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Reflection: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

Kentucky hymnwriter Thomas O. Chisholm (1866-1960), author of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”

This past January at the Calvin Symposium on Christian Worship we sang the hymn “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”  at multiple services. This unplanned coincidence promoted me to reflect more deeply on the words of this song. I invite you to reflect on the chorus:

Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!

Thomas O. Chisholm (1923)

Even though I really like studying hymns, I never paid close attention to “Great is Thy Faithfulness”  before the conference. It was just another hymn used for the assurance of pardon (meant to comfort the congregation after a prayer confession). But after singing these words dozens of times I was uplifted by an international community of faith finding hope in God’s mercy and faithfulness.

The striking thing about these words is that they come from the Old Testament book of Lamentations, which contains five poems reflecting on the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire in 586 BCE and is traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah. In this time of uncertainty and suffering around the world, we might resonate with some of the poet’s words: “though I cry for help, [God] shut out my prayer” (Lam 3:8) or “gone is my glory, and all that I hope for from the Lord.” (Lam 3:18).  

When all is lost, trusting in God is hard. Many of the Biblical authors affirm that part of the human experience is questioning if God is truly present at all (see Psalm 10). But in the midst of suffering and destruction, the lamenting poet proclaims:

 Remember my affliction and my wanderings,
    the wormwood and the gall!
My soul continually remembers it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:19-24

These are some of the only hopeful words in the book of Lamentations. My Lutheran study Bible offers this reflection:

To us, lament often sounds like despair, the opposite of faith. Yet, … it is precisely in these places where we would least expect to find God, in suffering, pain, disaster, catastrophe—and in the cross—that God is clearly present. Lamentations, then does more than simply express despair. It shows is that in the most difficult times and places, God is present and hears our desperate cries for help.

Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress)

If you have a challenging time trusting in God’s faithfulness, you are not alone. While we loudly proclaim “great is thy faithfulness!” in our worship, lament and anger also frame the Biblical witness. In this time of uncertainty, please lament, but also rest in the assurance that God’s mercies are new every morning.

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