Have you ever sung the words of a hymn while simultaneously thinking about something else? It happened in an interesting way to me a couple of weeks ago when our congregation opened our worship service by singing “From All That Dwell Below the Skies,” an Isaac Watts hymn text sung written in long meter and sung to the DUKE STREET tune. This stirring hymn invites all people to praise God, singing the Redeemer’s name “through every land by every tongue.”
But as we sang stanza two, I began wondering if some latter day editor had hijacked this ancient hymn text. We sang these words,
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore
Till suns shill rise and set no more.
It is stirring to consider praising God until not only our sun, but all suns, shall rise and set no more. But this nagging thought crept into my soul: “Suns rising and setting”? I could have sworn that the stanza originally referred to “moons waxing and waning.” Which was it? I was suspicious that somebody had dumbed down this text because we so seldom refer to waxing or waning moons.
It bothered me through both worship services and I was still troubled by it over Sunday dinner, explaining my unease about this possible editorial interference with my wife, who quickly responded that I was confusing two different hymns. So after the meal I googled the text and sure enough, my wife was correct.
I found another Isaac Watts’ hymn text (“Jesus Shall Reign”), written in the same meter and sung to the very same DUKE STREET tune. Here’s stanza one:
Jesus shall reign where’re the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore
till moons shall wax and wane no more.
So I ended up conflating two hymn texts into one: both written by Watts in the same meter and sung to the same tune. And I discovered that Watts believes the heavens will tell forth the glory of God in multiple ways: the Lord’s praises will be sung as long as suns rise and set and moons wax and wane.
I felt a little bit foolish for having confused these two well known hymns, but also felt some sense of confirmation that there is something healthy about remembering and memorizing hymns, even if we eventually get them slightly confused. Not everybody will memorize bible verses word for word, either, but continued exposure to biblical and hymn texts will serve believers well.
Thanks, Isaac Watts, for two inspiring hymn texts. I apologize to this 18th century Father of English Hymnody for getting them confused and am grateful that he linked an apparent love for astronomy with his obvious love of the Trinity and the sure, confident, everlasting reign of God.
Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at firstname.lastname@example.org.