"GREAT GOD OF NATIONS"
"O praise the Lord, all ye nations, praise Him, all ye people" (Ps. 117:1)
INTRO.: A hymn which expresses the hope before God that the people of this nation and all nations would praise the Lord is "Great God of Nations" (#543 in Hymns for Worship Revised). The text was written by Alfred Alexander Woodhull, who was born on Mar. 25, 1810, at Cranbury, NJ, the son of Dr. John Woodhull of Freehold, NJ. In 1828, when he was only eighteen years old, he produced a Thanksgiving hymn, "God of the Passing Year, to Thee," which was published in the 1829 official edition of the Presbyterian Psalms and Hymns. After attending Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, he became a medical doctor and practiced medicine at Marietta, PA, and Princeton, NJ. He was known as a pious physician and died at Princeton, NJ, on Oct. 5, 1836. His lectures to the U. S. Infantry and Cavalry School were published 62 years after his death as Notes on Military Hygiene for Officers of the Line. "God of the Passing Year" has been altered many times. Its present form of "Great God of Nations" was republished in Hatfield’s Church Hymns of 1872, where the authorship was clarified, and it became well known in this form many years after the author’s death.
Many tunes have been used with the hymn. The only other hymnbook in which I have seen it, Hymns for the Living Church published in 1974 by the Hope Publishing Company of Carol Stream, IL, and edited by Donald P. Hustad, sets it to an arrangement of a tune (St. Petersburg or Wells) composed by the Russian composer Dimitri Stepanovich Bortniansky (1752-1825). It was produced sometime before his death, probably around 1822, and first appeared in the Choralbuch published in 1825 by Johann
Heinrich Tscherlitsky, either in Moscow or Leipsic. Its first appearance in a western hymnbook was in Montague Burgoyne’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns, published at London, England, in 1827. In many of our books, this same tune is used for the communion hymn, "Till He Come, O Let the Words," written in 1861 by Edward Henry Bickersteth (1825-1906). Some sources suggest a tune (Grostette) for Woodhull’s hymn composed in 1851 by Henry Wellington Greatorex.
Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, "Great God of Nations" appeared with words only in the original editions of Hymns for Worship, with suggestions to use a tune (Maryton) by Henry Percy Smith usually associated with Washington Gladden’s "O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee," or another (Hursley) attributed to Peter Ritter and commonly identified with John Keble’s "Sun of My Soul." Hymns for Worship Revised has a tune (Woodworth) that was composed in 1849 by William Batchelder Bradbury (1816-1868). It is most often used with the invitation song "Just As I Am" written in 1835 by Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871). Another suitable tune (Mendon, German Air, or Dresden) is an old traditional German melody adapted in the 1828 Supplement to the 1825 Third Edition of Sacred Music compiled by Samuel Dyer (1785-1835). Some sources say that it was first found in the 1821 Methodist Harmonist. It was arranged in the second edition of The Choir, 1833, by editor Lowell Mason (1792-1872).
The hymn asks God to bless our nation so that it might be what He would have it to be.
I. Stanza 1 begins by praising the Lord as the God of nations
"Great God of nations, now to Thee Our hymn of gratitude we raise;
With humble heart and bending knee We offer thee our song of praise."
A. Jehovah is the great God of nations because He rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He will: Dan. 4:25
B. Because of all His blessings, we should raise a hymn of gratitude or thanksgiving; Ps. 95:1-2
C. He alone is worthy of such songs of praise: Ps. 42:10-12
II. Stanza 2 blesses God for all His kindnesses of the past
"Thy name we bless, Almighty God, For all the kindness Thou hast shown
To this fair land the Pilgrims trod, This land we fondly call our own."
A. To bless means to praise, and we should bless the holy name of God: Ps. 145:21
B. The reason is for all the kindness that He has shown: Ps. 31:21
C. Hymns for Worship Revised omits this stanza, possibly because of the reference to "the Pilgrims" (some books have "our fathers" instead), but all Christians are pilgrims on this earth: 1 Pet. 2:11
III. Stanza 3 gives thanks for the heritage of freedom that exists in our nation
"Here freedom spreads her banner wide And casts her soft and hallowed ray;
Here Thou our fathers’ steps didst guide In safety through their dangerous way."
A. Freedom usually exists where a nation is generally characterized by righteousness: Prov. 14:34
B. Therefore, true freedom will cast her soft and hallowed ray when people strive to be free from sin: Jn. 8:32
C. It it not unreasonable to believe that God in some sense or another guided our forefathers’ steps because every good and perfect gift comes from God: Jas. 1:17
IV. Stanza 4 makes the request that the gospel will shed its light throughout the land
"We pray (praise) Thee, let (that) the Gospel’s light Through all our land its radiance shed(s);,
Dispel(s) the shades of error’s night, And heavenly blessings round us spread(s)."
A. Only the gospel can bring true light to any people because it is the power of God to salvation: Rom. 1:16
B. Thus, Christians will pray that God’s word will be a light to our nation’s path: Ps. 119:105
C. In this way,the shades of error’s night will be dispelled by the light of the glorious gospel of Christ: 2 Cor. 4:4-6
V. Stanza 5 concludes with the desire that God would preserve us in His fear
"Great God, preserve us in Thy fear; In danger still our Guardian be.
O spread the truth’s bright precepts here; Let all the people worship Thee."
A. One of the problems that bring God’s wrath down upon both men and nations is that there is no fear of God before their eyes: Rom 1:18, 3:18
B. Thus, God promises to guard only those nations that remember Him: Ps. 9:17
C. So all people should be encouraged to acknowledge and worship God: Ps. 99:9
CONCL.: The differences in a few of the stanzas may be the result of many modern editors’ compulsion to "update" the language of older hymns. Some have questioned whether songs of this nature should be sung in worship services. However, if it is right in our public prayers to thank God for the blessings of our country and ask Him to be with our leaders in making their decisions so that He will bless our land–and it is (1 Tim. 2:1-2), would it not also be all right to express these same sentiments in our hymns? As we pray for our nation, we need to remember that our prayer comes before the "Great God of Nations."