Great Is Thy Faithfulness

Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923
Text and tune © 1923. Renewal 1951, Hope Publishing Co.
Addressed to God
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
   there · · · · · · · · · ·James 1:17
thou · · · · · · · · · ·Lam. 3:22 (KJV)
   as · · · · · · · · · ·Heb. 13:8; Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6
Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!Lam. 3:23
   Morning · · · · · · · · · ·
all · · · · · · · · · ·Lam. 3:24; 1 Tim. 6:17
   Great · · · · · · · · · ·Ps. 40:11
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,Gen. 8:22; Acts 14:17
   sun, · · · · · · · · · ·Judg. 5:20; Ps. 19:5; Ps. 104:19
join · · · · · · · · · ·Rom 1:20
   to · · · · · · · · · ·Ex. 34:6
Great is thy faithfulness! etc.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,1 John 1:9; Ps. 72:7
   thine · · · · · · · · · ·Mark 13:11; Acts 13:52, 2 Tim.1:14
strength · · · · · · · · · ·Ps. 59:16; Zech. 9:12; Heb. 6:18
   blessings · · · · · · · · · ·
Great is thy faithfulness! etc.

We all know of marriages that fail after twenty years of seeming felicity. Faithfulness, it seems, cannot be gauged merely by past performance. Yet, we know far fewer marriages that end badly after forty years of commitment. A company with ten years of increased stock value may or may not be a safe investment, but the company whose stock has continually grown for the past fifty years certainly is. So, while we cannot speak of mortal faithfulness with certainty based merely on past performance, we know that the longer the past the greater the certainty. When speaking of divine faithfulness, the past is infinitely long. And there we have other means of demonstrating security too. Thomas Chisholm explores all of these means in the hymn printed above.

Using a refrain in a hymn on faithfulness is a stroke of formal wisdom—that which comes back again and again is always considered faithful. Here, the refrain is a paraphrase from Lamentations, following Chisholm’s King James Bible. But the refrain’s third line seems to draw more broadly on the scriptural idea of God’s continual provision. And the first-person ending of the refrain is particularly important, for God may be faithful to the Earth (as we learn in the second stanza) and faithful to his people in general, but he is also faithful to each of his children as individuals.

The subjects of the three stanzas may seem haphazard to the casual reader. The first seems only a slight modification of the refrain. The second, a dactylic list of natural objects and events, may seem out of place in a hymn on God’s faithfulness to his people. And the third stanza, which dwells more on personal experience than outer proof of God’s faithfulness may carelessly be judged as a piece of pietistic ephemera.

But the first stanza is not quite the refrain. It quotes directly from James and thereby makes clearer the material of the passage in Lamentations. More importantly, however, it makes an appeal to God’s character. What if the husband and wife had it knit in the very material of their being to be faithful to one another? What if the business were protected by an infinite supply of resources and never-failing investment savvy? Then, no matter how long or short the period of past performance, we could trust both the marriage and the business to last forever. Chisholm appeals first, before we even meet the refrain, to God’s character rather than to his past performance. When we hear about it in the refrain (“all I have needed thy hand hath provided”) we are more impressed by it because invariability plus past faithfulness equals future faithfulness.

The second stanza is not merely a set of natural objects and events. They are all directly related to the regular pattern of time as it appears on our globe. We may have missed this in first reading because so few of us now think about the sun, moon and stars as chronological devices. But Chisholm’s “courses above” make it clear that he is thinking in these terms. Indeed, all nature behaves with clockwork regularity that testifies to God’s faithfulness. He holds all nature in a basically predictable pattern to teach us about his own predictability.

After demonstrating that God’s character is changeless, and that we can apprehend his changelessness in the behaviour of nature, Chisholm turns predictably to the “me” of the refrain’s last line. Stanza 3 catalogs God’s faithfulness to the individual believer.

The poem’s natural rhythm is easily overlooked because of the tune’s steady triple meter, which tends to impose its own accentuation on the poem, but a quick scan of phrases like “O God my father,” “there is no shadow,” and “to thy great faithfulness” will show the poem’s rhythmic variability. In other phrases, when the subject demands it, the poem falls back into steady rhythm. Consider the first three lines of the second stanza (about the invariability of nature) or the first line of the third (about God’s pardon and peace).

The tune FAITHFULNESS was written for this text at Chisholm’s request and is part of what makes the hymn so beloved. The refrain with its heightened repetition, accented final phrase, and prominent fermata usually generates good singing even from more sluggish congregations. The rhythm of the first two measures appears regularly throughout the stanza and is then modified in the first two measures of the refrain, becoming more animated as dotted quarter gives way to dotted eighth. The rhythm itself is faithful, coming back in its original form at the climax of the refrain.