[A quick side note: sometimes singing old hymns can leave us scratching our heads as modern speakers of English, wondering what a line was actually saying. This is a real challenge, and you might wonder why we even bother with songs that use such archaic or complex grammar when there are so many modern songs that talk just like we do. The reason is that it reminds us that we are part of a bigger story; a long river flowing over thousands of years, through every culture and language, of which we represent just one little lake. We need to sing ideas that have been time-tested and have sustained believers in multiple generations, and we need to be able to share with each other across living generations the songs of God’s faithfulness. I want to invite you to the worthwhile work of processing these sophisticated works of poetry, to harvest their rich fruit that can help nourish your life following Christ! At the end of this post, you’ll find a short guide to the old language of these hymns.]

This week at Providence, we’re singing a hymn that’s been around since the early 1920s. Those who have grown up in or around protestant churches will probably know this song – it’s even shown up in pop culture, being recorded by the likes of Carrie Underwood and contestants on NBC’s The Voice. Its beautiful melody and classic harmony has been helping English-speaking believers affirm God’s faithful and unchanging nature for a hundred years.

“Great is Thy Faithfulness” is all about what theologians call God’s immutability and his omnipotence – the fact that he is eternally the same, reliable, never capricious or fickle; never failing to do what he says, and never lacking the power to do it.

The writer, Thomas Chisholm, made it his goal to write hymns that incorporated as much scripture as possible, and “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is no exception. The main theme comes from God’s repeated commitments to be true to his covenant with his people – going back to his promise in Genesis 8 to never again destroy the world in a flood. James 1:17 tells us that there is no shadow or variation of change in God; every good and perfect gift comes from him and he brings us to life by his own will. Chisholm picks this up with his line, “there is no shadow of turning with thee.” The second verse of the song evokes the wonder of Psalm 19, the heavens declaring the glory of God. The sun, moon, stars, seasons, join together will all the rest of creation to bear witness to how faithful and unchanging God is. Chisholm’s last verse delights in the truth that God mercifully gives us forgiveness for sin, enduring peace, the presence of his own Spirit, strength in the moment and future hope – and that’s just the beginning!

We’re singing an extra verse that wasn’t originally part of this hymn as well. Written by pastor John Piper for Austin Stone church’s version of the song, the third verse celebrates the fact that God himself takes pleasure in showing this faithfulness to people who have absolutely nothing to offer him, and moving our hearts to make him our joy.

In keeping with our strategy to sing as a response to God’s revelation of himself, we choose songs that help us express hearts that are moved by the word of God to worship, confession, adoration, and obedience.

We will follow “Great is Thy Faithfulness” with another old hymn: “Be Thou My Vision.” The hymn itself was written in Old Irish a thousand or more years ago, but translated and put into English lyrics in 1912. It celebrates God as the high King ruling over heaven, but the heart of the hymn is a prayer: be thou my vision. When we sing this, we are pleading that nothing else would count for anything to us, except “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). By praying this, we are acknowledging that even though God’s greatness is unmistakable and infinitely satisfying, we are too blind on our own to see him and love him for what he is. We move on to sing that we will not heed (obey) wealth; we won’t order our lives to gain money or power or approval from people, but instead, we will be satisfied to have Jesus as our inheritance. This entire song echoes the longing that Paul expressed over his Ephesian brothers and sisters when he prayed for them,

“that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father , may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him (the eyes of your hearts having been enlightened), so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance among the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his mighty strength which he has worked in Christ, raising him from the dead and seating him at his right hand in the heavenly places, above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name named, not only in this age but also in the coming one, and he subjected all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.” (Ephesians 1:17-23)

A Quick Guide to Singing Old Hymns

Many of the hymns that have been sung through multiple generations of Christians were written hundreds of years ago. You may have wondered why these hymns sound so strange – using phrases like “Thou art.” The older hymns were written during a time when the only version of the Bible most English readers knew was the King James Version, and the language of this classic translation (published in the year 1611!) was what people thought of as the language of holy and reverent speech. Even before the KJV, William Tyndale’s translation standardized words like thou (you singular) and ye (you plural). The great hymn writers depended on scripture for their lyrics (and still do), so the sound of these translations became the sound of English hymns. Over the years, even as people stopped speaking in these ways, this language was still associated with worshipful speech, so even later hymns often imitate the old style.

Words for “you”

  • Thou = You (singular)
  • Ye = You (plural)
  • Thy = Your
  • Thine = Your/Yours

Verbs that end with -eth:

  • Speaketh = speaks.
  • Heareth = hears.

Verbs that end with -est or -t: second person verbs.

  • “Thou changest not” = “You do not change.”
  • “Thou art” = “You are.”

Two Example Verses: (original in bold; paraphrase in italics)

Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father
There is no shadow of turning with thee
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not
As thou hast been, thou forever wilt be
God, my Father: your faithfulness is great!
With you, there is no such thing as change
You do not change, your compassion does not fail
You will always be the way you have always been.
Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart!
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art.
Thou my best thought by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light
Lord, be the focus of the eyes of my heart!
Let the only thing that matters to me be you, nothing else.
Be the most joyful thing in my mind, all day and all night
When I’m asleep or awake, be light to me.