History of Hymns: “It is God Who Holds the Nations”
By C. Michael Hawn
“It is God Who Holds the Nations” by Fred Pratt Green
It is God who hold the nations in the hollow of his hand;
It is God whose light is shining in the darkness of the land;
It is God who builds his City on the Rock and not on sand:
May the living God be praised!*
* © 1976 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The first amendment to the United States Constitution begins with the assurance of freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ..” Baptist theologian Roger Williams initiated the phrase a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” in 1644. Thomas Jefferson based his description of the First Amendment – “. . . building a wall of separation between church and State” – on Williams’ metaphor in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, a minority faith tradition who objected to the dominance of the Congregationalists in Connecticut. Freedom of religious expression, rather than tolerance of religious practice beyond an established state church, seems to be in the DNA of faith in the United States.
Expressing patriotism within the context of Christian worship, then, is a delicate matter. Our hymnals often include Samuel Stone’s “My country ‘tis of Thee” (The UM Hymnal, No. 697), “America the Beautiful” (No. 595), and, in some cases, Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-spangled Banner.” Falling in somewhere in this discussion is Julia Ward How’s “Mine eyes have seen the glory,” popularly called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (No. 717). Along with these hymns, I would like to see “It is God who holds the nations” in more of our hymnals.
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000), a British Methodist minister thought by many to be the premier hymn writer in the English language in the last quarter of the twentieth century, contributes a hymn that avoids patriotism for one nation and while acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all nations. Composed in 1976 as a local commission for use in Norwich Cathedral during the celebration of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, this hymn expresses patriotism for the twenty-first century church in light of the interdependence of nations. Rather than focusing on a country’s struggle for existence, its destiny, or its beauty, Pratt Green’s hymn directs our attention to the “living God” in the final line of each stanza: “May the living God be praised!”
Like all of this author’s texts, this hymn is undergirded by biblical truth throughout. Perhaps Rev. Green owes his deeply Scripture-based hymns to his spiritual mentor in Methodism, Charles Wesley, a hymn writer whose hymns were thoroughly imbued with biblical allusions. The first stanza, cited above, will serve as an example:
Line 1, “It is God who holds the nations in the hollow of his hand,” clearly reflects Isaiah 40:12. “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span. . . ?” (NRSV)
Line 2, “It is God whose light is shining in the darkness of the land,” draws heavily upon Isaiah 9:2. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (NRSV)
Line 3, “It is God who builds his City on the Rock and not the sand,” echoes Matthew 5:14 – “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” – combining with Matthew 7:24, 26: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. . . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”
The entire stanza, indeed the hymn as a whole, is wrapped in the ethos of Psalm 67:1-3:
“May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.” (NRSV)
The second stanza calls the nation to meet the demands of the day:
It is God whose purpose summons us to use this present hour;
Who recalls us to our senses when a nation’s life turns sour . . .
Then, with particular insight, the poet refers to the “discipline of freedom,” indicating that freedom requires self-restraint in order that all might experience its measure.
The third stanza perhaps refers most directly to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, beginning with:
When a thankful nation, looking back, has cause to celebrate
Those who win our admiration by their service to the state. . . .
American hymnologist Harry Eskew, a former editor of The Hymn, the journal of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, pointed out to Fred Pratt Green that this hymn had the potential to speak equally to the citizens of the United States. Thus, the poet modified his original second line, which follows, and replaced it with the line in the couplet cited above:
“. . . Those who reign in our affection by their service to the state . . .”
Indeed, the third line of this stanza is reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge in his inaugural address of 1960: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
“When self-giving is a measure of the greatness of the great . . .”
The final stanza reflects a kind of Copernican revolution in how one might traditionally view the British Empire. In the early eighteenth century, Isaac Watts paraphrased Psalm 117 in his hymn “From all the dwell below the skies,” stating at the end of the final stanza:
Thy praise shall sound from shore to shore,
Till suns shall rise and set no more.
Perhaps, a citizen of England singing at that time might interpret this text not only as the universal reign of an omnipotent God, but also as the reign of the British Empire upon which the sun never set.
Fred Pratt Green, however, stressing the interdependence of all nations, begins his final stanza as follows:
“He reminds us every sunrise that the world is ours on lease—”
He calls us to love the earth “for the sake of life tomorrow” and offers the powerful petition:
“May all races live together, share its riches, live at peace . . .”
Thus the paradox of patriotism is revealed in this hymn. Rather than “We’re number one!” or “My country right or wrong.”, true Christian patriotism is revealed in generosity of spirit and love of neighbor.
Because of copyright restrictions, the entire text cannot be cited in this article, but it is available through the publisher at http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=18.104.22.168&hymnID=3232
C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.