"THE SPACIOUS FIRMAMENT ON HIGH"
"The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork" (Ps. 19.1)
INTRO.: A hymn which points out the need to be conscious of God as the one whose glory is declared by the heavens and the earth which He created is "The Spacious Firmament on High." The text was written by Joseph Addison, who was born on May 1, 1672 at Milston, near Amesbury, in Wiltshire, England, the son of Lancelot Addison, an Anglican minister who was Dean of Lichfield and author of Devotional Poems. Originally Joseph intended to become a minister, but exhibiting unusual literarary talent as a writer of Latin verse, he studied law and politics, attending Charterhouse, Queen’s College, and Magdalen College at Oxford from which he received the B. A. in 1691 and the M. A. in 1693. Through the influence of powerful in the Whig Party, which he joined, he held several important positions, successively Member of Parliament, Commissioner of Appeals, Under Secretary of State, Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and Chief Secretary for Ireland.
However, Addison is best remembered for his literary pursuits, including his contributions to the newspapers The Spectator which he founded in 1711 with Richard Steele and where his hymns appeared in connection with his essays, The Tatler, The Guardian, and The Freeholder, as well as the tragedy Cato. In August of 1712, Addison wrote an essay on the proper means of strengthening and confirming faith in the minds of man, saying, "The Supreme Being has made the best arguments for his own existence in the formation of the heavens and the earth, and these arguments which a man of sense cannot forbear attending to who is out of the noise and hurry of human affairs….The Psalmist has very beautiful strokes of poetry to this purpose in that exalted strain (Psalm xix). As such a bold and sublime manner of Thinking furnished out very noble Matter for an Ode, the reader may see it wrought into the following one." The hymn now known as "The Spacious Firmament on High" followed these words and concluded the essay. Addison married Charlotte, the Dowager Countess of Warwick in 1716 but died three years later on June 17, 1719, at Holland House in Kensington, England.
The tune (Creation) was composed by Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809). It is adapted from the chorus "The Heavens Are Telling" in his 1798 oratorio The Creation. This adaptation was first published in the 1812 Sacred Melodies, probably by the editor William Gardner (1770-1853). Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church for use in churches of Christ during the twentieth century, the song appeared in the 1925 edition of the 1921 Great Songs of the Church (No. 1) and the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 both edited by E. L. Jorgenson; and the 1963 Christian Hymnal edited by J. Nelson Slater. Today it may be found in the 1971 Songs of the Church, the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed., and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise all edited by Alton H. Howard; the 1978/1983 (Church) Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann; and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand; as well as the original edition of Hymns for Worship (but omitted in the Revised edition) and the 2007 Sacred Songs of the Church edited by William D. Jeffcoat.
The song expresses acceptance of the evidence in nature that leads us to believe in the Creator.
I. Stanza 1 describes the day time sky
"The spacious firmament on high, With all the blue, ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame, Their great Original proclaim.
Th’ unwearied sun from day to day Does his Creator’s power display,
And publishes to every land The work of an almighty Hand."
A. The firmament is the expanse above the earth: Gen. 1.1-8, 14-18
B. The sky and the spangled heavens proclaim their great Original in that they demonstrate His power and deity: Rom. 1.20
C. One particular example is the sun, which God created to rule the day: Ps. 136.1-8
II. Stanza 2 describes the night time sky
"Soon as the evening shades prevail, The moon takes up her wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth Repeats the story of her birth.
While all the stars that round her burn, And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll, And spread the truth from pole to pole."
A. When evening comes, the moon, which God created to rule the night, takes up the wondrous tale of God’s creative power: Ps. 8.1-3
B. Along with the moon, there are the stars that round her burn: Job 9.9, 38.31-33
C. The word "planet" means "wanderer;" the ancients saw what they thought were stars but they wandered across the sky in a different pattern from the other stars, so they called them "wandering stars," which we now know are planets that orbit the sun in our solar system. Jude makes a spiritual application of this concept: Jude vs. 12-13
III. Stanza 3 describes the silence of the celestial objects
"What though in solemn silence all Move round this dark, terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice or sound Amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice, And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine, ‘The Hand that made us is divine.’"
A. The King James Version in Ps. 19 reads, "There is no speech nor language where there voice is not heart." However, the word "where" is in italics, indicating an interpolation by the translators. The American Standard Version reads more literally, "There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard," indicating that the heavens do not literally speak, but the point is nonetheless that their very existence testifies to a Maker’s hand, just a house must be built by someone: Heb. 3.4
B. Therefore, in reason’s ear they all rejoice so that by faith we can understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God: Heb. 11.3
C. Their mute testimony corroborates our faith in the Biblical claim that "By the word of the LORD the heavens were made….He commanded, and it stood fast": Ps. 33.6-9
CONCL.: One writer said of this hymn, "It became the fashion to refer to God as the ‘Great Original’ or the ‘First Cause,’ leaving the operation of the universe and even the acts of men to natural law. This way of looking at God and the universe is called ‘Deism.’ Addison uses ‘Great Original’ in his hymn, and he also calls God ‘Hand,’ with a capital letter. You will also notice that the heavenly voices are heard by ‘Reason’–with a capital letter [editor’s note–not in our books, WSW]–rather than by Faith. That is another indication of the increasing trust in Reason as the revealer of all truth. In fact, in the history of thought, the eighteenth century is know as the ‘Age of Reason.’" While some of this may well be true, and we must be careful that we do not rely on either natural law or reason alone to learn about God, methinks that the critic is perhaps reading too much into Mr. Steele’s words and fails to see the figurative nature of his language. The fact is that Biblical faith is a reasonable faith, and where even a Deist might have expressed the truth we may sing it. Therefore, we must certainly acknowledge and praise Jehovah God as the "Great Original" who created "The Spacious Firmament on High."