by Catherine Miller
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; there is no shadow of turning with thee;
thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; as thou hast been thou forever wilt be.
The author of the hymn text “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960), became a Christian in his mid-20s at a revival meeting. He worked at newspapers until he formally entered ministry, eventually becoming an ordained Methodist minister. Not long after his ordination, his health began to fail, and after moving around he eventually opened up an insurance office. He started writing poetry in 1923, the same year this poem was written. As a writer, he is described as wanting to “incorporate as much scripture as possible” and to “avoid flippant or sentimental themes.” Throughout his life, he wrote over 1200 poems.
The author of the hymn tune FAITHFULNESS, William M. Runyan, was a composer, church organist, and Methodist minister. Serving as a traveling preacher before microphones were invented took a toll on his voice and eventually he lost the ability to speak altogether. As he aged he also began to go deaf. Thankfully, even with his limited hearing he was able to work as a music editor. He worked on a hymnal project and put out advertisements that he was looking to purchase new song lyrics. Chisolm sent Runyan a stack of lyrics and Runyan selected one from the bunch. Until last year, Great Is Thy Faithfulness was still under copyright with Hope Publishing Company; it is now in the public domain.
“The Faithfulness Song,” as Runyan and Chisolm referred to it in their personal correspondence, became popularized through The Great Depression. At the height of the Great Depression in 1934, Dr. Will Houghton, president of Moody Bible Institute, learned of the song and requested it be sung during chapel, believing that the lyrics spoke to the difficulties Americans were facing at the time. Dr. Houghton hired George Beverly Shea to sing for WMBI, Moody’s radio program, and asked Shea to feature Great Is Thy Faithfulness on the program. Shea’s repeated performances of the song made it a favorite among WMBI listeners – including Billy Graham. Graham invited Shea to travel with him in his crusades, and through their ministry the song became known around the world.
The chorus is a triumphant proclamation of the goodness of God:
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!
The chorus above is a rephrasing of Lamentations 3:22-23:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
We don’t know exactly who wrote Lamentations. Jewish tradition holds that it was the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote laments for King Josiah of Israel. We do know that it was written after the destruction of the Jewish temple in 587 B.C. The Babylonians invaded Israel, destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and took the people captive.
The situation the Israelites now found themselves in as captives in Israel was quite grim. They were a wealthy nation and were now in the position of being slaves. They were starving and their center of religious life was destroyed. Starvation became such a trial that some mothers ate their offspring (v. 2:20, 4:10).
And yet, the hope of God breaks through in v. 3:26:
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”
Throughout Lamentations, we see descriptions of the calamities that befell Israel.
The rich are now poor.
5 Those who once feasted on delicacies perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple embrace ash heaps.
The people are depressed.
17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
The children are hungry.
4 The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food, but no one gives to them.
Throughout our world right now, we are seeing devastation of crops (the locusts in Africa), people losing their livelihoods because their businesses are closed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and families with children are struggling to adapt to working while homeschooling as the schools have closed, many for an indeterminate amount of time.
It would be understandable to succumb to depression. Like the Israelites, we are cut off from what was familiar. While our churches aren’t destroyed, they are empty; many of us are cut off from friends and family; some of us may even be completely alone. We may be struggling financially and emotionally with the cascading effects that closing schools and businesses has brought. Mounting restrictions from government entities and recommendations from health organizations are locking us into smaller spaces to travel.
7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has made my chains heavy;
But the writer of Lamentations continues with his message of hope in vs. 25-26:
25 The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
All around us there are stories of hope. In Italy, where at the time of this writing there are now 22,170 deaths attributed to COVID-19 and many people are restricted to apartments where the only outside time they get is on their balconies, people are taking to those balconies to sing songs of praise to God with their neighbors. In Tallahassee, we wrote out chalk messages of hope on our sidewalks and driveways. Poets are including their work with take out orders. Thomasville businesses are adapting to the needs of the community and making masks to help protect healthcare workers and other vulnerable populations.
Great is thy faithfulness.
In the midst of a worldwide pandemic, we can have hope in Jesus Christ.
“For God so loved he world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
If you are struggling with depression in this time of increasing isolation, take a walk outside if you can. Watch a nature video on DisneyPlus. Marvel at the complexity of God’s creation.
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
join with all nature in manifold witness to thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
Christ is alive and he wants to know you, my friend. He wants to offer you peace and forgiveness in this time of calamity. Because if you are a Christian, you are never truly alone – the Holy Spirit is your comforter in times of distress.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
Jesus is here—he is here and he is with you and he loves you! Christians, do not despair—the Lord is here, and his faithfulness to us indeed is great.