Be Thou My Vision

Hymnology: Be Thou My Vision

For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” ~ Proverbs 2:6

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” ~ Philippians 3:7-8

Hymn Story

This is one of the oldest surviving Christian hymns known to us today. Both the lyrics and the melody were written over a millennium (that’s a thousand years!) ago. However, it wasn’t until the early part of the 20th century when the lyrics were combined with the melody that is familiar to us today.

The text of this hymn was originally written (scholars believe) by an Irish Christian named Dallan Forgaill, who lived during the 6th century. He wrote it in Old Irish, a language almost no one speaks today. Here’s what the first line looked like in Old Irish: Rop tú mo baile, a Choimdiu cride.

When we think about this hymn being written, we should remember that there wouldn’t even have been any Christians in Old Ireland if it hadn’t been for a great missionary who is celebrated every year in March: St. Patrick, who was technically neither a saint nor Irish!

Patrick was born around A.D. 390 as the grandson of a British pastor, but was captured by pirates when he was 16, and sold into slavery to Celtic pagans. Eventually, Patrick escaped and made it back home, but God told him to go back to Ireland to tell the people there about Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church thought the Irish were too depraved to be saved, so they opposed Patrick’s missionary efforts (the reason he wasn’t canonized as a “saint”).

But God blessed Patrick’s efforts, and by the time he died he had started over 700 Irish churches and trained over 1000 Irish pastors! There’s a good chance that Dallan Forgaill became a Christian at one of these churches. This connection with St. Patrick has a lot to do with why the tune we know today was matched with these lyrics, after they were translated into English in the early 1900’s.

The tune for this hymn is called “Slane”, and was originally written during the 8th century. “Slane” was an Irish folk song about Slane Hill, where in A.D. 433 Patrick defied the pagan High King Lóegaire (who’d tried to have Patrick killed several times) by lighting candles to celebrate Easter. King Lóegaire had warned that no one could light any fires until after the start of the pagan spring festival. The king was so impressed by Patrick’s boldness and devotion that he allowed him to continue his missionary work without opposition!

Here’s a very beautiful modern a capella version of this ancient hymn:

Lyrics

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
Thou mine Inheritance, now and always:
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
High King of Heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Hymn Study

Each day is full of choices. Where to go, what to eat, how to spend your time. Some decisions are more important than others, and there are some that matter more to God than others. For instance, God probably doesn’t care whether you wear blue or green, but He doescare whether or not you dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9). How are we to know what choices we should make?

In the Old Testament, God told the Israelites that the most important thing they were to do was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:5). He told them that these words should be on their hearts at all times. They should teach them to their children, talk about them all the time, and write them down all over the house.

Later on, God’s people wondered how they were to obey God’s commands. He reminded them that the answer was not hidden; He had given it to them plainly. “The word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.” (Deuteronomy 30:14). He told them they had a choice: “See, I have set before you today life and good; death and evil” (Deuteronomy 30:15). If they obeyed, they were promised all sorts of blessings. He had already given them what they needed in order to obey, which was the Word they were to have written on their hearts. So when He told them to “choose life” by “loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20), he was not making an unreasonable demand. He had mercifully provided everything they needed to receive the blessings He had promised.

However, because all men are sinners, the people did not choose life. They chose death; they chose to sin. In His mercy, though, God promised that He would still make a way to save people from the death that they deserved because of their sin. He told them that one day He would write His words on their hearts Himself (Jeremiah 31:33). He promised that He would put His Spirit within them, which would cause them to walk according to His commandments and cleanse them from their sins (Ezekiel 36:27-29, 33).

God kept His promise! He sent His son Jesus to Earth, to live the perfect life that we were unable to live, and to die the death that we deserved. In this way, the “High King of Heaven my victory won!” He conquered death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)! Christ’s death paid the penalty for ALL of the sins of God’s people. This made a way for God to forgive our sins so that we could once again enter into a relationship with a Holy God.

After Jesus’ resurrection, He promised to send a Helper who would be with His people forever (John 14:16). This Helper was the same Spirit that God had promised in the Old Testament; the Spirit that would cause us to walk in His ways, teaching us and reminding us of God’s Word. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit that God writes His Word on our hearts when we spend time studying the Bible and praying.

Through the Spirit and the Word (which is Jesus – John 1:14), God dwells in the hearts of those who have believed that Jesus is who he said he was, and that God raised him from the dead (Ephesians 3:16-17Colossians 3:16Romans 10:9). How easily we forget what a blessing this is! Paul wrote in Philippians 3 that, compared to Christ, nothing else matters. This is what we mean when we sing “naught be all else to me save that Thou art”. We heed not riches, nor man’s empty praise, but Christ Himself is our inheritance and the treasure for which we forsake all else!

What does all this have to do with our choices? Well, when you think about it, we still have the same choice that the Israelites had in the Old Testament. Every single choice we make is really the choice between loving and following God, or loving ourselves and following our own path. For those of us who have received the free gift of God’s saving grace, we want to choose God, because the Spirit is transforming us to love what God loves (2 Corinthians 3:18). Unlike the Israelites, though, God’s blessings are no longer dependent on our choices. If we are in Jesus, God sees Christ’s righteousness when He looks at us! This frees us from bondage to the Law, and frees us to choose to love and serve Him in response to His love for us.

It is still God’s Word that enables us to choose life and obedience, just as it was in Deuteronomy 30:14. But because Christ is ever with us, and we with Him, the Word is nearer to us today than it was then! The Spirit of God frees us to set our hearts and minds on God, “by day or by night, waking or sleeping”. He is our light, our “vision”. When our trust is in the Lord, He is faithful to guide our steps, “whatever befall”.

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