Who can measure heaven and earth?

The image above may be a riddle to you. Goat and Compasses? This is in fact the name of a pub in Hull, believed to have been altered from the older name ‘God encompasseth’, and it is a clue to today’s hymn from Sing Praise…

‘Who can measure heaven and earth?’ by Christopher Idle.  The words celebrate the Wisdom of God as personified in the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiasticus / Koheleth. There are six lines to each verse, for which a tune is provided in the book, but it’s not well known, and John used the better known ‘England’s Lane’.

‘Wisdom’ is portrayed in Ecclesiasticus and some other places in the Bible as a female character very close to the creator God.  A such, she is sometimes identified with the Word of God (Christ) and sometimes with the Holy Spirit.   In this hymn, what is celebrated are the wisdom of God shown in the complexity of creation, the secret knowledge of God that we can never know, his gift of wisdom to people in general and to those who love him in particular, and wisdom’s eternal nature outlasting earthly things.

The only quibble I would have is with the first couplet of verse 4, which surely needs some qualification. “Wisdom gives the surest wealth, brings her children life and health”. Neither wealth in the usually understood sense of money and possessions, nor health in the sense of physical and mental well-being, necessarily go with wisdom, although the wise person makes careful use of what wealth they have, and faith does help with mental health.  So the verse should perhaps be understood in the light of Jesus’ teaching about not worrying for tomorrow and making friends with the wealth that we have.

1 thought on “Who can measure heaven and earth?”

  1. I think Christopher Idle has a great talent for putting words into metrical form to popular tunes. About the tune, I consulted him, and he replied that he found some of the more well-known tunes to this meter rather tedious, and commended the one in the book. But I agreed with Stephen Craven, and I suppose in choosing “England’s Lane” I was influenced by the resemblance of the text to “For the beauty of the earth” – both are hymns of praise to God for what he has created.

    But actually I do have quibbles with the text, and I think that Ecclesiasticus is inferior to Proverbs in the quality of its thought, in a way which is typical of comparing the wisdom literature of the Apocrypha with that of the Old Testament. Just as Pharisaic Judaism quickly departed from the glories of God’s grace to all people, so the wisdom literature quickly degenerates into platitudes such as “make sure to lead a righteous life”, “pay proper respect to your elders”, “acknowledge the wisdom of ancient times”, and so on. The hymn didn’t have new insights about what wisdom actually means, and this is because Ecclesiasticus doesn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

    Moreover, the modern scientific world calls its bluff. “Who can measure the earth?” asks the text, but the writer never thought that we don’t need an immense straight-edged plastic ruler, but rather the ability to do precise astronomical measurements – which give us trigonometrical ways of calculating the dimensions of the earth very accurately. We now know the earth’s mass, diameter, magnetic field, speeds of rotation and revolution around the sun, variations in strengths of gravities, heights of its mountains … very precisely! We have cosmological insights far beyond what the ancients ever expected, and almost every aspect of our lives is influenced by these insights.

    I think the sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of God, which the text and the hymn both evoke, is still true – but I think we have to remember that things have moved on too since those days.

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