Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: 'The God of Sarah Praise'

History of Hymns: 'The God of Sarah Praise'

By Ee Hwee Wong, Guest Contributor

Bjorlin 72px
David Bjorlin

“The God of Sarah Praise”
by David Bjorlin
Voices Together, 190

The God of Sarah praise,
The God of dreams long dead,
who brings forth unexpected life,
disarming dread.
Though grief lasts through the night,
joy rises with the sun;
God leaves us laughing in surprise
at death undone.*
*© 2019 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Have you been waiting for God’s promise to you to be fulfilled?

Have you been looking for a place to call home, a place where you feel you belong?

Have you been oppressed, crushed, and persecuted? Do you feel lost and insignificant?

The three stanzas in “The God of Sarah Praise” present three interrelated biblical characters—Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar, in that order, representing individuals who may find themselves in similar plights; they remind us of the hope one can have in God despite dismal circumstances. The author notes, “I wanted to start and end with a stanza highlighting the women’s roles in God’s covenant—both the simple biological necessity of bearing the descendants that will become the Hebrew people and the often surprising and subversive ways in which the line continues” (Email, March 16, 2024).

In Genesis 15, God had promised Abraham a son who is his “own flesh and blood.” Yet, when the fulfillment of the promise was nowhere in sight, Abraham gave in to Sarah’s suggestion to wed Hagar, their Egyptian slave. When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Sarah then blamed Abraham for her misery. What was Abraham’s response? He relinquished his role as the head of the household and let Sarah do whatever she thought was best. Sarah mistreated Hagar, and Hagar fled from her mistress.

In stanza one, Sarah represents all who have given up on their dreams, all those who see no light or any possibility of the fulfillment of what God has promised. The wait has been long, and grief filled her nights. Those who persevere and continue to wait in hope for God’s promises —the God who has the power to reverse death and perform the “unexpected” — will realize that God “brings forth unexpected life, disarming dread,” and “leaves us laughing in surprise at death undone.” Even though Abraham and Sarah laughed at God’s promise of a child to them in their old age (Gen 17:17, 18:12), God turned that laughter of doubt into laughter of joy. It is no wonder that God told Abraham to name his son Isaac, which means, “He laughs.” Grief and sorrow are not eternal. Joy one day will come.

Isaiah 35:1–2, NIV
The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.

In stanza two, Abraham represents “all who roam,” traveling without permanent homes into unknown “foreign lands.” When our path is shrouded with darkness, we are to look up at the stars that serve as reminders of God’s faithfulness to the covenantal promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars. Abraham is the father of all who believe in God. Through pilgrimage into the unknown, we learn to trust in God’s provision, guidance, and perfect timing. The earth is not our permanent home. God is our ultimate place of rest.

In stanza three, Hagar represents all who are “oppressed,” “lost,” and “overlooked” by the world. God sees them and “calls them blessed,” just as Jesus taught in Matthew 5. Even in our “wandering alone through deserts of despair,” God leads us to “a well of hope and meets us there.” In Genesis 16, when Hagar fled from Sarah into the desert, the angel of the Lord found her near a spring, told her to return to her mistress and submit to her, promising Hagar numerous descendants.

Hagar said to God in Genesis 16:13, “You are the God who sees me.” The well was called Beer Lahai Roi, meaning “well of the Living One who sees me.” Our God sees us and knows our needs. Similarly, in John 4, we read of Jesus offering a Samaritan woman “living water,” which will well up to eternal life.

Psalm 84:5–7 NIV
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
they make it a place of springs;
the autumn rains also cover it with pools.
They go from strength to strength,
till each appears before God in Zion."

Bjorlin creatively uses the stories of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar to remind us of the hope we can have even when there seems to be no light around us.

Bjorlin pairs his text with LEONI, the same melody used by Welsh Wesleyan Thomas Olivers (1725–1799) for “The God of Abraham Praise,” a Christianized English metrical paraphrase of the twelfth-century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides’ thirteen articles of the Jewish creed. Olivers named the tune after Meyer Lyon, the chief musician of London’s Great Synagogue, who transcribed the tune for Olivers after he heard it sung in a Sabbath eve service around 1770. John Wesley included the melody with the text in Sacred Harmony, 1780. The melody is common to Jewish, Spanish-Basque, and Russian folk traditions (Young, 1993, p. 636–637).

David Bjorlin (b. 1984), the author of “The God of Sarah Praise,” has served as the pastor of worship and creative Arts at Resurrection Covenant Church (Chicago) since 2014 and assistant professor of worship at North Park Theological Seminary and University since 2019. Besides having written scholarly articles on hymnody, Bjorlin is also the author of Protest of Praise: 50 Hymn Texts (Chicago, 2020), a collection of hymn texts addressing issues of societal injustice.


David Bjorlin, Protest and Praise: 50 New Hymn Texts by David Bjorlin, The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (July 2020): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u_PL-OtXbA (accessed March 27, 2024).

C. Michael Hawn, “David Bjorlin,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk/d/david-bjorlin (accessed January 31, 2024).

Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1993).

Verses marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Ee Hwee Wong currently oversees the worship and music ministry at Wesley Methodist Church, Singapore. She is also a student in the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where she studies hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.

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