Then Sings My Soul: How Great Thou Art

When humans first learned to sing, they expressed in music everything that meant something to them in life. People sang about family and friends. They sang when marching off to work or to war. And the greatest thing mankind had to sing about was God. As they sang, the Creator of cosmos listened with pleasure.

It didn’t take long though for people to start arguing about which songs to sing, how loud to sing them, whether or not they should be accompanied and what instruments should be used! There’s often been this divide between those who crave contemporary worship music and those who long for the sturdy old hymns of the past.

Have you wondered about the difference between the two?

I heard about an old farmer who went to the city one weekend and attended the big city church with his nephew. He came home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the farmer, “it was good. They did something different, however. They sang praise choruses instead of hymns.”

“Praise choruses?” said his wife. “What are those?”

The farmer said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you: “Martha, the cows are in the corn,” well, that would be a hymn. If on the other hand, I were to say to you: “Martha, Martha, Oh Martha, MARTHA, MARTHA, the cows, the big cows, the brown cows, the black and white cows, the COWS, COWS, COWS are in the corn.’ Then, if I were to repeat the whole thing two or three times, well, that would be a praise chorus.”

The next weekend, his nephew, a young, new Christian from the city came to visit and attended the local church of the small town. He went home and his wife asked him how it was. “Well,” said the young man, “it was good. They did something different however. They sang hymns instead of regular songs.”

“Well, what’s the difference?” asked his wife.

The young man said, “Well, it’s like this – If I were to say to you: ‘Martha, the cows are in the corn,’ well, that would be a regular song. If on the other hand, I were to say to you: ‘Oh Martha, dear Martha, hear thou my cry, Inclinest thine ear to my words by and by; For the way of the animals who can explain, Hearkenest they in God’s sun or His rain. There in their heads is no shadow of sense, but from the mild, tempting corn they are fenced. Yea those cows in glad bovine delight have broke free their shackles, their warm pens eschewed; Then goaded by minions of darkness and night all my sweet corn they have chewed.’ Then if I were to do only verses one, three and four and do a key change on the last verse, well that would be a hymn!”

A couple of weeks ago, we started reacquainting ourselves some of the wonderful hymns that have shaped and colored our worship of God over the centuries. Two weeks ago we sang Amazing Grace and discovered the story behind it. Last week we did the same with When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. And this week, I’d like to share both the melody and message behind How Great Thou Art.

Carl Boberg was a young minister in Sweden when he first wrote the words to this song. It was published in a collection of poem in 1885 and all but forgotten. Then one day, several years later, Boberg was visiting a neighboring church during a revival meeting and couldn’t believe his ears when he heard his poem being sung to the tune of an old Swedish melody. An English missionary, Stuart Hine, also heard the hymn and was so moved that he modified and expanded the hymn, translating it into English.

Hine said that every line of the song as we know it today was inspired by Russia’s rugged Carpathian mountains.  It was there that he looked up into the clear night sky in awesome wonder. It was there he heard the birds sing near the Romanian border and it was there that he witnessed many of the local mountain-dwellers coming to Christ.

This hymn is all about the greatness of God. And the first place we see God’s greatness revealed in this hymn is the stars.




As a missionary living along the majestic Carpathian mountains, Stuart Hine beheld a field of stars sparkling against a black velvety sky, and wrote these words:

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder,
consider all the worlds Thy hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy pow’r throughout the universe displayed.


For me, nothing displays God power and glory quite like the universe around us. Have you ever stood outside on a clear evening like Stuart Hine and gazed up in awesome wonder at the stars up above? The Bible says, “He counts the stars and calls them all by name. How great is our Lord! His power is absolute! His understanding is beyond comprehension!” (Psalm 147:5 NLT). He counts the stars and knows them by name. Have you ever tried counting the stars? Three hundred years ago astronomers believed there were just over a thousand stars in the universe, today we know that there are over 300,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy alone, which is just one of billions more galaxies stretched across the cosmos. Yet God knows each one and calls them by name. I want to show you something that might help highlight God’s greatest.

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This is just a little journey through our galaxy. You’re familiar with our moon and some of the other planets orbiting around our Sun. You’ll see very quickly that we’re not that big a deal even in our own solar system, but as earth comes by you have to know that we are living on a privileged planet—any astronomy would tell you that we live in one of (if not, the) most special planet in all of creation. But as Neptune comes by, then Saturn and Jupiter, you realize that we’re not all that big, even in our own neighborhood. And there’s our Sun giving us warmth and light from 93 million miles away. But here’s another star—Sirius. Sirius is not the biggest star, but it is the brightest star ever discovered. Next is Pollux. Arcturus. Aldebaran. Then one of the most beautiful stars in heaven, Rigel. Pistol. Antares. Mu Cephei. And finally, the largest star ever discovered, Canis Majoris. Now, that teeny tiny dot you see—that’s the earth and somewhere you’re on it. You could fit 7 quadrillion earths inside Canis Majoris. The truth is, you couldn’t come up here with a sharpie and make a dot on the screen small enough to approximate the size of our planet. If there are star this mind-bogglingly massive and powerful, imagine how big and powerful our God is.

And all this takes on new meaning when we read Psalm 33: “The heavens were made by the word of the Lord and all the stars by the breath of his mouth” (Psalm 33:6 NLT). In other words, God didn’t lift a finger when creating these stars; rather he simply breathes them into existence! Just a glance into the universe that God has made ought to remind us this morning that we are worshipping an unrivaled, uncontested God of infinite might and power and glory and awe! There is no one like him! We don’t worship a teeny tiny God; rather, you and I are teeny tiny ones on this spec of a planet in this massive universe that God has made! But it doesn’t end there.




This great hymn goes on to describe how God’s greatness can be seen much closer to home—in the scenery all around us. In the second verse, Stuart Hine writes:

When through the woods and forest glades I wander,

And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze.

Hine identifies the scenic beauty of the forest glades and majestic mountaintops as a reminder of how great God is. I think there are several sportsmen or outdoorsmen here who can relate to this verse. Some call it Mother Nature, some the great outdoors, and others God’s country. Regardless of what you call it, though, if you spend much time outside, you’ll quickly notice that the fingerprint of God is unmistakably on creation.

Whether you’re seated on a deer stand at dawn, cutting across a smooth lake for a day of fishing, or watching a mountainside for an elusive elk, you’re faced with the realization that there is no way any of this could have happened by accident. Behind it all, there had to be someone who put it together.

The Bible says, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you. Ask the birds, and they will tell you. Or speak with the earth, and it will teach you. Even the fish will relate the story to you. What creature doesn’t know that the Lord’s hands made it? The life of every living creature and the spirit in every human body are in his hands” (Job 12:7-10 GWT).

Campers, fishermen, hikers, hunters, spelunkers, bicyclers, boaters, rock climbers, and stargazers have all seen it and experienced it. The outdoors grabs our attention. As we stand in the majesty of creation, we’re reminded that there are more important things in life than busy schedules or that last deadline!

Dale and Nancy recently took a trip to Niagara Falls. And while they were there, Dale texted Ashley and I picture of their view of the falls, to which Ashley replied, “It’s hard to believe how anyone can see such a sight and not believe in God.” Straddling the US-Canadian border, Niagara Falls is actually composed of three falls: American, Bridal and Horseshoe. They converge and crest over a 170-foot dolomite and shale cliff where a staggering 3,160 tons of water plummet over the falls every second to the raging river below. Niagara Falls draws around 12 million visitors per year, who stand in awe of the beauty and grandeur of God’s creation. And I wonder how many of them stop to realize there is a message here.

The Bible says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Romans 1:20 NIV). In other words, those things that seem so invisible about God when we’re trapped in our routines, busily running here and there, can be clearly seen in creation. The message of Niagara Falls and the rest of creation is clear: God is real! And God is great!




In the final verse of How Great Thou Art, Stuart Hine, reminds us that God’s greatness is revealed not only in the stars or in the scenic beauty of our world, but one day it will be revealed in the Second Coming of our Savior. He writes:

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation

And take me home- what joy shall fill my heart!

Then I shall bow in humble adoration

And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!

The Second Coming—the return of Jesus—will be the greatest moment in Christian history. The Bible describes it this way:

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 NLT).

You and I can only imagine what that day will be like. Will there really be choirs of angels with trumpets? Will He really come riding on a cloud? What about all those prophetic phrases—the mark of the beast, the Antichrist, and the battle of Armageddon? One thing is for sure—when Christ comes, He’ll be coming for us. Jesus put it this way: “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me” (John 14:3 NLT).

The promise of Christ reminds me of George Tulloch. In 1996 he led an expedition to the spot where the Titanic sank in 1912. He and his crew recovered numerous artifacts, everything from eyeglasses to jewelry to dishware. In his search, Tulloch realized that a large piece of the hull had broken from the ship and was resting not far from the vessel. Tulloch immediately saw the opportunity at hand. Here was a chance to rescue part of the ship itself.

The team set out to raise the twenty-ton piece of iron and place it onto the boat. They were successful in lifting it to the surface, but a storm blew in and the ropes broke and the Atlantic reclaimed her treasure. Tulloch was forced to retreat and regroup. But before he left, he did something curious. He descended into the deep and, with the robotic arm of his submarine, attached a strip of metal to a section of the hull. On the metal he’d written these words, “I will come back, George Tulloch.”

At first glance, his actions seem silly. I mean, it’s not like he has to worry about a lot of people stealing his piece of iron. For one thing, it’s two and one-half miles below the surface of the Atlantic. For another, well, it’s a piece of junk. We wonder why anyone would be so attracted to it.

Of course one might say the same about you and me. Why would God go to such efforts to reclaim us? What good are we to him? He must have his reasons because two thousand years ago, he entered the murky waters of our world in search of his children. And on all who will allow him to do so, he lays his claim and tags his name. “I will come back,” he says.

George Tulloch did. Two years later he returned and rescued his piece of iron. Jesus will too. We don’t know when he will come for us. We don’t know exactly how he will come for us. But we know that he will. And when he does our souls will sing, “How great thou art! How great thou art!”




Few hymns capture the scope and splendor of God’s greatness like How Great Thou Art. From the stars stretched across the universe to the sweetly singing birds and gentle mountain breezes to great and glorious day of our Savior’s Second coming—How Great Thou Art transcribes the greatness of God in poetic prose. Next week we’ll continue this series as we explore another great hymn of the church.




In the meantime, as we stand to sing this hymn, I want to invite you to stand in awesome wonder and let your soul sing out as you consider how great our God really is.

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