Fill Thou My Life, O Lord My God

Life’s Praise
Horatius Bonar, 1866
Addressed to God
Fill thou my life, O Lord my God,1 Cor. 10:31; Ps. 119:175
   in ev’ry part with praise,
that my whole being may proclaimPs. 103:1
   thy being and thy ways.
Not for the lip of praise alone,Is. 29:13; 1 John 3:18
   nor e’en the praising heart,
I ask, but for a life made up
   of praise in ev’ry part:
Praise in the common things of life,Col. 3:17, 23
   its goings out and in,Ps. 121:8
praise in each duty and each deed,
   however small and mean.Mark 9:41
Fill ev’ry part of me with praise;
   let all my being speakPs. 138:1
of thee and of thy love, O Lord,Ps. 106:1
   poor though I be, and weak.Ps. 74:21; Mark 12:41–44
So shalt thou, Lord, from me, e’en me,1 Cor. 15:10
   receive the glory due,Ps. 96:8
and so shall I begin on earthPs. 40:3
   the song forever new.Rev. 14:3
So shall no part of day or nightPs. 42:8; Rev. 4:8
   from sacredness be free:
but all my life, in ev’ry step,Gen. 5:24; Mic. 6:8
   be fellowship with thee.1 John 1:3b

The irreligious life is miserable, not only because it lacks eternal security, but also because it lacks any justification for the most prosaic of our everyday tasks. Imagine finding yourself—this unfathomably complex mass of cells, clearly far greater than any of the animal kingdom, able to store and process a whole world of ideas and objects—nevertheless reduced by necessity to cleaning out the grime from round the washbasin. This is the place where the non-believer finds himself regularly. For the believer, the situation is quite different. Many passages in Scripture suggest to us that we may, without any application to metaphor, actually praise God in our cleaning of the washbasin. Our praise in every part of life, however, is not something we can generate on our own. God himself must make our thoughts, words, and deeds into praise. This hymn is a prayer to that end.

The first two stanzas work together to articulate just what the poet means by “in ev’ry part.” The first stanza ends by explaining, as well, what we mean by praise—that our whole being might describe the nature and works of God. We’re not surprised by the first line of the second stanza, in light of the many scriptural passages that forbid mere lip-service to God. We are surprised, however, to learn that merely a heart of worship is not enough. What’s left, when we take away “lip” and “heart” is actually quite a lot of human existence—behavior, body, relationships, possessions, and so forth—that should and must also be praise.

Bonar toys with irony in the third stanza by first focusing on the common behaviors of life that could, by God’s intervention, become praise. God turns “small” and “mean” “duties” and “deeds” into “praise.” The irony is found when we realize that the things which once seemed so small are no longer so when they become the praises of the most high God. Suddenly they are on par with angelic song or the starry heavens.

Stanza 4 may seem like direct repetition of stanza 1, but it repeats ideas there only to set the high honor of praising God in contrast with our own poverty and weakness—an idea that continues into the first half of the fifth stanza. Indeed, not only are we, in our weakness, made able to praise God, but even made able to participate in the praise of God that will continue on in heaven—the “song forever new.”

The poem is generally heard as iambic (lightly-stressed syllable, heavily-stressed syllable, lightly-stressed syllable, heavily-stressed syllable, and so on) but note that the first line of each stanza begins with a trochaic substitution: that is, an initial accented syllable is followed by an unaccented syllable. These first lines start fitfully, like a child eager to make his petition (and willingness to help) known to his parent.

The tune, ST. FLAVIAN, has a surprising beauty in spite of a very narrow range and almost no harmonic tension. Among the commonest of common-meter tunes, it has a number of sparkling moments which make “praise” from the “small” and “mean.” The most brilliant comes at the end of the first half on the word “praise”: we cadence surprisingly on an A-major chord—an odd one in the unrelated key of F major. This serves the dual function of providing a musical departure precisely where the tune needs it, while yet avoiding the predictable cadence, so common in common-meter tunes, on the chord normally used to signify a musical half-way point (here that would be C). The tune never wanders far from its starting place, and a good way to understand its journey is to map out the notes which occur on the downbeat of each measure (F,G,B-flat, A; A, F, G, A). The tune moves from F to A and back again—a fairly small interval. So its simplicity of journey mirrors the simplicity of things we pray will be turned to praise.

Almost every note has the same length, following one another in a simple train of quarter notes. This helps us to inflect naturally lines of verse that break down into smaller phrases of variable length. For example, line 1 of stanza 1 presents us with a comma after four syllables; but if we pause at the same place in line 3, we find ourselves in the middle of a word: “being.” As we sing “being,” we naturally group the notes C and A together in our minds. But the same notes in the last stanza will be sung in a different way: the C will go with the previous note to form “my life,” and the A will go with the following note to form “in every step.” The tune can be sensitively sung both ways. Similarly, the commas in stanza 2, line 3

I ask, but for a life made up

and in stanza 5, line 1

So shalt thou, Lord, from me, e’en me,

which might force a cylinder to misfire in many another tune, can be sung gracefully in ST. FLAVIAN. It can be construed in small gestures, like those in the text. And in such small things is a great deal of our praise.