The God of Abraham praise: Thomas Olivers
Bible Study by David Wright
In contrast to so many wealthy ‘establishment’ hymn-writers, Thomas Olivers (1725-1799) was a poverty-stricken boy from Tregynon, Montgomeryshire, orphaned at the age of 5, and with little formal education. He became an apprentice to a shoemaker. He moved to the ‘bright lights’ of Bristol, where he heard George Whitefield preach and was converted: the theme of the sermon was ‘Is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?’ Olivers became a travelling preacher for John Wesley, and it is claimed that he travelled over 100,000 miles on horseback in 25 years.
This is the only hymn for which this author is now known. The original had 12 verses, and almost every line had a Scripture reference attached. Every one of the twelve verses is still in current use, but there are many different selections of verses in different hymn books, and they also appear in varying sequences (all are given in HymnQuest with many variants). Some hymn books use the singular (as in the original) and others the plural. Olivers is reputed to have been inspired by the Hebrew Yigdal after hearing it sung at the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place, London. The name of the tune, ‘Leoni’, is the name of the Jewish chanter at that service.
This is a unique and remarkable hymn in which several of the ideas, and the tune, are based on Jewish worship. Some parts are a paraphrase of the Hebrew Yigdal – a metrical version of the 13 articles of the Jewish creed. The Yigdal is thought to be mainly a 13th-century work. It is sung antiphonally at the close of the Sabbath-eve service.
Verse 1 emphasises the greatness and holiness of God – ‘Ancient of Everlasting Days’ (Daniel 7:9) and the ‘Great I AM’ (Exodus 3:14) for whom all time is present. In Judaism (and, incidentally, in Islam) this is the greatest and most vital concept. It is equally vital in Christianity, but this is easily forgotten because we find it easier to relate to Jesus as man: this hymn redresses the balance.
Several verses speak of our pilgrimage towards Heaven. Jesus is in view (v.5.6), but the imagery is still thoroughly Old Testament. Heaven is the promised land of milk, honey, olive-oil and wine (v.6.5 & 6) – an idealized description of farming in Israel. In this promised land is ‘The Lord our Righteousness’ (v.7.2) – an Old Testament phrase from Jeremiah 23:6, used here in the New Testament context of Christ as our redeemer, who is ‘. . . made unto us wisdom, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
The vision in this hymn of the greatness and holiness of God does not exclude ordinary mortals. Verse 3, often omitted from modern hymn books, includes the lines, ‘He calls a worm his friend, He calls himself my God’. Thus the hymn can triumphantly return to the original theme at the end, but include the individual too: ‘Hail Abram’s God and mine: I join the heavenly lays’ (v.12.5, 6).
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