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HYMN FOR PENTECOST 21 O God of Earth and Altar

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1876-1936) Tune: English folk tune, King's Lynne

Jesus being asked about the Tribute money Rubens

1. O God of earth and altar,

Bow down and hear our cry,

Our earthly rulers falter,

Our people drift and die;

The walls of gold entomb us,

The swords of scorn divide,

Take not thy thunder from us,

But take away our pride.

2. From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches

That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation

Of honour and the sword,

From sleep and from damnation,

Deliver us, good Lord!

3. Tie in a living tether

The prince and priest and thrall,

Bind all our lives together,

Smite us and save us all;

In ire and exultation

Aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation,

A single sword to thee.


Render unto Caesar Titian

There are not a lot of hymns written on taxes and Jesus, although it was one of his themes. His statement "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s," echoes down through the ages in the West. Some interpret it to be the beginning of the Christian notion developed by the west that secular powers and divine powers were to be in some sense separated. Although we know God is the source of all good and all power, he rules the world through means Luther called his left hand, or hidden hand. We as citizens work for the good and try to do his will in that sphere, knowing that secular powers can be corrupt and evil. Somewhere in all that, believers can see God working but not in a one to one relationship. There is mystery there. And hiddenness.

To go back to the story, however, Jesus shows his brilliance here. His opponents think they have him. If he says, don’t pay taxes, the Romans will arrest him. If he says pay them, his opponents will have more reason to oppose him. This confounds them. They can’t win. They can only force his crucifixion which ultimately is their final defeat, not his. Of course, they are furious.

The hymn, written after the disastrous Boer war in South Africa by one of its fiercest opponents, G. K. Chesterton, has remained in our hymnals despite its rather specific reference to the war and its older language. Thrall, or slave, is not in our current vocabulary. But the hymn describes a time when the political leadership was weak and feckless. People were divided, scorning the other side. And the rich were entombed behind their walls of gold.

The hymn also seems to be describing our own political donnybrooks today. We are not happy about the “easy speeches” that “comfort cruel men.” And we can easily pray for the unity Chesterton describes in his last stanza, although I think most of us are secretly praying that the other side would relent and come to our side. Then there would be unity.

Coin with image of Caesar Tiberius Emperor at Jesus' Time

In conversations I have had with friends, there is a deep desire that our political leadership, such as it is, could learn to work together, which is why they were elected. The problem is that it used to be we agreed on the ends but disagreed on the ways to get there. Now, we are divided on our ends.Those who elected them want them to do what they said they would do to get their votes. And they were opposing the other side. It is hard to cooperate with someone who wants to go against everything you believe and in fact oppose with all your might. Maybe we need to pray with Chesterton, “Smite us and save us all.” Something needs to happen so that we can agree again on our common tasks. Only a leader can do that, working obediently under God, to serve the better angels of our past. The hymn needs to be sung often and the prayers in it prayed again and again. “Bind all of us together.”


G. K. Chesterton

This hymn was included in the 1906 English Hymnal, a strong reaction against the Victorianism of the previous hymnal,Hymns: Ancient and Modern. (1861) Musicians like Vaughan Williams, Percy Dearmer (1837-1933), and others could not say enough about how bad the Victorian age had been for English hymnody, especially its music. They wanted to restore English folk melodies to English music, working against the strong influence of German music dominated by Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. Vaughan Williams worked hard to return English hymnody to its folk roots. Many of the folk songs from England we have in our hymnals were rediscovered by him and arranged for congregational singing. They really caused a Renaissance in English music which is still going strong. It is interesting to see that the young have found the text and tune to their liking.


British congregation singing

Choir of Trinity College Cambridge

Ivica Kljuce

The Gentle Wolves

This gives a brief history of Chesterton’s place in British history

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