HYMN 88 The Numberless Gifts of God's Mercies
Updated: Jun 17, 2020
Swedish: Jag kann icke räckna dem alle
Genesis 26:4; Matthew 18:21-35
Text: Lina Sandell (1832-1903). Tune: Albert Lindström (1853-1935)
1. The numberless gifts of God’s mercies,
My tongue cannot fathom nor tell.
Like dew that appears in the morning
They come to us shining and full,
The numberless gifts of God's mercies,
My tongue cannot fathom nor tell.
2. Like all of the stars in the heavens,
God’s mercies can never be told.
They shine through the darkness of midnight,
Their beauties can never grow old;
Like all of the stars in the heavens,
God's mercies can never be told.
3. I’ll never count all of God’s mercies,
But, O, I can give him my praise!
For all of that love, my thanksgiving
And love to the end of my days.
I’ll never count all of God’s mercies,
But, O, I can give him my praise.
Tr. Gracia Grindal (1983)
A sunny day in Stockholm, January, 1980. I was sitting in a restaurant in mid-town, a glass enclosed veranda, the glory of the winter sun playing in the water glass. Two well-dressed Swedish matrons were sitting across from me. They were looking at their bill, trying to decide what they each owed. One laughed and said, “Jag kann icke räckna,” and pushed the receipt back across the table to her friend.
I was in Sweden for the month working in the Folk Song Archives there not only to learn the language better, but also study Swedish folk songs and hymns. Already conversant in things Sandell, I recognized immediately the phrase from one of Sandell’s better known, but not most famous, hymns, “Jag kann icke räckna dem alle.” (I cannot reckon them all.)
The language of the hymn is filled with mathematical and economic images. We hear mathematical references in the promise of God to Abraham—"I will multiply your offspring as the stars of the heavens.” (Gen. 26:4) The notion of counting and telling is also key in the hymn. Even our English word “tell” can mean counting.
The images used by Sandell in this hymn speak of what our metrics cannot fathom. We have to use hyperbole, or exaggerations, since that is the only way to begin to see what we have been given. This kind of language is common in hymnody and necessary when we speak of God’s mercies. What we have received from God is simply unfathomable.
Jesus uses this kind of language to answer Peter’s question about how many times he should forgive his brother. Jesus replies to him in his parable (Matthew 18:21-35) about the unforgiving servant who owes more than all the treasures in the world. Ten thousand talents (one talent took twenty years of service to earn) are more than any human being could possibly repay. The king forgives the entire sum. Unfortunately, the unjust servant goes to one who owes him a small sum and demands repayment without any cognizance of his having been forgiven everything. Peter wants to keep score; Jesus tells him it is impossible.
Lina Sandell got the idea for the hymn from an English Sunday School magazine with a picture of two young children doing their sums. The boy says to the girl, I can’t add very well. That image of adding and counting became the basis for her hymn.
There is an economic metaphor necessary to our understanding of Jesus' death on the cross. He suffers and dies to redeem us. That word means to buy us out of slavery or to make amends for. I recently heard a younger theologian Sarah Hinlicky Wilson describe how it was only after studying economics that she had come to understand how fundamental this metaphor is. She had been offended by it at first, it seemed crass to talk about God as a keeper of accounts, but as she studied the medieval theologian, Anselm, and his thoughts on why Jesus had to become human, she came to see how much deeper it went into understanding the transaction necessary for our salvation. A debt needed to be repaid, one we could not, like the unjust servant, pay. Only Christ could.
I have watched the five year old in our house learn to reckon prices and values correctly, to understand how one thing equals or does not equal another. It takes a while to learn that fifty pennies is not the same as fifty quarters. We have to learn to reckon correctly.
In the economy of the cross, however, none of us can reckon at all. Jesus died to redeem us, to pay the price for our sins. The cost was far more than ten thousand talents. Luther spoke of Christ's sacrifice economically as well. It was a joyful exchange, a fröliche wechsel, once again, like a financial transaction, something like a will in which Christ grants us all his benefits for our sins. To be in fellowship with God, I must be in Christ whose sacrifice makes me a joint heir with him. This elicits my thanksgiving. Instead of counting the stars, or God's mercies, all I can do is teeter back on my heels in praise. "For all of that love my thanksgiving/And love to the end of my days." As Carl Olof Rosenius, the leader of the Swedish revival said, No one could praise God for his grace better than Lina Sandell. Thanks be to God!
Sandell’s most famous hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father,” had been written when she was about sixteen. This one she wrote over thirty years later, in 1880, when she was working at the publishing house of the Rosenius' revival, Evangeliska Fosterlandsstiftelsen. (EFS) She and her husband Carl Oscar Berg published it in 1880 in a song book, Barnets Bildebok (Children’s Picture book)
Albert Lindström, the organist at St. Jakobs church in Stockholm, set the text to this tune just before it was published in Sionstoner in 1889. A highly regarded composer, he spent his long life as an organist as well as a builder of organs along with his composing.
Piano and soprano solo/Solveig Sletahjell
Lennart Jernestrand/jazz variations on tune