“Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.”
Sometimes, when we talk about singing the “old hymns,” we mean the hymns we used to sing when we were young. But every so often we get to sing a hymn that’s REALLY old, from the days when Christianity itself was young. Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence gives us the opportunity to connect with our past while we ponder our future.
The text of this hymn was composed as part of the “Divine Liturgy of Saint James,” which dates back to the 4th century. It is one of the oldest complete liturgies that remains in use to this day in some churches. During the liturgy, which can be read in its entirety here, this text acts as a cherubikon (χερουβικὸν), or Cherubic Hymn, and is meant to symbolically usher believers into the presence of the angels gathered around the throne of Heaven. It is read/sung before the presentation of the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper.
While the hymn is still recited in the original Greek in Eastern churches, the text was given new life when it was translated and versified into English in the mid-19th century by Gerard Moultrie, and adapted for a beautiful and timeless French folk melody (called PICARDY) by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1906.
There are many terrific arrangements of this hymn, but here are two of my favorites. The first, by Red Mountain Music, I adapted with a new orchestration and debuted in my church at a recent Advent service:
This arrangement by John Rutter is quite different. I love the appropriate sense of gravitas it lends to the occasion (plus, I love the Picardy third at the end… PICARDY, get it?):
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.
King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth he stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
in the body and the blood,
he will give to all the faithful
his own self for heavenly food.
Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the powers of hell may vanish
as the shadows clear away.
At his feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
alleluia, Lord most high!”
Though originally written as a communion song, this hymn fits very well as an Advent carol as it speaks of both Christ’s first and second comings. One of the text’s greatest features is the way it blends Old and New Testament Messianic expectations.
The first line calls to mind the words of the prophets Habakkuk and Zechariah, who remind us of the reverence due to the awesome and sovereign God of the universe. And though this great God descended to Earth “with blessing in his hand,” Jesus Christ demands our homage and submission to his lordship.
When we partake of the elements in the Lord’s Supper, we do well to remember Christ’s sacrifice for our sake; his broken body and spilled blood. But we must also remember just who exactly it was who purchased our redemption. This was the King of kings and Lord of lords! The very same God who had been surrounded with ceaseless praise in the “realms of endless day” humbled himself by taking on human form and becoming obedient even unto death on a cross for our sake (Philippians 2:8). And so we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns (1 Corinthians 11:26).
Christ our God will once again descend to Earth, but when he does, it will not be in humility but in glory. There will be no need of symbolic elements to remind anyone of his power and authority, for every eye will see and acknowledge that he truly is King of kings and Lord of lords when he returns in his wrath (Revelation 19:16). No enemy—not even Death!—will withstand his holy vengeance. The powers of hell will vanish once and for all, “as the shadows clear away” in the Light of light which outshines the sun (Revelation 22:5). Then we will reign forever with Christ, adding our voices to the unending, thrice-holy song of the cherubim and seraphim.