Thy Strong Word Although this hymn has become somewhat of a favorite in many Lutheran churches, it is of relatively recent origin, the text having been composed by Martin Franzmann in 1954 for Concordia Seminary in St Louis, MO.
Franzmann, a lifelong member of the LCMS, taught exegetical theology at several institutions in the US before his ordination in 1969. He subsequently moved to Cambridge, England, where he served as a professor in a theological college. He died in 1976 at the age of 69.
This hymn text reminds us again of God’s commands to us and of the supremacy of His Word. This hymn reminds us of God the Father’s omnipotence: God’s word “did cleave the darkness” and spoke Creation into being! Both “light” and the “ordered seasons” are part of God’s domain of which this text reminds us. Franzmann’s second stanza laments those who “dwelt in darkness, dark as night and deep as death,” a darkness through which “broke the light of Thy salvation, breathed Thine own life-breathing breath.” Here Franzmann captures the stark reality of sin and death as well as life and salvation in a manner reminiscent of Luther, for whom the light and dark dichotomy was always suggestive of the great battle between Christ, “the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected” and the nefarious “world’s prince,” a metaphor for the reality of Satan. Today’s gospel reading illustrates the theological reality of such an image when Jesus says in Matthew 5:
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Salt was a valuable commodity in the ancient world, with wages occasionally being paid in salt instead of currency (ie., the word “salary” is derived from “salt.”) It was valuable as a preservative, for taste, and even for pickling. (In Elizabethan times, a dinner guest of social importance was placed closer to the salt shaker [cellar] than one of lesser importance, who was not “worth his salt.”) Without salt, the world would grind to a halt, just as it would without Christians whose spiritual life is enlightened through Word and Sacrament. It is Christ’s light which informs our lives as Christians as we meet together to worship, to hear and to study His Word, and to receive the sacrament. We don’t become metaphorically saltier and more enlightened by sitting at home Sunday mornings watching television preachers nor by making up excuses why not to participate in the life of our congregation. The fourth stanza points us to a Christological foundation: “From the cross Thy wisdom shineth breaketh forth in conquering might; from the cross forever beameth all Thy bright redeeming light,” paraphrasing Paul who writes in I Cor. 18 that “. . . the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
This famous tune, known in Welsh as “Ton-Y-Botel,” literally means “tune in a bottle,” for it was said that a bottle washing up on the Welsh coast in the 19th-century contained this unexplained and tuneful melody. Perhaps that explains why Wales has produced so many lovely tunes over the years. . .