Just the other day, someone was saying to me how much they love the song “I, the Lord of sea and sky” – it’s one of their all-time favourite hymns. I remember once visiting a church to have a look around, and they were holding a “hymn request” month – people could write their favourite hymns on a bit of paper. This particular hymn came up a lot. On various things I’ve been on with the Church of England with my fellow curates, this song has been requested. It seems to be one everyone’s list of favourite hymns – it’s just one of those hymns with a great tune that makes you want to pump your first in the air and shout “YEAH!” at the end of it.
So – it is with a sense of trepidation that I dare to say: I’m really not sure about it. I’ve had a gut feeling about the hymn for a while now, but I haven’t really thought through why it is that I don’t like it until recently. Hopefully putting it into words will help crystallize my thinking.
I think the essence of the problem, for me, is being uncomfortable with the way the song uses “my people”. In the Bible, the phrase “my people” is used by God to refer to the Israelites. So, for example, Exodus 7:4, “I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” Or Leviticus 26:12, “I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people.” Or 2 Chronicles 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Now, I believe that the New Testament requires us to see that the promises God made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ (see Rob Dalrymple’s book which I reviewed recently, ‘These Brothers of Mine’). Consequently, Old Testament references to “my people” are ultimately fulfilled in the Kingdom of God – his people, the Church, the “Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16).
So, let’s go back to the song. Does the song use the phrase “my people” in that way, i.e. referring to those within the Kingdom of God? I don’t think so. The whole first verse seems to be talking about people who are currently outside the Kingdom: “All who dwell in dark and sin / My hand will save.” And I think this is where I get confused with the song. (As an aside – not to mention the fact that “All who dwell … my hand will save” seems universalist, although I think this is probably not intended).
The song’s imagery is largely drawn from within the people of Israel. Isaiah was called as a prophet to Israel. Samuel was called to be a judge of Israel. The song references the call of both of these men. The second verse says “I have born my people’s pain” – a reference to Isaiah 53:4, which – again – is talking about God bearing the sin of Israel, ultimately of those who trust in Jesus.
The chorus finishes with the line, “I will hold Your people in my heart”. By the time I’ve sung the rest of the song, I’m just not sure who the “Your people” actually are, or what I’m supposed to be doing for them!
Am I being a needless pedant over this? Perhaps. It is certainly true that those in the Kingdom of God were chosen “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4) – and as such ‘my people’ in a sense includes not just those who have trusted in Jesus, but all those who will trust in Jesus. God says to Paul in Acts 18:10, “I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” But then, we don’t know who they are. That’s the point of the Parable of the Sower – we spread the word, and there are a variety of different responses. And we don’t call those who have yet to trust in Jesus “my people”. Saul, for example, while he was breathing out murderous threats against God’s people was certainly not a member of the Kingdom of God!
At the end of the day, I feel like the song is trying to make the (excellent) point that God is the one who saves us, that he plans to work in particular people’s lives, that he acts first, steps in and brings light to our darkness, and that he calls and uses us in his mission. That much is all worthy of singing about.
But I feel like the song is also a little confusing, and a little vague – I can well imagine two people from very different theological backgrounds singing the song and meaning different things by the words. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular in the Church of England, and other Christian groups: it’s not specific enough for any one group to disagree with!
All in all, I’m not going to start a campaign to stop us singing it, but I think it’s worthwhile thinking through what we are singing – especially our most popular hymns. Even if I am being a needless pedant…