O Word of God Incarnate

William Walsham How, 1867
Addressed to Christ
O Word of God incarnate,John 1:14; Rev. 19:13
   O Wisdom from on high,Is. 11:2-3; 1 Cor. 1:24, 30
O Truth unchanged, unchanging,John 14:6; Heb. 1:12; 13:8
   O Light of our dark sky;John 1:5
we praise thee for the radiancePs. 19:8b; 119:130
   that from the hallowed page,Rom. 1:2
a lantern to our footsteps,Ps. 119:105; 2 Pet. 1:19
   shines on from age to age.Ps. 119:89
The church from her dear MasterJohn 3:34; 17:8; Rev. 1:11
   received the gift divine,Rom. 15:4
and still that light she liftethMatt. 5:15-16; 28:20
   o’er all the earth to shine.Matt. 5:14; Phil. 2:15–16
It is the golden casket,Ps. 119:11; Matt. 13:52
   where gems of truth are stored;Ps. 119:14; Prov. 3:15
it is the heav’n-drawn picture
   of Christ, the living Word.Luke 24:27; John 5:39b; 1 John 1:1
It floateth like a banner
   before God’s host unfurled;
it shineth like a beacon
   above the darkling world.
It is the chart and compass
   that o’er life’s surging sea,
’mid mists and rocks and quicksands,
   still guides, O Christ, to thee.
Oh, make thy church, dear Savior,
   a lamp of purest gold,Rev. 1:20
to bear before the nationsPs. 119:46; Is. 60:3
   thy true light, as of old.Is. 42:6b; Acts 26:17–18
Oh, teach thy wand’ring pilgrimsPs. 119:19
   by this their path to trace,Ps. 119:1, 59
till, clouds and darkness ended,2 Pet. 1:19b
   they see thee face to face.1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 22:4

When he was six years old, one of our sons ran down the street with his eyes closed—and bumped square into a mailbox. “Why on earth were you running with your eyes closed?” asked Dad. “Because I run faster that way,” answered the boy with the swelling and bleeding face. He was learning, the hard way, one of life’s lessons: that you must see where you are going if you are to get there.

It’s a lesson we all must continue to learn because—like son, like father—it’s tempting sometimes to think reality will only get in our way if we pay too much attention to it. But when we neglect the light and the guidance God has given us, we end up wandering in a wilderness, or worse. We do not get where we need to go without God’s word. It is our very life (Deut. 32:47).

To learn this lesson we sing “O Word of God Incarnate,” across denominational lines probably the best-known hymn about Holy Scripture. In the first four lines we address our prayer, appropriately enough, not to God generally but to the second person of the Trinity in particular, to the Word made flesh. Here is how the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck explained this name of Christ:

He is the Logos in an utterly unique sense: Revealer and revelation at the same time. All the revelations and words of God, in nature and history, in creation and re-creation, both in the Old and the New Testament, have their ground, unity, and center in him. He is the sun; the individual words of God are his rays. The word of God in nature, in Israel, in the NT, in Scripture may never even for a moment be separated and abstracted from him. God’s revelation exists only because he is the Logos. He is the first principle of cognition, in a general sense of all knowledge, in a special sense, as the Logos incarnate, of all knowledge of God, of religion, and theology (Matt. 11:27).[1]

We express our thanks for the Bible, and our desire to handle it faithfully, to him who is its ground, unity, and center.

The author of the hymn, W. Walsham How (who also wrote “For All the Saints”), intended it as an extended meditation on the 105th verse of Psalm 119: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” Stanza 3 introduces four additional metaphors, all variations on the psalmist’s “light to my path,” to help us imagine the Bible showing the way. First, it’s like a banner, our Lord’s standard, under which we march and toward which we rally in battle. Second, it’s like a hilltop beacon, spreading tidings at night (as in Gondor), or like a lighthouse beacon warning of danger. Third, it’s another navigational aid: a chart, showing us the outline of the sea of life, the position of its rocks, sandbars, channels, buoys, and anchorages. And fourth, it’s a compass, so we don’t lose our orientation.

All of which assumes a purpose, or destination. Guidance is only needed by those who are going somewhere, and thus each of the last three stanzas ends by calling our attention to where we are going: to Christ, in whom is eternal life (and to whom, remember, our prayer was addressed). The “ground, unity, and center” of the Bible is also its end: “Revealer and revelation at the same time.” The references to Christ intensify from stanza to stanza, from “picture” at the end of stanza 2, to our destination at the end of stanza 3, to seeing him “face to face” at the end of stanza 4. Then, when clouds and darkness are no more (compare stanza 1, line 4, with stanza 4, line 7) we shall no longer need a light to find the light.

The term casket in stanza 2 need not put off congregants if the pastor takes a moment, once and for all, to explain; congregants may think of it as a synonym for coffin, but in fact that usage is not a synonym but an old euphemism. A casket really is a small box for keeping precious things like jewels or letters. In recognition of the value of what’s inside, the box itself is often ornate and made of precious materials. See, for example, this. So a casket is a treasure chest—just like the Bible. When nineteenth-century Americans began calling coffins “caskets,” it was an expression of care for the contents of the box: their loved ones’ bodies, which “being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection” (WSC Q. 37).

Just as the Bible’s “gems of truth” are stored in words of unsurpassed literary beauty, so, too, this poem as we sing it today is adorned with a tune (MUNICH) of melodic and harmonic grace. Part-singing congregations will enjoy it. But especially helpful is the way both melody and harmony seem to wander in lines 6 and 7 only to regain their bearings for the last line, precisely where, in three out of four stanzas, the poem calls our attention to the path’s destination, Christ. Consider how this works in stanza 3. Lines 1, 3, and 5 cadence melodically on “mi” (F-sharp). Lines 2 and 4 cadence on “do” (D). But line 6 cadences on “sol” (A), and line 7 higher yet, on “la” (B), from which we calmly descend back down the scale to “do.” So melodically there’s some tension for “life’s surging sea” and “mists and rocks and quicksands,” but there’s resolution for “guides, O Christ, to thee.” Similarly, the harmony of line 6 gravitates toward a key other than the home key at “life’s surging sea,” the harmony of line 7 gravitates toward yet another key at “mists and rocks and quicksands,” but all these deviations are corrected at “guides, O Christ, to thee”: as the melody descends its D-major scale, the chords below outline the essence of the home key.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, volume 1, subparagraph 108, translated by John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), page 402.