Souls of men! Why will ye scatter: F W Faber
Bible Study by David Wright
F W Faber was born in 1814, and brought up as a Calvinist in Calverley, Yorkshire. He was educated at Shrewsbury and Harrow and at Oxford University, where he became a Fellow of University College in 1837. He was rector of Elton, Hungtingdonshire (now Cambridgeshire) from 1842 to 1845, but then joined the Roman Catholic Church, first in Birmingham and then in London. He published several volumes of hymns, and his aim was to write hymns for Catholics with the same popular appeal as Cowper’s and Newton’s Olney Hymns. His best hymns now appeal equally to non-Catholics. Faber died in 1863.
Thirteen verses are too many to sing. That is the limit of the agreement among hymn-book editors in regard to this hymn. Almost every book has a different selection of verses (in this study the verses are numbered according to the full thirteen verse version in HymnQuest), and, alone among hymns, there are three different ‘first verses’:
‘Souls of men, why will ye scatter . . . ‘ (Faber’s original, as in Hymns Ancient & Modern; Christian Praise; Christian Worship; etc.).
‘Was there every kindest shepherd . . . ‘ (as in Congregational Praise, etc.).
‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy . . . ‘ (as in Songs of Praise; English Hymnal; etc.).
Thus, many hymn books omit one half, or the other half, or all of the description of mankind as scattered, frightened sheep, and Jesus as the kind and gentle shepherd.
In fact, this description is a most helpful analogy and is firmly rooted in the Bible. Psalm 23:1 must be one of the best-known Scripture verses. Children can grasp the idea of the sheep and the shepherd, yet adults can find further depth in it. As well as Isaiah 53 and John 10, there is the Bible verse which may be the origin of Faber’s first verse: ‘When he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them, because they fainted, and were scattered abroad, as sheep having no shepherd.’ (Matthew 9:36).
The close relationship of shepherd and sheep is not alone sufficient, however, as a description of God. The ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ (v 4.1) needs another simile: the wideness of the sea. ‘If . . . I dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’ (Psalm 139:9-10).
Each verse brings out another aspect of God’s love. In verse 5, ‘He careth for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). In verse 10, God is our Redeemer. Verse 9 reminds us that our minds cannot envisage the breadth of his love. This verse is often omitted, yet it emphasises the breadth of God’s love by pointing to the narrowness of man’s: ‘But we make his love too narrow, By false limits of our own . . . ‘. The invitation is thus (v.13) to come nearer Jesus, with simple trust in his love and in his word.
Throughout the hymn, the love of Jesus is the contrast theme: kindness (vv.2 and 8) – even ‘kindness in His justice’ (v.5); wide mercy (v.4); plentiful redemption (v.10).
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