“The Love of God”: Medieval Prayer to Modern Hymn

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If you were to ask me which religious song inspired me the most this past year, I wouldn’t hesitate to answer, The Love of God.  This hymn, written in 1917 by F.M. Lehman, has inspired countless generations to reflect on the sheer magnitude of God’s love for us, and has always been a personal favorite of mine.  A few months ago, however, a co-worker asked if I knew the story behind this hymn.  The more research I did, the more amazed I became at the miraculous way that God has put this hymn together through the centuries.

Tracing the history of this timeless hymn is nothing short of inspiring:

 

A Medieval Prayer

Akdamut Millan is an 11th century Hebrew poem that was written by Rabbi Meir Ben Isaac Nehorai – a cantor, or “synagogue singer,” from Worms, Germany.  The poem’s title can be literally translated as “Introductory Words,” and its first line reads “Before reading the 10 divine commands.” This poem was used during the Festival of Weeks, a Jewish holiday celebrating the moment God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and the poem was read aloud just before the Ten Commandments themselves were recited.[1]

The second stanza of Akdamut Millan appears this way in the Jewish Prayer Book:

 

          At God’s command is infinite power,

         Which words cannot define.

         Were all the skies parchment,

         And all the reeds pens, and all the oceans ink,

        And all who dwell on earth scribes,

       God’s grandeur could not be told.

 

A Reflection from Ancient Temple Worship

This Jewish prayer was used often in ancient worship.  It was very well known by religious Jews, and often inspired their personal writings.  One quote was recorded by Johanan ben Zakkai, a great Jewish rabbi during the period of the Second Temple (30 AD- 90 AD), who had the privilege of studying under Rabbi Hillel (a rabbi who lived during the reign of Herod and Ceasar Augustus).

When asked about his relationship with the Great Rabbi Hillel, ben Zakkai responded:

If all the heavens were parchments, and all the trees quills, and all the seas were ink, it would still be impossible to write down even a part of what I learned from my teacher.”[2]

 

A Final Meditation from a German Asylum

As F.M. Lehman and his daughter, Mrs. W.W. Mays, worked together on composing a new hymn entitled The Love of God, they suffered from writer’s block after having penned only two stanzas.  The year was 1917, and at that time you simply had to have three complete verses (reflecting the perfect Trinity), or you didn’t have a song!

During their travels, the father/daughter team came across a German insane asylum.  One of the prisoners had recently been put to death, and when the soldiers examined his cell afterwards they found the following words penciled onto the walls of his prison:

 

“Could we with ink the ocean fill,

            And were the skies of parchment made,

            Were every stalk 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.”

Perhaps the man had heard the old Hebrew prayer, and now, in a moment of lucidity, had translated it into his own language.  F.M. Lehman and his daughter were amazed – the words etched onto the walls of this asylum matched the rhythm of their new hymn perfectly.  They inserted these words as the third and final verse of their hymn, and published The Love of God by 1920.[3]

It would be another twenty-five years until this hymn really “caught on,” but since that time it has become one of the most cherished and inspiring hymns that we have to date.

Another interesting note:  look again at the words of the medieval prayer, which spoke of the power of God, and the way the man from the asylum translated it to speak of the love of God.  He had no way of knowing that Lehman and his daughter would be looking for words to a hymn about God’s love.  Even in the face of his own execution, he chose to praise God for His endless love.  What a testimony!

 

Unchanging Love

Hebrews 13:8 says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

As I look at the way God’s people have used these timeless words to praise His unlimited power and endless love through the centuries, it’s nice to be reminded that some things – like God’s love –  never change.


[1] Nulman, Macy. Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer (Jason Aronson, 1993), p. 14.

[2] Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages, p. 156.

[3] Glanzer, Ben. “Music of the Message: The Story of ‘The Love of God,’” Ministry International Journal for Pastors (September 1950).

 

 

 

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