The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

In Judaism, just as in Christianity, there are commentaries on the texts of Scripture; the Judaic commentaries are called, in Aramaic, Aggadah (אַגָּדָה), or Targumin in Hebrew (תרגום‎). One of these Targumin is that on Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. Now that, for the past six weeks, we have been in the ‘Sing in the Spring’ Evensong series, it seems appropriate to quote from this Targum on the subject of the role of Song:

In the Scriptural sense, שירה, song, represents the concept that people understand the harmony of creation. Nature is always ‘singing’, because, from the tiniest microorganism to the mightiest galaxy, everything acts and interacts as God intended it to. This is song. It is the most awesome symphony conceivable, because it consists of an infinite number of players uniting in playing the Divine score. But man seldom sees this harmony. He is troubled by questions of faith, resentment over his neighbour’s success, and failure to see how events lead toward coherent fulfilment of a Divine scheme. When – on those very rare occasions – people perceive God’s plan taking shape, they sing. This is why Moses and the Children of Israel sang after the Splitting of the Sea. In a lightning flash of perception, they achieved an understanding of centuries of events. This understanding of creation’s harmony found flesh and blood expression in the harmony of song.

The Targum goes on with another reference in addition to the Splitting of the Sea – this time with a reference to the Song of Hannah from 1 Samuel – a song that grew out of travail through blessing and into praise:

Hannah’s song … is a demonstration of a human being’s inspired perception of the sublime.

We have already sung two hymns this evening; I will comment on those a bit later. But in a moment we will be singing a hymn that is the keystone of my sermon tonight. “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” is that hymn. This beautiful hymn has long been a favourite of mine; indeed my mother, Jean, and I chose it to be sung at the funeral of my late father, Maurice, in 2006.

Written by John Greenleaf Whittier [1803-1897] as part of a longer poem ‘The Brewing of Soma’, it was first incorporated into a hymnal in 1884. In a sense that was ironic, for Whittier was a Quaker and silence has been the predominant element of Quaker worship. Indeed, there was an aversion in some Quaker circles to music of any sort and organs in particular. In the 1956 movie “Friendly Persuasion”, Gary Cooper, playing a Quaker farmer, breaks from this Quaker aversion and buys an organ which he then proceeds to hide in his attic. The movie then has a scene where some Quaker elders come to visit his home and he is alarmed when one of his children begins to play the hidden organ. Alarm on his part turned to relief when the elders believed that the sounds they had heard during the session of silent prayer were ethereal, not real, being the strains of music from heaven.

Whittier’s complete poem “The Brewing of Soma” has been described as a polemic against cheap emotionalism or sensuality in worship. The first six stanzas of the poem treat with ancient Vedic practices of imbibing soma, a drink with some hallucinogenic properties. Whittier used this practice as a metaphor of what can be wrong in worship and his poem moves on from this descriptive phase to an instructive one in the final verses that became the hymn.

The first stanza of the hymn warns of the “foolish ways” that can be adopted in worship and sets out the premise of his writing:

Re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence praise.

And in the following verses we hear the power of silence: ‘O calm of hills’, ‘the silence of eternity’, ‘let us … without a word’, ‘still dews of quietness’, ‘let sense be dumb’ leading, after the drama of earthquake, wind and fire, to the seeming anticlimactic climax:

O still small voice of calm.

The thought has occurred to me as to whether Whittier would have been upset that his call for such stillness in his poem should end up in a lustily sung hymn. That would indeed be deeply ironic. But it appears not; for Whittier, who had a number of his poems turned into hymns, would write:

I am really not a hymn-writer, for the good reason that I know nothing of music … a good hymn is the best use to which poetry can be devoted, but I do not claim that I have succeeded in composing one.

A modest affirmation of the virtue of hymn singing – high praise indeed from a quietist Quaker.

The ‘still small voice of calm’ with which the hymn ends evokes 1 Kings 19: 11-13:

‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’

Whittier uses the power of these verses to draw into focus the noisy busyness of our lives – ‘our foolish ways’, ‘our strivings’, ‘the strain and the stress’, ‘the heats of our desire’- and lay these human storms and earthquakes that we make of our lives, before the altar of ‘the silence of eternity interpreted by love’.

Is this antithetical to religious singing? Surely not, but it surely can be. Douglas Bond, a Presbyterian author, has written:

This is pretty much at the heart of my frustration with the majority of contemporary Christian music: it’s … mind-numbingly shallow … much of what passes for “Christian” music these days is astoundingly pathetic. Gone are the theologically meaty hymns which our forefathers (sic) sang. People have moved onto lighter fare.

I believe this echoes with the call of Whittier in both his longer poem and the hymn derived from it – a call to move from cheap sensationalism – the ‘foolish ways’- to:

Let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.


The second hymn I selected for tonight – “Let all mortal flesh keep silence”- is of very ancient provenance. It originated as a chant back in 275CE, appearing in the Divine Liturgy of St James. It is based upon Habakkuk 2:20:

Let all the earth keep silence before Him.

The version in our hymnal is a harmonisation of the original chant and was done by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Even in this harmonisation, the almost hypnotic power of the original chanting seems to come through beckoning us away from the ‘earthly-minded’ so that ‘the darkness clears away’, so that we may become an earthly choir ascendant:

As with ceaseless voice (we) cry, Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Lord most high.

Finally, in this reverse order with which I have commented on the hymns tonight, let me turn to our first hymn we sang this evening. It was not my original choice. I had hoped for “It is well with my soul” written by Horatio Spafford in 1876. But it doesn’t appear in our hymnal; so in place of it, we have sung “Ye holy angels bright” by John Darwall (1731-1789). First performed in 1773, it was based upon a 1681 poem by Richard Baxter. It has much about it that resonates with the theme of “It is well with my soul” for it echoes 1 Thessalonians 5:18:

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus

Darwall’s hymn has similar sentiments:

Take what he gives and praise him still through good and ill


Let all thy days till life shall end, whateér he send, be filled with praise.

Horatio Spafford wrote “It is well with my soul” after an appalling set of tragedies that befell him. Financially ruined by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he intended to travel with his family to Europe but was prevented at the last moment in accompanying his wife and four daughters on the Ville de Havre. The ship collided at sea with the Loch Earn with a great loss of life, including all four of their daughters. They would go on to have three more children but one of those, their four year old son, died from scarlet fever.

The penultimate verse of that hymn goes thus:

But Lord, ’tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait, The sky, not the grave, is our goal; Oh, trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul

Which parallels these words that we actually sang tonight in our first hymn:

Ye blessed souls at rest,

Who ran this earthly race,

And now, from sin released,

Behold the Saviour’s face.


Looked at from an entirely worldly perspective, it is hard to imagine how such travails as befell the Staffords could ever be meaningfully coped with. Any song in response can only be a threnody – a wailing ode. There can surely be no thanksgiving or praise, if there is no belief in God. Yet “Ye holy angels bright”, just like “It is well with my soul” is no wailing ode, it is not fatalistic; indeed it is often called an Oremus – ‘let us pray’ – for it is a reaching out from travail for the hand of God to touch us and reassure us of His divine plan through love.

In a moment the choir will sing the anthem ‘Give us the wings of faith’. Thank you, Leonie and the choir, for choosing such an apt anthem for tonight, for it will be so completely on the theme of the hymns tonight when you sing:

Give us the wings of faith to rise,

Within the veil, and see

The saints above, how great their joys,

How bright their glories be.


Whittier decried cheap emotionalism and sensationalism in worship – music that rakes the maudlin may leave us misty eyed. But there is that music and song that seeks to transcend above the very playing and singing of it, beyond our very mortal selves, and aspires to encounter God Himself; and finding Him in a sacred place of ethereal tranquillity – the ‘still small voice of calm.’

I started with a quote from the Targum, let me repeat one portion from that quote:

But man seldom sees this harmony. He is troubled by questions of faith, resentment over his neighbour’s success, and failure to see how events lead toward fulfilment of a Divine scheme. When – on those very rare occasions – people perceive God’s plan taking shape, they sing.

Apart from being the final in the Evensong series ‘Sing in the Spring’, tonight is also the Evensong for the Archangel Michael and all the Angels, and so it is appropriate that I finish with the Sentence from our Prayer Book for this special Evensong:

And all the angels sang, ‘Amen’. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever and ever. Amen