This is part of an intermittent series I’ve called “Hymns We Should Sing More Often.” The aim is to remind us (or introduce for the first time) excellent hymns that are probably not included in most church’s musical canon. A few hymns–like Holy, Holy, Holy or Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing—are familiar to many congregations and get sung in conferences and other large gatherings. Unfortunately, for a growing number of churches, there are no hymnals in the pews (or on the chairs), and consequently there is little opportunity to draw from the deep well of Christian hymnody. Most of the hymns in this series are not unfamiliar, just underutilized. I hope you will enjoy learning about these hymns as much as I have and enjoy singing them even more.
I am always looking for good songs that can lead us into the preaching of God’s word, and this hymn does the trick. O Word of God Incarnate works well as a prayer of illumination or a prelude to it. It fits well into Sunday morning liturgy immediately before the sermon because it centers its hearers on the light we receive from the incarnate Word of God in the form of the Bible. The written Word is a “lantern to our footsteps”, which “shines from age to age”; it is the “chart and compass” that guides us through the perils of life to Christ. When the hymn was first published in 1867, Proverbs 6:23 was listed as its subheading—“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life.”
William How (1823-1897), the author of the hymn, was ordained in the Church of England in 1847. He later became bishop in east London and in time came to be known as the “poor man’s bishop” and the “children’s bishop” because of his work among the poor and destitute in London. He wrote around 60 hymns in his lifetime, many of which were for children. Among How’s more well known hymns is For All the Saints.
The music that we sing How’s words to is from a Felix Mendelssohn arrangement of a tune that dates back to at least 1593. Mendelssohn set the old tune to new words and inserted it in his oratorio Elijah as the quartet “Cast Thy Burdens upon the Lord.” Mendelssohn was an accomplished musician and one of the great composers in the classical/romantic period.
O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky;
we praise thee for the radiance that from the hallowed page,
a lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.
The church from her dear Master received the gift divine,
and still that light she lifteth o’er all the earth to shine.
It is the golden casket, where gems of truth are stored;
it is the heav’n drawn picture of Christ, the living Word.
It floateth like a banner before God’s host unfurled;
it shineth like a beacon above the darkling world.
It is the chart and compass that o’er life’s surging sea,
‘mid mists and rocks and quicksands, still guides, O Christ, to thee.
O make thy church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold,
to bear before the nations thy true light, as of old.
O teach thy wand’ring pilgrims by this their path to trace,
till, clouds and darkness ended, they see thee face to face.