Sovereign of each unfolding hour

*** Facing up to inconvenient and unpalatable truths provides the background for this hymn. If Jeremiah featured in the Christian Calendar of Saints, this hymn could be sung on his feast-day.


Sovereign of each unfolding hour.midi


A fully-formed hymn, it is often argued, stands on it own, without depending for its meaning on any other object or event. Or, if it is dependent on another source, then that source should not dominate the hymn; the hymn should speak for itself. On that basis, it may be thought that this hymn does not qualify to be called a hymn, for it is heavily dependent on a not well-known story-source.

The source is Jeremiah; in particular, the occasion when he publicly contradicted an establishment prophet, Hananiah. The Lord God had commanded Jeremiah to make a yoke for his neck and, thus burdened, to tell the kings of Judah and its neighbours that they should for three generations submit to the yoke of the king of Babylon. Any nation that would not submit would be destroyed, but any that did submit would be permitted to stay safely in their land. Hananiah’s reaction to all this was to claim that God had effectively cancelled Jeremiah’s prophecy: within two years the Babylonian menace would be ended[1]. To this Jeremiah replied that the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet[2].

Jeremiah was, therefore, embroiled in a very public row. At one level the issue was how to interpret the political and military threat posed to the region by Babylonian aggression. More important was the question of seeking and speaking the truth about the situation. Jeremiah represented God’s displeasure when government speakers spin events so as to obscure or distort the truth. And he did so from a position of extreme vulnerability: his views would appear to be so eccentric that he did not hold back from appearing as one whom present-day society would consider unfit to be listened to. Rather than compete with Hananiah as to which of them had the more authentic word from the Lord, Jeremiah allowed his speech to stand on it own (significantly, in this story we do not hear that Jeremiah speaks ‘the word of the Lord’), to be received or ignored as the listeners might choose.

The first thing to say about the hymn is that it is written from this position of acceptance. The tone of its lyric and its music is peaceful, conspicuously un-aggressive. The first three stanzas are in the indicative mood, describing life as we see it. The prayers of the last stanzas are offered against the background of things as they are. They ask nothing more than that we should go on truthfully, faithfully, humbly, and hospitably. The hymn is addressed to the “Sovereign of each unfolding hour”; worshippers thus align themselves with the (humanly speaking) slow pace of God’s emerging purposes. The hymn thus contrasts starkly with the impatient demands of the hymn ‘You break the bar, the yoke, the rod’, where worshippers, conscious of the need for divine help in the fight against oppression, pray the ‘Lord (to) show yourself today!’

This hymn is simply an offering of appreciation for Jeremiah’s life and ministry. To an extent, the point of the hymn is precisely to fix Jeremiah within the consciousness of Christian worshippers as one worthy to be imitated: ‘Here we acclaim brave Jeremiah, who bore your yoke, and set his fire against cheap peace that all desire.’

This hymn being derived from Hebrew scripture, its ‘Christian-ness’ is presented in courteous sotto voce. In verse one the Holy Trinity is addressed, each person in each succeeding line. Active terms are used, so that God is seen to be as God does. Metaphors from enduring nature – of seeding, unfolding, flowering, fruiting – testify to power greater than the power of armies or propagandists. The hymn is thus offered as a resource both for training in holy mindfulness, and as a tool for resisting tyrannies, both secular and spiritual.

[1] Jeremiah 27-28.4

[2] 28.9


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