Friday, September 24, 2021

Love Beyond Telling: The Surprising History of a Favorite Hymn

Love Beyond Telling

You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told. (Psalm 40:5)

As with so many of our favorite hymns, “The Love of God” was born in adversity. Frederick Lehman (1868–1953), who wrote the hymn with his daughter, had experienced the failure of his once-profitable business, which left him packing crates of oranges and lemons in Pasadena, California, to make ends meet. Again and again throughout history, deep and enduring trials seem to have a strange and beautiful way of swelling the waves of worship.

Perhaps the most memorable lines in the hymn, however, were not Lehman’s, but words someone had found scribbled on the walls of an insane asylum a couple hundred years earlier, words that had been passed along to Lehman and held profound meaning for him.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every tree on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry,
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

The lyrics, it turns out, were a translation of an old Aramaic poem (now almost a thousand years old). And while no one knows the name of the insane asylum patient, the circumstances of his suffering, or how he came across the poem, the lines sparkle with surprising clarity, hope, and, well, sanity. A kind of spiritual sanity that often eludes us.

More Than Can Be Told

That Lehman treasured the lyrics is hardly surprising. Living just a handful of miles from the Pacific Ocean, he would have known, with acute awareness, the roaring vastness of the sea, the tall and swaying elegance of palm trees, and the bursts and hues of California sunsets. Day by day, he held the brilliant orangeness of its oranges and smelled the lively tartness of its lemons. The ocean, the trees, the sky, the earth were enormous and familiar friends of his — and yet each so small next to the love he had come to know in Christ.

When Lehman looked at the sky, he saw a hint of something wider still. He sang, like David, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3–4). The sky above him awed him, and then humbled him. If God could stretch out heavens like these with his hands, why would he pierce those hands in love for me?

When Lehman looked out over the ocean, he heard a hint of something deeper still. “You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). The ocean taught him of forgiveness, of a dark, far-off, forgotten place where God submerged our canceled sins. How could God possibly forget what we had said, and thought, and done? Well, he could bury them beneath the sea. And so he does.

“O Lord, how manifold are your works!” the psalmist sings. “In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great” (Psalm 104:24–25). The ocean is big, and crowded, and wild, and yet you, O Lord, are bigger still, and your love, wilder still. And while the ocean sang its choruses, the sand beneath his feet would occasionally interrupt: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand” (Psalm 139:17–18).

When Lehman stared at the towering trees above him, he tasted a hint of something higher still. He surely could not count the trees that surrounded him, and their numberlessness reminded him of the unsearchable greatness of God. He may have read of math like this in the Psalms: “You have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you! I will proclaim and tell of them, yet they are more than can be told” (Psalm 40:5). More than can be told. Is there any better summary of the love of God?

Every Man a Scribe

Were we to fill that ocean with ink and stretch out scrolls to cover those skies, and were every tree, of every kind, a pen, and every one of us a scribe, we still could capture only hints and whispers of the boundless love of God. We would drain the ocean dry. And then still have so much more to say.

Let that never keep us from saying as much as we can. We ought to thank God for those, like Frederick Lehman, who help us taste and see and feel realities we will never fully grasp. We ought to thank God for the poor soul clinging to faith in that asylum. If he had not scrawled those words on that wall, from his embattled memory, would we have ever heard them? We ought to thank God for the pen that crafted those original lines, in Aramaic, so many years earlier. Who could have imagined just how far his words would float, like a letter in a bottle, and how many hearts they would brighten and strengthen over centuries?

And we ought to ask God for fresh words that might open worlds like these for others. How might we help others feel the love beyond expressing? If words fail us, we could start by writing the beloved lines where someone might someday see them.

from Desiring God
via DG