STLT#283, The Spacious Firmament on High

Occasionally, I will remark on Facebook that I have nothing interesting to say, and at least thrice, it’s happened on the same day in August (the 7th), and my friend and colleague Tim Atkins actually meme’d it for me.

But I also recognize that there is more than one Nothing Interesting To Say Day, because today is most certainly one of them.

You see, I could go on and on about the very Enlightenment lyrics, or wondering why we’d have a bastardized version of Josef Haydn’s “The Heavens Are Telling” (from his oratorio The Creation), or grousing about how strangely the lyrics scan with the melody.

But the truth is, I don’t find any of that very interesting, and I’m not sure you would either. None of it feels original or insightful. I am offering no depth of theological thought or brilliant musical analysis. It’s a hymn. Based on a Psalm. Adapted from a chorus that adapted the Psalm a lot better.

The one thing I can say is that its lyrics are very accessible to modern Unitarian Universalists:

The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky,
and spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day does its Creator’s power display;
and publishes to every land the work of an almighty hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail, the moon takes up the wondrous tale,
and nightly to the listening earth repeats the story of its birth;
whilst all the stars that round it burn, and all the planets in their turn,
confirm the tidings, as they roll and spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound amid their radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice;
forever singing as they shine, “The hand that made us is divine.”

With the exception of replacing “her” with “its” to talk about the moon, the lyrics are as written by 17th century English politician, poet, and hymn writer Joseph Addison. The lyric is based on Psalm 19:1-6:

To the leader. A Psalm of David.
1 The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament* proclaims his handiwork.
2 Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
3 There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
4 yet their voice* goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

In the heavens* he has set a tent for the sun,
5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and nothing is hidden from its heat.

Which, of course, is the basis of Haydn’s piece as well.

I know this is, at its heart, a spiritual practice for me. And while I enjoyed listening to the Haydn – a piece I sang with a chorale in Key West – nothing about this moved me one way or the other. Who knows – another day, I might feel inspired. Another day, I might dig into some process theology. Another day, I might feel strongly about the classical connections. But today, it was just a task.

Today, I have nothing interesting to say.

1 Comment

  1. I, on the contrary, have plenty to say. I grew up with this hymn in an earlier form (#33 in Hymns of the Spirit, the red hymnal) and it was absolutely my favorite hymn from a young age. Imagine how thrilled I was in adulthood to be part of a chorale that sang Haydn’s “Creation” and to recognize this tune in a fancier version. I loved the correlation between astronomy and theology, loved the organ booming it out, loved the whole experience of singing something so grand! It’s still one of my favorites.

    And one other tiny thing. Just as the Hymnal Commission changed the gender of the moon, they also changed the gender of the sun to “its.” I still love it.


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