fm-lehman.jpg The time has come to wrap up my series, Then Sings My Soul: The Hymns of My Youth. I could, I suppose, carry it on for several more weeks, delving into more of the country music “hymns” that I retained from my youth, but I don’t think I could ever come up with an exhaustive list — which was not my intention in any event. Having taken the series to over 100 hymns in a period of more than two years, I think it’s simply reached the time to move on. Next week in this same time and space I’ll be publishing the series introduction for a new series to take the place of this one on Sunday mornings, and I hope it will be at least as popular — I believe there’s two years’ worth of material in that one as well.

For now thought, we conclude with what I believe to be the greatest hymn ever written. I have written about this hymn once before, a couple of years before I began my hymn series. In that post, I was praising the fountain pen, though ironically I might have said something further about the glories of the stub of a pencil. But no matter. Stick with me to the end of this post and see if you agree that this is the greatest hymn ever written — or post your own nomination in the comments below. What follows is now, I believe, the most comprehensive background to the hymn that you will find online.

Credit for the hymn in question goes to Frederick M. Lehman, though there are prior authors who contributed to it, and the arrangement of Lehman’s music was done by his daughter, Clau­dia L. Mays. Though an author and composer of more than 100 published hymns, most of Lehman’s songs are not that well-known. In a moment of inspiration based on works of others though, he hit one right out of the park. (There’s hope for us all!)

Frederick Martin Lehman was born Au­gust 7, 1868 at Meck­len­burg, Schwer­in, in Ger­ma­ny and died Feb­ru­a­ry 20, 1953 in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cem­e­te­ry, Glendale, Cal­i­for­nia. Lehman em­i­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca with his fam­i­ly at the age of four. They set­tled in Io­wa, where Lehman lived most of child­hood. He recounts of his conversion,

One glad morn­ing about elev­en o’clock while walk­ing up the coun­try lane, skirt­ed by a wild crab-ap­ple grove on the right and an osage fence, with an old white-elm gate in a gap at the left, sud­den­ly Hea­ven let a cor­nu­co­pia of glo­ry de­scend on the ele­ven-year old lad. The wild crab-ap­ple grove as­sumed a heav­en­ly glow and the osage fence an un­earth­ly lust­re. That old white-elm gate with its sun-warped boards gleamed and glowed like sil­ver bars to shut out the world and shut him in with the ’form of the fourth,’ just come in­to his heart. The weight of con­vict­ion was gone and the pae­ans of joy and praise fell from his lips.

Seems a bit flowery for an 11-year-old, but such were the times, I suppose. He stu­died at North­west­ern Coll­ege in Na­per­ville, Il­li­nois, in order to enter the ministry, and then pas­tored Nazarene churches in Au­du­bon, Io­wa, New Lon­don, In­di­a­na, and Kan­sas Ci­ty, Mis­sou­ri. He wrote his first hymn as a pas­tor in Kings­ley, Io­wa, in 1898, and this pursuit would occupy much of his life. In 1911, he moved to Kan­sas Ci­ty, where he helped found the Na­za­rene Pub­lish­ing House. The years to the end of his life he lived out in California.

In the 11th century, there was a Rabbi in the city of Worms, Germany named Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai. Rabbi Meir (Mayer) was the son of Cantor Isaac Nehorai, and in the latter half of that century (1050 or 1096), composed in Aramaic a mystical acrostic poem called Hadamut. Translated into numerous languages, the poem has 90 couplets, and the acrostic weaves the author’s name into the concluding verses. The poem consists of two parts, the first praising God as ruler of the world and creator of all things, and the second describing the conflict between the Jewish people and the nations of the earth. The poem describes how the people of Israel have peen persecuted and killed through the ages for the sake of God’s holy name, and how other nations have attempted to persuade the Jews to forsake their faith, and how the Jews have been steadfast, believing that they will be vindicated so that the nations of the earth would know that God has chosen Israel for his eternal glory.

The Hadamut poem speaks of a certain miracle, though not specifically enough to decisively conclude between three theories about what the miracle was. The first opinion is that the miracle was the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, and for this reason the poem is still read on the first day of the Feast of Shavuot before the reading of the Ten Commandments. The second theory simply states that we really cannot know with certainty what the actual miracle was and is content to leave it unknown.

The third suggestion is that the miracle took place in the city of Worms. It is believed that there was a medieval German priest who once spoke evil of the Jewish community. The king called upon the Jews of the city to argue a defense against the priest’s accusations. If the Jewish spokesman was successful, their community would be spared mass genocide. But if the
anti-Jewish priest was successful in arguing his claims, all of the Jewish community of Worms would be put to death. The Jewish representative of course defended their faith successfully, and the community in Worms was spared.

The theme of God’s eternal love and concern for His people is woven through the poem. for example, one portion reads,

Were the sky of parchment made,
A quill each reed, each twig and blade,
Could we with ink the oceans fill,
Were every man a scribe of skill,
The marvelous story, Of God’s great glory
Would still remain untold; For He, most high
The earth and sky Created alone of old.

Many years later but still before Lehman’s time, this verse was found found penciled on the wall of a patient’s room in an insane asylum. The general opinion was that this inmate had written it in moments of sanity — but in those years mental illness was understood very little, and one can imagine this particular patient clinging to his favorite verse of the Hadamut poem to endure what may have essentially been a form of inappropriate incarceration. It must have taken incredible resolve to regularly call to mind God’s faithful love in such circumstances, but the verse of the poem on the wall may have served him as some type of focal point for his endurance.

It is difficult to say specifically what scriptural background Rabbi Meir must have had in mind for his poem, but I automatically think of Psalms like 103, 111, 112, 145 and others where the beauty of God’s gracious and compassionate love is extolled. Since Psalm 111 is also an acrostic, I suspect it as the strongest likelihood, but of course the Psalms are rich in this sort of language. When I recall this particular couplet describing God’s love, I always think of these lines in the form of a more recent song by Graham Ord, which is beautiful when sung repetitively and contemplatively so as to allow the words to well up from the soul rather than merely the top of the head. His version is as follows:

The Lord is gracious and compassionate

The Lord is gracious and compassionate
Slow to anger and rich in love
The Lord is gracious and compassionate
Slow to anger and rich in love

(and) The Lord is good to all
He has compassion on all that He has made
As far as the east is from the west
That’s how far He has removed our transgressions from us

Praise the Lord, oh my soul
Praise the Lord
Praise the Lord, oh my soul
Praise the Lord

This is not a “hymn of my youth” and I have not cast it as the greatest one ever written, but the subject matter is right.

We return to Frederick Lehman, who in 1948 produced a booklet explaining the history of his famous hymn. He recounts that while at a camp-meeting in a mid-western state just before the turn of the century, an evangelist culminated his message by quoting the above verse from the Hadamut poem. Lehman was profoundly moved the the lines, and preserved it until a paraphrase of the lines manifested itself in the final stanza of his famous hymn about the love of God.

After his move to California, circumstances forced him to take up hard manual labour. In this context in 1917, “during short intervals of inattention to his work,” Lehman sat down on an empty lemon box pushed against a wall, and took a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil and added the first two stanzas and chorus of the song. I can imagine that in the hardship of his labour, he clung to this verse of the Hadamut poem as a source of strength to endure as he remembered the expansive love of God. I don’t know, but perhaps as he worked, he began to sing the words to himself, filling them out with additional verses as he worked, reminding himself as had many before him of the promises of his faith. Of course, the hymn he wrote is the one we know as “The Love of God.”

The Love of God

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin.

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure–
The saints’ and angels’ song.

When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race–
The saints’ and angels’ song.


Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every 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.


For me, this hymn surpasses the others in my list, partly for its subject matter and partly for the vivid imagery of the final verse. In all of scripture and other writings about the divine, what can possibly stir up feeling and language so strong as love — and God’s love above all other?

Look at a few excerpts from Romans 8:31-39:

If God is for us, who can be against us? …Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? …Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth was once confronted by a reporter seeking a brief summation of his twelve volume work on Church Dogmatics. On one occasion he was confronted by a reporter who wanted a brief summary of his twelve thick volumes on church dogmatics. Rather than issuing an intellectual or profound theological reply, he responded simply, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” For a confluence of reason, verbiage, and circumstance, I have not-so-arbitrarily named “The Love of God” the greatest hymn ever written. For me, it speaks of the greatest truth possible, the simplest yet most profound — easy to cite but sometimes difficult to accept. But once one begins to conceive of the measureless extent of God’s love, one begins to touch eternity and experience the divine. And were it not for this simple fact, there would be no hymn at all worth singing: for God is Love.

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