Published June 5, 2012

Paul's Epistle...
"How Great Thou Art"

I've said many times that there's something extra special about the well-known old hymns that have stood the test of time. They are able simultaneously to calm the soul and to stir it to new heights of faith. They comfort. They inspire.

That's why I especially enjoy preparing the annual all-hymns editions of The Gospel Greats, such as aired last weekend.

One of the best-known hymns in the English language (one which I included on last weekend's broadcast) is Stuart Hine's "How Great Thou Art." Readers of "Today's Christian" magazine (in 2001) voted it their second favorite hymn, right behind — to no one's surprise — "Amazing Grace." It's one of the best-known hymns in the English language (and in many other languages, too). And, for many years, it was virtually the theme song of the Billy Graham Crusades, as sung by George Beverly Shea.

Most hymns have interesting background stories – how they were inspired and came to be written. But this hymn's story is more complicated than most. And the hymn we have today was really built upon – and expanded from – a hymn originally composed in Swedish by Carl Gustav Boberg in 1885.

As Boberg told the story, he was inspired by a beautiful evening he was enjoying outdoors – although there was thunder on the horizon. He wrote this (which has been translated and adapted into English):

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Many years later, British Methodist missionary Stuart K. Hine was on an evangelistic mission to the Carpathian Mountains in the Ukraine, near the Polish border. There, he heard Boberg's hymn being sung by local Christians in Russian. Hine fell in love with the song, started using it in his services, and actually wrote some additional verses in Russian.

Hine later said the first two verses of the hymn as we have it today were based on Boberg's original Swedish hymn. But the verses he added – and later translated into English to become the hymn we know today – bring the impact of the greatness of God down to us on a personal level.

As Hine told the story, as he and his wife were approaching a home in the Ukraine, they heard sounds from inside – the reading of Scripture from the Gospel of John. What's more, they heard the voices of local residents loudly repenting of their sins, praising God for His love and mercy. As Hine listened, he took notes – which became the basis for his third verse:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin...

Have you really thought about that? The God Who created the entire universe – everything in it – is mindful of you. He knows you. He knows everything about you. And He loves you. The Psalmist was in awe: "What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him?" (Psalm 8:4).

In 1939, Hine and his wife were forced to return to England because of the outbreak of war in Eastern Europe. But they continued their missionary work in the displaced Polish refugee community in England. Literally millions of Poles had fled their homeland. Although Hine had left the mission field, God had brought the mission field to him!

There, one of the refugees told Hine that he had been separated from his wife due to the war, and he had not seen her since. At the time they were separated, his wife was a Christian but he was not. But he had since found Christ. His deep desire was to find his wife so they could at last share their faith together. But he told Hine that he did not think he would ever see his wife on earth again. Instead, he was longing for the day when they would meet in heaven and could share in the Life Eternal there.

Those words again inspired Hine, and became the basis for his fourth verse:

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God How Great Thou Art!

Do you think about that day? Could there be anything greater than the joy of seeing Christ? Could there be anything greater than being able to thank Him face-to-face for all He's done?

The four verses of "How Great Thou Art" which usually appear in hymnals are actually not the only verses Hine wrote. He later wrote two additional verses, one of which speaks comfort to any Christian:

When burdens press, and seem beyond endurance,
Bowed down with grief, to Him I lift my face;
And then in love, He brings me sweet assurance:
"My child! For thee, sufficient is my grace."

Isn't that great to know? The great Creator God of the entire universe knows you as one of His own and loves you with so great a love that He would send His only Son to die for you – so that He can enjoy your company throughout eternity!

How awesome!  Father God, how great Thou art!

- Paul

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