Hymn text by William Goode, 1762-1816. View the full text of this hymn.

Even if you didn’t see the direction to sing energetically, or even if you didn’t see the exclamation points littered throughout the song (a whopping twenty of them in four verses), this is a hymn that you almost can’t help but sing with vigor. The melody almost begs to be played as a fanfare with trumpets. In other hymns, we sing praise to our Lord for His goodness, His kindness, and His mercy; here, we hail Him as our ruler and king.

Consider the words we use to describe Him in the first verse:

Lo, the mighty God appearing!
From on high Jehovah speaks!
Eastern lands the summons hearing,
O’er the west his thunder breaks.
Earth behold him! Earth behold him!
Universal nature shakes.
Earth behold him! Earth behold him!
Universal nature shakes.

He is mighty. He speaks from on high. He sends forth thunder, and all nature shakes at His presence. We feel of His power and majesty in this hymn, and the tune reflects both that power and majesty. It’s a tune befitting the announcement and arrival of a king.

It’s interesting that the response of nature is mentioned so often in this hymn. It begins by announcing His presence to us, but it goes on to mention the awed reaction of the earth and sky to that arrival. In the first verse, we hear that the land hears the summons and “universal nature shakes.” The whole earth trembles at His coming. He created the earth and all things in and on it; surely it recognizes its creator. The second verse continues, mentioning that fire, clouds, and tempests will accompany Him at His arrival.

It’s His second coming, of course. He will come in power and majesty, and there will be no mistaking the response of nature at that time. In fact, there will be only one group whose reaction won’t be sure, and that’s ours. We, as humans, have the ability to choose for ourselves how to react in any situation. That agency is one of God’s greatest gifts to us, perhaps second only to life itself. And so while the earth and skies will shake at His coming, we may not. We may choose to recognize the arrival of our King. We may not. It is given to us to choose.

The phrase “less than the dust of the earth” occasionally appears in scripture to describe the state of man. That’s not to say that mankind is somehow worth less than dust. Of God’s creations, only humans are created in His image, so surely we carry more intrinsic value than dust. But dust obeys God’s every command without question. If He commands it to move, it moves. If He commands a mountain to move, it moves, and if He commands a sea to be dry, it dries. But when He commands us, we often question Him. We ask if HeĀ really needs us to do that right now, or if it could maybe wait until this afternoon, or even just until the next commercial break. Our agency is a tremendous gift, but when it comes to pure obedience, that gift makes us less than the dust of the earth.

Of course, we will be accountable for those choices. In the fourth verse, we are reminded that His judgments are just, and that at the second coming, “God, himself the judge, is there.” He knows us, and He knows what we have done with His gift of agency. He will judge, and judge perfectly and justly. And so as we sing, we are reminded of that day. We are reminded that we will stand before Him and will answer for our actions. And as we are so reminded, hopefully we take a moment to consider those actions, and whether we could be a little quicker to heed His call now rather than waiting until the last day. Perhaps we could lend a hand to someone in need, or offer a kind word. And as we do so, we can, along with the heavens in the final verse, “adore him, and his righteousness declare.”

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