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History of Hymns: “O the Depth of Love Divine”

By Devlon Goodman

“O the Depth of Love Divine”

The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 627.

O the depth of love divine,

the unfathomable grace!

Who shall say how bread and wine
God into us conveys!

How the bread his flesh imparts,
how the wine transmits his blood,
fills the faithful people’s hearts
with all the life of God!

When singing (or reading) the opening line of “O the Depth of Love Divine,” it is easy to see why the Wesleys were sometimes called enthusiasts. Charles' opening exclamation is not generic praise, but the open door into a subject that is clearly of primal importance – the mystery of the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Two questions quickly emerge as an explanation of just what is “fathomable” about “unfathomable” grace in this hymn by Charles Wesley (1707-1788). Who can explain the means of grace, and what could that explanation possibly be? The poet uses tautology (the repetition of an idea in different ways) to quickly drive the implied rhetorical question home in the last three lines of the first stanza. Each line grows in intensity until the fourth ends with the climactic statement, “all the life of God" (possibly a reference to Ephesians 3:19): “. . . to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (NIV)

This phrase sounds so extreme that one might wonder if it is hyperbole, or if Charles meant it literally . . . well, as literal as one can be when speaking of mystery. This mystery is the only permissible answer to the question that the hymn keeps asking and then refusing to answer concretely – the mark of a rhetorical question. How do the means of Grace convey Grace? And who can explain it? “Who” and “how” become a refrain of recurring questions. In four stanzas Wesley explores the questions and the mystery.

Charles Wesley’s texts are inherently musical – to be sung. One of the ways he achieves this is through alliteration. The "h" sound is favored throughout. For example “how” (three times) and “hearts” appear in stanza one. In addition, each stanza has one or two repeated letters: 1. depth – divine; bread – blood; fills - faithful, 2. wisest - we - wondrous - way, 3. drink – divine; heavenward – herewith; angels – altars; 4. manner – meet; perfect - powers. This may seem like an insignificant technique, but alliteration adds a sonorous beauty and musicality to the text.

The second stanza begins with an ironic question. Clearly, even the wisest human cannot discern how the elements convey grace. The next three lines use parallel statements in a way similar to the first line. At issue here is the fact that bread and wine are “feeble,” powerless, and unchanging.

Lines three and four of the second stanza almost make a sort of chiasm – the literal crossing of ideas in successive lines, except that the last line of the stanza explains what is wondrous, instead of merely repeating the same word. The wonder is that these elements bring the change of virtue but do not themselves change:

Who explains the wondrous way,

How through these the virtue came

These the virtue did convey,

Yet still remain the same.

“Wondrous” (a description of the sacrament) and “virtue” cross with “virtue” and “still remain the same” (also a description of the sacrament).

How can spirits heavenward rise,

by earthly matter fed,

Drink herewith divine supplies

and eat immortal bread? (Stanza three)

Here Charles may be asking, “how can we have a spiritual experience consuming physical food?” – a sort of reversal of the previous question, “how can physical food convey heavenly grace?” But then he questions how we can be on earth, yet be drinking “divine wine” and “immortal bread.” So he does seem to be saying that there is something spiritual about this bread and wine. They make a spiritual connection, but they do not change in any way.

Thus, we know that Charles Wesley does not believe in transubstantiation, which, according to Roman Catholic theology, indicates that the bread and wine are not mere signs, but are actually transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Wesley scholar, Professor Ted Campbell, at Perkins School of Theology, notes that Wesleyan eucharistic theology falls between Roman Catholic transubstantiation and the view of radical reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) who denied any presence in the Lord’s Supper other than the presence of Christ “whenever two or three are gathered in [his] name.” (Matthew 18:20)

Several phrases reveal the beauty and depth of Wesleyan sacramental theology.

Stanza one:

. . . the bread [and] wine . . .

fills his faithful people’s hearts
with all the life of God.

Stanza two:

. . . feeble elements bestow
a power not theirs to give.

. . . These [elements] the virtue did convey,
yet still remain the same.

However, for Wesley, the transformation is not in the elements themselves, but in the mystery of grace that Christ initiates and offers to those who partake in the meal. He emphasizes the mystery by asking [rhetorical] questions that cannot be answered:

How can spirits heavenward rise,
by earthly matter fed,
drink herewith divine supplies
and eat immortal bread? (Stanza three)

Finally, Wesley gives us some answers in the fourth stanza – but in the form of a prayer –a plea directed to God: Grace is real and truly conveyed through the sacraments, that is what we need to know, and we meet God through them and are moved toward spiritual perfection.

Sure and real is the grace,
the manner be unknown;
only meet us in thy ways
and perfect us in one.

Let us taste the heavenly powers,
Lord, we ask for nothing more,
Thine to bless, ‘tis only ours
to wonder and adore.

The unusual phrase “meet us in thy Ways” appears to be a reference to Isaiah 64:5, which is an even more illuminating reference if we look at the whole chapter (which, perhaps, Mr. Wesley was hoping we would do.): “Thou meetest him that rejoiceth and worketh righteousness, those that remember thee in thy ways: behold, thou art wroth; for we have sinned: in those is continuance, and we shall be saved.” (KJV)

Another biblical references in the stanza include his reference to perfection and to "taste the heavenly power," both of which are topics addressed in Hebrews 6:4-5: “For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come. . ..” (KJV)

Wesley is clearly perfectly comfortable with the mystery of the sacrament. He even revels in it! He seems to be saying, “we don't need answers, Lord, just you! Just your blessing, and we will just look on and be moved to awe-filled love and amazement!”

Devlon Goodman, associate pastor of First United Methodist Church, Bertram, Texas, is a graduate of the Master of Sacred Music program ’89, Perkins School of Theology, where he studied hymnology with Professor Roger Deschner, and a Course of Studies student at the School of Theology where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.