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The God of Abraham Praise

Music Notes
12 March, 2017

“The God of Abra’m Praise” This hymn is based on the Jewish “Confession of Faith” as developed by the Hebrew theologian Moses Maimonides (1135-1204.) Maimonides served the Muslim rulers of Spain as a physician and theologian. His intellect was well-known, having even been consulted for advice by Richard the Lionhearted. His theological work is as important to the Jews today as Augustine is to Christians today. Later, in the 14th century, Jewish poet Daniel ben Judah set this creed to meter, this form being known as the “Yigdal,” in order to be sung. (As has been done with our Nicene Creed.)
This metrified, sung, Hebrew profession of faith was heard by the Christian Thomas Olivers when he went to a London synagogue in the 1760s. The great cantor Meyer Lyon (or “Leoni”) sung it that day to the same tune we sing it today. Olivers was so moved that he set about to paraphrase the text to be useful in a Christian context. Olivers’ Christianized version is the hymn we sing today.
Olivers, having been born in 1725, was orphaned at age four and shortly thereafter was accepted as an apprentice to a shoemaker. However, Olivers grew up living a “dissolute life,” and was known as the “worst boy around.” One day, while in Bristol, he heard the great evangelical preacher George Whitefield proclaim the Gospel using the text, “Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” Olivers—at least to hear the Baptists tell it—was converted immediately and thereafter devoted his life to preaching the Gospel. John Wesley happened to hear the youth preach one day and was so moved that he asked him to be one of his own evangelists. For the rest of his life, Olivers served as a charismatic and visionary preacher for the Gospel and for the new Wesley-inspired Methodist movement in England. Olivers is buried in the back courtyard of Wesley’s Chapel, City Road, London, where on his large memorial obelisk is engraved the first stanza of “The God of Abra’m Praise.” (This monument’s discreet location makes for a quiet location for tired organists to eat lunch in peace before heading back to the City in search of books.)
We sing this morning many of the original twelve stanzas. Consider the OT imagery: In answer to the question of “Who is this God,” the first stanza answers: the “God of Abraham” (who blessed the patriarch and his descendents), the “Ancient of everlasting days” (an ascription found only in the Book of Daniel), the “God of love” (who rescued His people from Egyptian slavery), and “Jehovah, Great I Am!” (remember God’s name on Mt Sinai). This hymn also has a covenantal aspect as well. We must respond to the greatness of God when we “bow and bless the sacred name,” when we “on His oath depend,” and “sing the wonders of His grace.” We are likewise reminded that the angels sing “holy, holy, holy” to God (Is. 6.3) and that we, too, can join in this unending hymn. The final stanza is a doxology (“hymn of praise”) to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Olivers realized the unfulfilled nature of the Old Testament and, as was the custom when hymnwriters paraphrased OT texts (such as the psalms), included this great doxology to ground us in the Trinity of the Christian faith.

Posted by Benjamin Kolodziej with