How Great Thou Art

“O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!”

Psalm 8:1 (NASB)

The hymn How Great Thou Art has a long and rather convoluted history which I won’t attempt to cover here. But it is truly an international hymn, having been translated into several different languages. It was first translated to English by a missionary who heard a Russian translation of a German version (!). Through many further iterations it became the hymn that’s been sung by a multitude of popular singers as well as one of the most well-known (and beautiful) hymns in the church.

The story handed down from the family of the original author Carl Boberg is that it was a paraphrase of Psalm 8 and was inspired by a walk home from church in a brief thunderstorm, and its aftermath. The hymn speaks of the awe that comes from considering God’s creation, and how that awe inspires the soul to sing of the magnificence of God. It speaks of forests and mountains, stars and thunder, all of which display the majesty of God.

I live in northern Michigan. We have beautiful forests filled with birds and all sorts of creatures. In the fall, the forests come alive with a riot of color that is overwhelming. We have the Great Lakes. Sitting and looking out over the water is overwhelming yet relaxing and gives me time to meditate on God and life. I’ve stood at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, waded in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, walked through a tiny portion of the Amazon rainforest, seen the beauty of Italy and the amazing waters of the Caribbean. The planet fairly shouts with praise to the glory of the One who created it. This hymn resonates with me.

Likewise the 8th Psalm. Here it is in its entirety:

“O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is your name in all the earth. Who have displayed your splendor above the heavens! From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength Because of Your adversaries, To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.

When I consider Your heavens, the work of your fingers, The moon and the stars, which you have ordained; What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty! You make him to rule over the works of Your hands, You have put all things under his feet, All sheep and oxen, And also the beasts of the field, The birds of the heaven and the fish of the sea, Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth.

Psalm 8:1-9

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26–28)

According to Genesis, God spoke Creation into existence and called it good. But in His final created act, He made humans, male and female, from the dust of the ground. Then He called His creation very good. It was complete, and we are the crowning achievement, different from the rest, given instruction to subdue the earth and have dominion over its creatures. All of that changed when sin entered the picture. A curse was placed on the man and woman, but also the creation because of them. As a result, humankind lost our glory. Instead of the earth providing for our needs, man had to labor and toil to scratch out an existence. Instead of being stewards of creation, we became exploiters. Most importantly, we lost our intimate walk with God. We were separated by sin that God could not allow in His presence.

What we also lost was our sense of awe toward God. In our vanity, pride and false belief we can be our own gods, we no longer hold God in fear and reverence; in other words, awe. Even if we claim to believe in Him, we sometimes treat Him as some sort of divine vending machine or a kindly grandfather who loves to coddle and indulge us. We want God to be like one of our buddies because it makes us ‘comfortable’. That is if we even believe in Him at all.

Compare that to the Psalmist writing Psalm 8. After looking at the night sky and seeing the moon and the myriad of stars, the question is raised, “who is man that You take thought of him?”. In comparison to the vastness of the universe we feel insignificant and should. And yet, God made us the pinnacle of His creation, lower only than God himself and the heavenly beings. Psalm 8 is a declaration of awe: O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Boberg understood the spirit of Psalm 8 as well. O Lord, my God! When I in awesome wonder Consider all the works Thy hands have made. God’s autograph and nature is present in the whole creation, and yet we either fail or refuse to see it. Paul writes in Romans 1:18 and following (emphasis mine): “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse”. God shows Himself to us in every part of His creation, and we have no excuse to deny Him except our own pride and rebellion.

We cannot have awe without humility. We carry the image of God Himself, and yet we are still a creation, not God Himself. That image is tarnished and damaged by our sin and rebellion that is our heritage of mankind’s curse. Only when we recognize our own wretchedness and rebellious nature can we finally see how glorious, holy, loving and good God is. When we realize how we deserve nothing but death, then we understand how amazing it is that God grants us life and grace because of what Jesus suffered for us. We are right in feeling insignificant when we look at the magnificence and scale of the rest of creation; yet we are the only ones made in His very image, designed to be the stewards of the entire earth, different in nature than anything else in creation, including the angels. It’s why God paid such an extravagant price for our redemption and adoption.

We serve a God who, when He spoke, the creation came into being because it could do nothing else but obey. A God who brought thousands of galaxies into being with a mere thought. The God who still directs all of His creation in its paths. And a God who knows our name and everything about us, who paid the price of Himself in the form of His son so that we may once again walk and commune with Him. How could we not proclaim, “How Great Thou Art”?

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