March 31, 2012

With Ink the Ocean Fill

Last Sunday at our local Mennonite church, we sang "The Love of God," a hymn I've always enjoyed for the wonderful third verse, with its convoluted syntax: 

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.

By a weird coincidence, I got an email from my dad the next day, commenting on the origins of the verse. He'd learned about it from my uncle, who goes to church with Jeremy Nafziger, a writer interested in church music. Here are Jeremy's comments (used with permission):

Frederick Lehman, the author and composer, sounds like he should be a Mennonite, but alas, he was a Nazarene minister. Early in his ministry (around 1900), he heard a preacher end his sermon with lines similar to the third verse of this hymn. The lines had been found scribbled on the wall of an insane asylum after the inmate’s death; Lehman says that "the general opinion was that this inmate had written it in moments of sanity."

Lehman later used the words, slightly altered, years later as the third stanza of "The Love of God."

It turns out, however, that the lines from the asylum wall came from a long poem written in Aramaic in the 11th century by a Jewish rabbi in Worms, Germany. (Note—the author was Rabbi Ben Isaac Nehorai, in a poem called "Hadamut," written in 1050.)

And that may not even be the original—the Koran, written in Arabic four centuries earlier, contains this passage: "And were every tree that is in the earth (made into) pens and the sea (to supply it with ink), with seven more seas to increase it, the words of Allah would not come to an end; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise" (XXXI:27).

And you can go further back than that, to the Gospel of John, to find another similar passage. In the last verse of the book, we read: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

So in this one hymn, we see the story of all God's children signing the covenant that "shall forevermore endure."


  1. My partner and I have just found a lovely Mennonite congregation to worship with, and "The Love of God" is their theme hymn. After having sung it now a few times, and reveling in the splendid imagery, I am pleased to find this fascinating background detail on the lyrics. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. That was just beautiful, Keith.

  3. I just came across this quote from the Quran while reading the graphic novel "Habibi" by Craig Thompson. I highly recommend it.
    Anyhow, the words brought the hymn to mind. I did some research and after doing quite a bit of reading, I came across this blog post. You have nicely summarized something that I myself was on the verge of writing. Nice job beating me to the punch.

  4. Looks like we just can't stay away from each other, Micah! Glad this was helpful - but note that it was actually Jeremy Nafziger who wrote it up.