Hymn text by Stuart K. Hine, 1899-1989. View the full text of this hymn.

There are few hymns as classic as How Great Thou Art. It’s been a favorite of Christians all over the world for  over a hundred years. Its popularity is due in large measure to the universal experience it describes: who hasn’t “see[n] the stars” or hiked among “lofty mountain grandeur” and felt overawed by the majesty of their environment? This hymn captures the wonder and reverence many people find in nature.

But this is more than a simple nature hymn. Although the first two verses sing about “rolling thunder,” “birds sing[ing] sweetly” and “the gentle breeze,” the last two verses focus on the Savior. Verse 3 is especially touching:

And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

This hymn combines awe at nature with awe at the Savior’s sacrifice for the simple reason that both manifest God’s goodness and power with a strength and poignancy rarely found elsewhere. Christ’s majesty was manifest as much in the scene of his brokenness as in his majestic creations. Where the world saw a criminal getting his just desserts, despised him and viewed him as the smallest, least significant, and most worthless, in that moment God’s power was being made manifest. In that meekness and submissiveness is the same majesty and grandeur, if only we’d learn how to see it.

And this is where I find the chorus most intriguing.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee:
How great thou art! How great thou art!

I think it’s significant that it is our “soul,” in particular, that sings these praises. This is an instinctual spiritual response. Our spirits are tuned to respond to the splendor of creation and the Savior’s love with praise and wonder at God’s greatness. But this praise should not remain instinctual or in our hearts only. Verse 4 describes our behavior at the last day, “when Christ shall come … and take [us] home:”

Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, “My God, how great thou art!”

What our soul had only silently affirmed (“how great thou art”) will become our literal speech at the last day. A crucial part of our journey through mortality is learning to allow our soul’s spiritual yearnings to direct our actions, until it is our spirit, rather than our flesh, that guides our nature. We must learn not only to feel God’s greatness, but also to affirm it.

“We must give birth to the word that is swelling in us by giving voice to the promise it contains. Will not this saying strengthen your faith, Alma asks? Yea, he answers, it will strengthen your faith “for ye will say I know that this is a good seed.” [Alma 32:30] Why is our faith strengthened? Because we gave voice to the word within us.” ~ Adam S. Miller [1]

God is good. He may not be fair or predictable, but He is good. Let’s get to the work of verbalizing it.

[1] Adam S. Miller, “You Must Needs Say that the Word is Good,” in An Experiment on the Word: Reading Alma 32 (Salt Press, 2011), 39.

One comment on “Hymn #86: How Great Thou Art”

    I used to sing hymn 86 “How great thou art” in school like any other song you can sing, I was about fourteen years but now that I have realized the meaning of this hymn, every time when I sing it I feel emotional because I know how great the love of God is for me, the happiness and joy he has brought into my life is amazing.

    This hymn has brought so much hope in my life and it has strengthened my faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>