top of page

HYMN 320 When Seed Falls on Good Soil

Mark 4:3-20

Text: Norman P. Olsen Tune: Frederick F. Jackisch

Sower at Sunset. Vincent Van Gogh 1888

1. When seed falls on good soil

It’s born through quiet toil,

Where soil receives,

The earth conceives

The blade, the stem, the fruit, the leaves

Good soil, oh, mother earth,

The womb, where seed takes birth.

2. God’s Word in Christ is seed;

Good soil its urgent need;

For it must find

In human kind

The fertile soil in heart and mind.

Good soil! A human field

A hundred-fold to yield.

3. Plow up the trodden way,

And clear the stone away;

Tear out the weed,

And sow the seed.

Prepare our hearts your Word to heed,

That we good soil may be.

Begin, O Lord, with me!


My great uncle Freddie plowing the fields and the road in the family farm west of Cyrus

Scripture comes from a time when everyone understood farming imagery since they lived with it intimately. You planted seeds in the spring and worried and waited. I remember driving out with my great-uncle into the fields where he had planted a crop and watching as he bent down to the rich earth and dug into the row where nothing yet showed and took out a seed. I can still see the dirt around his thumbnail. He wanted to see if it had sprouted. He would show me the small hair of a sprout breaking out of the hull and say, that looks good. We would go back to the house and my great aunt would have ice cream sundaes for us. They didn’t quite say so, and I don’t think I could have said it for them, but they knew that they were only servants of the seed. Without the miracle of generation, set into the seed by God’s marvelous creation, there could be no life. And specifically for them and us, without God’s giving the growth, the farm would fail, as would their lives, all life. All of us needed that birth in the soil so there could be life.

Soon we would see a green haze on the fields, and suddenly the fields would be rich succulent green. Then in August, golden grain, hundred-fold of those tiny seeds he had planted. A miracle.

Jesus uses that imagery to explain how the word of God works in us. God gives the growth, but the soil has to be able to conceive it. To do that, as Norm has it in his lovely text, the earth needs to be tended and made ready—the hard soil that has been trodden down broken up, the stones cleared away, and the fields weeded.

Norm knows this because he has been close to the farm all his preaching life. He now lives on a farm near Cyrus, Minnesota, where our family farm was. He knows that one must plow the land to make it a place for growth. And in the spring, one used to go out into the fields with a “stone boat” to pick rocks that the frozen ground heaved up in the spring. (I once wrote a poem with the imagery of the stone boat and picking stones and my audience, New Yorkers at the Bread Loaf Writing School thought I was on LSD!) And then the farmer would cultivate between the rows to remove the weeds—now done with chemicals. I once got sent out into the fields to pick mustard weeds out of the wheat fields at a penny apiece. I found fifty.

All this tending, which is the daily backbreaking work of the farmer, however, cannot make the seed grow. It only makes it grow better.

This is what needs to happen in our souls, Norm knew that his work was to practice faithful spiritual agriculture. One of the best preachers I have heard, he knew how to sow the word. Plowing up hardened hearts is necessary before we can receive the Word of God. We know well that broken hearts are the ones that can hear the word most fruitfully. Distracted hearers need to have the stones and weeds removed. That is what good preaching does as the hymn says. It plows, clears the land, tears out the weeds that suck away the life from the seed. Then preachers, like Norm, can sow the seeds of faith that God will grow bountifully in our hearts.


Pastor Norman Olsen

I call him our Thomas Cranmer. Norman Olsen, a salty old preacher with a heart of gold, wrote this hymn for a Lenten series at Grace Lutheran Church in Luverne, Minnesota, his congregation. The farming communities he served knew about soil and seeds. You can hear when he speaks that he knows both his master and his creation. And he wants us to know the same. Norm opens up the parable so we can see how it works in our lives. He created a very intricate and well wrought poem that knows both the Gospel and farming. Remember this hymn when the Mark text comes round this summer.

Born in New Jersey to Norwegian immigrants, Norm came to Minnesota when he enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead. He served congregations around Minnesota. Norm and I worked for several years on the ReClaim hymnal. He knew how to write prayers with the kind of syntax that made Cranmer’s prayers in the Book of Common Prayer so powerful. They have that orotund sound and breathe the truth of faith into their hearers.

The LBW committee found this hymn to be one of the few contemporary texts they could use. A composer in his congregation had set it, but the LBW wanted another tune. So the chair of the music committee, Frederick Jackisch wrote the one in the LBW. The text’s tight rhymes made for a good tune. Another piece of hymn trivia, the name of the tune: Karen Walhof, secretary to Leonard Flachman, from Augsburg Fortress press who helped put the hymnal together, was much beloved by the committees. Giving the tune her name is a nifty way to honor all her work.


United Methodist Congregation

Congregation and choir

Another tune and nice video and version of the hymn

421 views0 comments


bottom of page