Home History of Hymns: "Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud"

History of Hymns: "Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud"

"Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud"
Thomas H. Troeger
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 113

Thomas H. Troeger

Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,
Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light,
Judge, Defender, Mercy, Might,
Life whose life all life endowed.
May the church at prayer recall
that no single holy name
but the truth behind them all
is the God whom we proclaim.*

Some hymns have an opening line (called an incipit) that intrigues the singer so much that they must continue. Such is the case with “Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud” by poet and homiletical scholar Thomas Troeger (b. 1945).

The origins of this hymn may be found in an invitation from the Hymnal Revision Committee for The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) to explore “alternative metaphors and descriptions of deity.” In addition to naming God in the refrain, Mr. Troeger includes an amazing 40 images in his hymn text.

How does a catalogue of names, even for God, become poetry worthy of congregational song? Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes correctly that the “poet has provided a catalog of human and natural attributes of God in a cleverly framed text with alliterated, rhymed, and juxtaposed metaphors tied together with a compelling refrain.”

Though this hymn appears in the God’s Nature section in the hymnal, it could have easily been placed in the Trinity section because of the orientation of the three stanzas.

Stanza one focuses on images associated with God the Creator. Examples are “Rock” (Psalm 31:2), “Cloud” (Exodus 13:21; 24:18), and “Judge” (Psalm 7:11). Stanza two includes images primarily associated with Jesus including “Word” (John 1:1), “Shepherd” (John 10:11), and Eucharistic images of “Bread and Wine.”

Stanza three centers on metaphors that describe or suggest the work of the Holy Spirit such as “Breath” (Genesis 1:2), “Dove” (Matthew 3:16), and “Comfort” (John 14:8). The shape of the hymn provides a theological lens for understanding the work of the Trinity.

The refrain is an important feature of this hymn. From a practical perspective, the singer gets some relief from the cluster of metaphors in each stanza. The biblically astute singer will find that many of the metaphors employed are iconic—a window into an entire biblical narrative.

On another level, the refrain reminds us that the nature of the Godhead cannot be contained in just a few words; indeed, language fails us when it comes to pondering eternal truth, yet we must try. The refrain is an admonition to the “church at prayer” that God’s truth may be found behind many names, and that the “God of many names” (as hymn writer Brian Wren has noted, UM Hymnal, No. 105) “is the God whom we proclaim.”

Mr. Troeger is a native of New York. He is a graduate of Yale University, Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and has received honorary doctorates from Virginia College and Virginia Theological Seminary. He served New Hartford Presbyterian Church as associate pastor before joining the faculty of Colgate Rochester/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary in Rochester, N.Y.

After serving as the Ralph E. and Norma E. Peck Professor of Preaching and Communication at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, beginning in 1991, Mr. Troeger was jointly appointed in 2005 as the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Yale Institute of Sacred Music.

He is the author of 15 books in the fields of preaching, poetry, hymnody and worship. His hymns, published in several volumes with Oxford University Press, appear in virtually all major hymnals published since the late 1980s.

Mr. Troeger is dually ordained in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA, 1970) and the Episcopal Church (1999). He is also a musician, having studied flute with John Oberbrunner at Syracuse School of Music.

© 1987 Oxford University Press. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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