Featured Recording: Our Refuge and Our Strength

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain…

Featured Recording

There’s no doubt about it: “America, the Beautiful” is probably one of the best-loved patriotic songs ever composed.  The grandeur of its poetry, the thrust of its message—it is truly an inspiring hymn for patriots to sing.  Personally, I’ve enjoyed hearing, playing, and singing this song for most of my life.  But recently I began to wonder: does “America, the Beautiful” have anything to say about theology?  To answer this question, I looked a little closer at the text, and in particular, the last stanza:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

The lofty poetry of this stanza might veil its meaning a little.  To simplify, the singer praises a patriotic dream.  It is a dream for the future in which “alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears.”  Which cities are these?  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we can draw no other conclusion than that they refer to America itself!

For my part, I think this line sounds uncomfortably similar to Revelation’s descriptions of the New Jerusalem—“the holy city Jerusalem…having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel” (21:10, 11), and “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (21:4).  How does it strike you?

As a disclaimer, I’m aware of the two-kingdoms debate that has been yanking at our churches for the past few years, and I’m not about to get into its technicalities here.  But regardless of how one views the relationship between the church and the world, I think we would all agree that there is no equivalency between the United States of America and the New Jerusalem.  Truly this nation has been blessed by God in many ways, and it is not improper for us to pray, “God shed His grace on thee”—but how can we affirm that our heavenly home is tied to no earthly country, yet sing a song that flatly contradicts this view?

It’s not been easy, but this evaluation has forced me to take a second look at many of the familiar patriotic songs we sing.  Sadly, I have to conclude that many of them, like “America, the Beautiful,” come up lacking.

Interestingly, this hymn’s glorious tune, MATERNA, precedes the text by 11 years (Katherine Lee Bates wrote the words in 1893 and 1904).  I’m not sure when this text and tune were paired together.  In any case, I certainly wasn’t expecting to find MATERNA in the 1912 Psalter, to the words of Psalm 46.  First I was struck by how perfectly the lyrics and music blended; then I began to examine the connection a little more closely.

Psalm 46 begins with the powerful words, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.”  Already I could hear echoes of the first stanza of “America, the Beautiful”—the purple mountain majesties, the sea and shining sea.

Further on, the psalm makes reference to a city, but a very different city than the ones mentioned in the patriotic song.  This is no ordinary place; it is “the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.”  The psalmist declares, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.”

What comes next in Psalm 46 almost seems like a direct rebuttal of the misguided hopes of “America, the Beautiful.”  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter, but when God utters his voice, the whole earth melts.  To dispel any doubts about the origin of his confidence, the psalmist says, “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  This mighty King “makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.”  Then we hear his mighty declaration to the nations:

Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

Finally, the psalmist repeats his refrain once more: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  What better answer could there be to the words of “America, the Beautiful”?

“Debunking” favorite hymns is an unpleasant and risky practice, and all too often I find my opinions too strong and my wisdom too weak.  Nevertheless, I humbly submit these thoughts to you for your consideration.  Does the mere familiarity or popularity of a hymn justify its use in our churches, regardless of whether its contents are true?  May we ever be careful to match our singing with our doctrine!

Of course, a “Featured Recording” post wouldn’t be complete without a featured recording.  Thus, I simply present to you this beautiful men’s choir arrangement of 1912 Psalter number 126, based on Psalm 46, and sung to this tune: “God Is Our Refuge and Our Strength.”  This glorious psalm setting makes it a little bit easier not to miss singing “America, the Beautiful.”


(Click here for last week’s Featured Recording)

1 Response to “Featured Recording: Our Refuge and Our Strength”

  1. 1 Featured Recording: Holy is He | URC Psalmody Trackback on March 22, 2013 at 7:04 am

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