. Boberg has contemplated the amazing cosmos, he has been filled with wonder at all he sees around him, and when he realizes that the power behind all this comes to take on our human form and dies on a Cross, he finds it almost impossible to comprehend.
Saint Paul finds the Good News of the Cross astonishing, writing to the Christians in Rome he says, “if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
“We rejoice”, says Saint Paul; “Then sings my soul”, says Carl Boberg. God so loves the world that he has made, the world that inspires awesome wonder when we contemplate it, that his love compels him to send his Son to die for that world in order to offer it freedom.
Paul says in Romans Chapter 8 that Jesus’ death on the Cross frees not just human beings but God’s very creation from the burden of sin and death, he writes, “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”. But the redemption of the world on a Good Friday afternoon is not the end of the story.
In the fourth verse, written by Stuart Hine, we turn to the future. He draws on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 4, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
Our hope as Christians is not in anything we might attain or achieve in this life, it is in the life to come in a world beyond our imagination.
The hymn comes to a full circle. Beginning with the awesome wonder inspired by God’s world, it concludes with the adoration inspired by meeting with God himself. Past, present and future are gathered in a moment of joy that fills the heart, a joy that brings a song from the heart, a joy that allows only a response of praise to God, “How great thou art.”