HomeArticlesThe Pre-Christian History of "The Love Of God" Hymn

The Pre-Christian History of “The Love Of God” Hymn

F. M. Lehman wrote the popular hymn “The Love of God” in 1917. It is said that he had heard an evangelist that shared the words of a poem allegedly penciled on the walls of an insane asylum by an unknown inmate. This poem inspired Lehman to write the third verse of his hymn which states:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.1)F.M. Lehman, “The Love of God,” in Soul Stirring Songs & Hymns (ed. Curtis Hutson, John Reynolds), Sword of the Lord Publishers (Murfreesboro, TN: 1972, 1989), 188

Lehman’s hymn revolved around this verse, which he later wrote two other verse to fill the rest of the song with.

If the inmate story is correct, it would seem that this individual was likely a Jewish man that was reflecting on the 11th century Aramaic poem written in Worms, Germany, known as Akdamut Milin. This poem is acrostic, presenting dual versets following successive letters in the original language.

בְּבָבֵי תְּרֵי וּתְלַת דְאֶפְתַּח בְּנַקְשׁוּתָא

To start with two or three stanzas in fear

בְּבָרֵי דְבָרֵי וְטָרֵי עֲדֵי לְקַשִּׁישׁוּתָא

Of God who creates and ever sustains.

גְּבוּרָן עָלְמִין לֵהּ וְלָא סְפֵק פְּרִישׁוּתָא

He has endless might, not to be described

גְּוִיל אִלּוּ רְקִיעֵי קְנֵי כָּל חוּרְשָׁתָא

Were the skies parchment, were all the reeds quills,

דְּיוֹ אִלּוּ יַמֵּי וְכָל מֵי כְנִישׁוּתָא

Were the seas and all waters made of ink,

דָּיְרֵי אַרְעָא סָפְרֵי וְרָשְׁמֵי רַשְׁוָתָא

Were all the world’s inhabitants made scribes.

הֲדַר מָרֵי שְׁמַיָּא וְשַׁלִּיט בְּיַבֶּשְׁתָּא

The glorious Lord of heaven and earth,

הֲקֵים עָלְמָא יְחִידָאי וְכַבְּשֵׁהּ בְּכַבְּשׁוּתָא

Alone, formed the world, veiled in mystery.2) https://www.sefaria.org/Akdamut_Milin.1.3-4?lang=bi

Prior to this medieval poem, the Quran comments, “If the sea was ink for the words of my lord, the sea had run out before the words of my lord would run out, even if we brought one like it as an aid.” (18:110)3) Usama Dakdok, The Generous Quran: An Accurate, Modern English Translation of the Qur’an, Islam’s holiest Book, Usama Dakdok Publishing (Venice FL: 2009), p. 177 A similar statement is made in 31:27, saying, “And if all what is in the earth from trees were pens and the sea providing after it seven more seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Surely Allah is dear, wise.”4) Usama Dakdok, The Generous Quran: An Accurate, Modern English Translation of the Qur’an, Islam’s holiest Book, Usama Dakdok Publishing (Venice FL: 2009), p. 238 The title of this chapter is “Lokman” which  is named after a non-Arabic scribe. This indicates that such phrases did not begin with an Islamic origin, but was lifted by the Muslim from earlier sources.

Predating the Quran is a Jewish text known as Pesikta Rabbati, composed around 355 A.D. which makes comparable expressions about the teachings of the scribes not being able to have been recorded. “Why then were the words of the Scribes not set down? Because if an attempt had been made to set their words in writing there would have been no end of books: Of making many books there would be no end [Eccles. 12:12].” (Pesikta Rabbati, 3:2)5)Pesikta Rabbati (trans. William G. Braude), Yale University Press (Dallas TX: 1968), Vol. 1, p. 63

An earlier Jewish tradition is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud which reports the tradition of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai who spoke of his teacher the Hillel, “It was also related of him that he declared, ‘If all the heavens were sheets, all the trees quills and all the seas ink, they would not suffice for recording my wisdom which I acquired from my masters; and yet I have gained no more of the wisdom of the Sages than a fly [acquires] which dips in the great sea and deprives it of the tiniest drop’.” (Soferim 16:8)6) https://www.sefaria.org/Tractate_Soferim.16.8?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en If this tradition is reliable it would extend back to the first century but with reference to Hillel who lived during the first century B. C. It is interesting how these earlier Jewish expressions glorify men as teachers instead of God as the phraseology became popularized in the medieval era poem.

Bringing this expression to Jewish roots with pre-Christian heritage, it is also fascinating to find this familiar thought in the Gospel of John. “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.” (John 21:25) Notably is the high Christology in John’s Gospel which identifies the reference back to God instead of man. However, this comment in its context is referring to the miracles of Jesus Christ, not so much His teachings as the other early Jewish expressions focus on the teachings of the rabbis. Of course, for John, the miracles were the signs to prove Christ was God (John 20:24-31), which makes His teachings authoritative (John 17:16-17), not like the scribes (Mark 1:22).

Another unique first century Jew made a comparable comment about God. Philo, in the context of the following quote, discussed the creation of heaven, the revolution of planets, the earth’s location in the universe, the variety of created animals and infinite number of beautiful objects which proves the creator’s existence. He views the whole of creation as a majestic miracle, saying, “And the whole of a man’s life would be too short if he wished to enumerate all the separate instances of such things, or even to detail fully all that is to be seen in one complete portion of the world; aye, if he were to be the most longlived man that has ever been seen.” (Philo, On the Life of Moses, 1.213)7) The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged New Updated Version (trans. C. D. Yonge), Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, MA: 1997), p. 479 Hence, it is the vast amounts of miracles around the world seen every day from God’s creative works that sheds evidence of His goodness to men (cf. Romans 1:20).

Finally, it would be a relevant question to ask if such expressions are meant to be hyperbolic, or taken literal? This question would play significantly upon our understanding of John 21:25. We have an early account from Letter of Aristeas (3rd -1st century B.C.) about the librarian of the famed Alexandrian Library intending to collect all the books of the world if it were possible.

On his appointment as keeper of the king’s library, Demetrius of Phalerum undertook many different negotiations aimed at collecting, if possible, all the books in the world. By purchase and translation he brought to a successful conclusion, as far as it lay in his power, the king’s plan. We were present when the question was put to him, “How many thousand books are there (in the royal library)?” His reply was, “Over two hundred thousand, O King. I shall take urgent steps to increase in a short time the total to five hundred thousand. Information has reached me that the lawbooks of the Jews are worth translation and inclusion in your royal library.” (Letter of Aristeas, 9-10)8) he Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Ed. James H. Charlesworth) Doubleday (New York, NY: 1985), Vol. 2, p. 12

This book is depicting the origin of the Old Testament being translated into Greek as the Septuagint. From this citation it would seems to appropriately understand such phrases as hyperbole. It is evident that the collection of all the books in the world is hyperbolic since the later expression indicates they were only seeking books “worthy” of “inclusion” for the royal library. There were no true intentions to collect every single book in the world and having them translated into Greek for this library. However, with the comment of Philo indicating no man would ever live long enough to document all there is to write about God’s creation, and to the modern day our scientists have not “detail fully” any portion of God’s complex creative works. Since Philo is speaking of God’s creative genius, he does not seem to be expressing hyperbole. Likewise, John relates of Christ’s miracles, “if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:25) It does seem to be a valid question whether this was intended to be hyperbolic since we find many references throughout the Gospels of multitudes coming to Christ and He heals all the sick, lame, blind, or demon possessed (Matthew 4:24; 8:16; 12;15; 14:14; 15:30; 19:2; 21:14; Mark 1:34; 3:10; Luke 4:40; 5:15; 6:17-19; 9:11). It was well known that Christ did many miracles beyond the healings (John 7:31; 11:47; 12:37). These generalized statements are broadly sweeping the inclusion of the multitudes that follow the Lord Jesus for His miracles with massive crowds of thousands daily (John 6:2, 10, 26). Comparing the number of 200,000 to 500,000 books from the citation from Letter of Aristeas above, we would ask, was there more miracles and healing performed by the Lord during the three years of Christ’s ministry. Christ’s miracles were so abundant that even His enemies could not deny them. It seems natural to assume it would be proper to interpret John’s statement as hyperbole, but upon second thought, it also seems valid to question whether John himself meant it to be understood as hyperbole. To further consider John’s prologue of Christ’s eternal preexistence (John 1:1-3). could mean John would have likely included all miracles throughout history as the works of Christ, including the creation in the beginning (which would connect Christ’s works to Philo’s comment), not being limited merely to His three year ministry.



Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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