Who can sound the depths of sorrow?

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Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Who can sound the depths of sorrow” by Graham Kendrick.  It takes us on from the theme of the last two days of the Christian life being about more than our own salvation, and urges us to intercede to God for mercy in the face of  injustice in the world.

The sorrow expressed in verse 1 is that ‘in the Father heart of God’, for God who creates all life is always more deeply concerned for the welfare of people than we are for each other, perhaps with a few honourable exceptions. We are asked to express sorrow for rejected children, scorned lives, extinguished lights.  In verse 2 the guilt is of bowing to other gods (usually in a metaphorical sense) and sacrificing children (hopefully always in a metaphorical sense!) In the third verse, God is portrayed as angry, with piercing eyes, at the cries of the weak and helpless.  Allowing for the almost unavoidable use of metaphor in trying to describe God and his relationship with humanity, I have no problem with these sentiments: the sinfulness that pervades human society does lead us all, at times, to ignore the needs of other people when we could have helped them, and sometimes extends to deliberate harm.

The refrain (slightly different in the last verse) asks God to have mercy upon our nation. I should be open here, and say that there is a strand of theology behind this hymn with which I have never been entirely comfortable, though it is by no means uncommon in evangelical circles. The theology I refer to is that of each ‘nation’ being a spiritual entity that can bear collective guilt, or an entity to which particular spirits (good or evil) attach themselves.  It leads to the sense of national guilt expressed in the words of this hymn. The ‘we’ in these verses is not just ‘we the people of this congregation’ or even ‘we the Church in England’, but ‘we, all the people of England’ (or whichever ‘nation’ you consider yourself to belong to). 

The problems I see are twofold: one being the practical one that many people these days have multiple national identities (perhaps of their country of birth, their current country of residence, and a religious or tribal identity with roots elsewhere in the world). The second is that ‘nationhood’ is usually defined either by the rather arbitrary physical boundaries ruled by different governments, or along ethnic lines.  But the Christian gospel is that Christ has redeemed the whole world, and that ethnic or political identities have to be laid down when we turn to him and join the universal Church.  So I find this theology of nationhood incompatible with the gospel.  But if John or anyone else wishes to persuade me otherwise, I’m open to your arguments.

[Edited in the light of John’s comment, to note the third verse is not the final one!]

2 thoughts on “Who can sound the depths of sorrow?”

  1. I may be quite wrong about this, but I thought this hymn was Graham Kendrick’s “Anti-Abortion” hymn – I remember someone telling me that it was, years ago, and certainly that’s consistent with “the children we’ve rejected”, the light “that we’ve extinguished” (v1), “we have sacrificed the children” (v2) and a number of other phrases in the hymn which aren’t so explicit but which make a lot of sense in that light. In that light, I would suggest that the “other gods” include the “a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body” philosophy; “the lives so deeply scarred” are the mothers who have felt pressurised into terminations and then afterwards regretted it, and the “have mercy on OUR nation” is because legislation to permit or outlaw abortion is of course national legislation in each country.

    I have never been particularly persuaded by the “life begins at conception, therefore all foetuses are to be accorded full human rights, therefore abortion is always wrong” argument. But it cannot be denied that widespread abortion on demand and almost without reflection is a horrific thing, and I can see where Graham Kendrick is coming from. And I do think v4 (which turns the challenge to take action onto Christian people) and v5 (which reminds us of the forgiveness through Jesus which we all need) are well-chosen sentiments to include in such a hymn. It is indeed a thought-provoking hymn, whichever side of the argument one sits.

    However, Kendrick had the sense not to make the hymn explicit, and it can be used in other contexts. I used it as a response to part of Ezekiel 20, and it fits find in that kind of setting.

    As with many other Kendrick tunes, I admire some of the originality. The chords and the repeated theme of the last couple of lines are very effective, and do indeed bring the words to life.

    Mission Praise manages to set out the whole hymn on one double-page spread, making it much better for pianists and organists. A shame the Sing Praise hymn book didn’t.

    1. Thank you, John, for this insight, which does indeed add a new layer of meaning to the words. And when singing this myself and writing the blog I missed the note “turn over for verses 4 and 5” which is why they don’t get a mention! I think this hymn was introduced to me by a Christian I know from Northern Ireland, where of course abortion law was only relaxed relatively recently, so she may well have realised its underlying theme.

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