I have a fascination with the history of hymns. I'm sure it has something to do with my upbringing and memories of singing out of a hymn-book every Sunday, or listening to four-part harmonies wafting over me week after week. I cut my musical teeth on hymns - even before learning to read notes on a page my ears were attentive to pick up the nuances of melody, harmony and dynamics just from participating in the routine of Sunday morning worship. As I matured, I began to realize that many of the hymns that inspired me had an inspiration story of their own.
Arguably, some of the most striking words ever written in verse come to us through The Love of God, written in 1917 by F.M. Lehman and his daughter, Mrs. W.W. Mays. Most often when we speak of inspiration, we set our minds on a singular moment of genius. But in the case of The Love of God, its stirring imagery was born at least two millennia ago.
1st Century A.D. - Johanan ben Zakkai, a disciple of the great Rabbi Hillel is recorded as having said:
"If all the heavens were parchments, and all the trees quills, and all the seas were ink, it would still be impossible to write down even a part of what I learned from my teacher."
7th Century A.D. - Muhammad's Quran is compiled and includes the following verses:
Say, 'If every ocean become ink for the words of my Lord, surely, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even though We brought the like thereof as further help.' (18:109)
And if all the trees that are in the earth were pens, and the ocean - seven more oceans to replenish it - were ink, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Surely, Allah is Mighty, Wise. (31:27)
11th Century A.D. - a Hebrew poem, Akdamut Millan, is written by Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai – a cantor, or “synagogue singer,” from Worms, Germany. The poem's second stanza 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.
20th Century A.D. - F.M. Lehman and his daughter, Mrs. W.W. Mays, are inspired to preserve in song a poem which they heard at an evangelistic camp meeting.
Incredibly, the poem that had made such an impression on Lehman had been "discovered" many years earlier in, of all places, an insane asylum. After the death of an unknown inmate, staff members noticed the poem penciled onto the wall of the vacant cell. (We now know that the inmate, in one of his saner moments, was recalling from memory the lines from the Akdamut).
Lehman went on to create a modern adaption of the poem, adding two additional stanzas and a refrain. It was a number of years still before the song really caught on with congregations, but it has since become one of the church's most beloved hymns.
From the lips of a Jewish rabbi, to the pages of the Quran, to a Jewish prayer book, to the walls of an asylum, through an evangelist's sermon and finally into the ears of a Christian songwriter. What an unlikely journey! In its beginning these words were used to describe a man. For a great while later they were used to speak of God's infinite power. We are blessed that they have been preserved for their greatest use - to speak of the vastness of God's love for His people, a love demonstrated by the sacrifice of His son Jesus Christ.
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 years of 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. [Refrain]
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. [Refrain]