Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
This hymn begins with the words, “Glorious things of Thee are spoken, Zion, city of our God.”
Zion was a Jebusite fortress that David conquered and made into the city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:7ff). Zion therefore became another name for Jerusalem—known as the city of David (2 Samuel 5:7), but also as the city of God (Psalm 48:1). The temple was in Jerusalem, and the Israelites equated the temple with God’s presence.
The author of the book of Revelation saw a vision in which there was no temple in the heavenly city, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (Revelation 21:22). In other words, no temple is required when God is already present.
Paul said that Christians are the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 6:16; see also Ephesians 2:19-22). God is present in the hearts of all who make Christ Lord of their lives.
So this hymn equates Zion with the church—formed for God’s own abode and founded on the Rock of Ages (v. 1).
The second verse talks about “streams of living waters, springing from eternal love.” Water, of course, is essential for any city—and for life of every sort. Jerusalem was served by Spring Gihon, whose water was transported into the city via aqueducts and collected in pools.
But Jesus, speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well, said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). He went on to say, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never thirst again; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life”(John 4:13-14).
So when this hymn refers to “streams of living waters,” it is talking about Christ’s gift of the stuff of life to those who believe in him.
In verse three, this hymn speaks of “the cloud and fire” that appear “round each habitation.” This is an allusion to the pillar of cloud that led Israel through the wilderness by day—and the pillar of fire that led them by night (Exodus 13:21ff). In other words, the hymn is celebrating God’s presence with us—a presence that is with us always, day and night, through good times and bad.
The third verse also says, “Safe they feed upon the manna which He gives them when they pray.” The manna, of course, was the bread from heaven that God gave the Israelites to sustain them through their wilderness journey. Our manna today is the bread of the Lord’s Supper—the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, broken for us that we might receive the forgiveness of sins and God’s salvation power.
The man who wrote this hymn was John Newton (1725-1807), who also wrote “Amazing Grace.” Newton had been the captain of a slave ship—known for his profanity and cruelty. But he experienced a genuine conversion to the Christian faith. Convinced that the slave trade was wrong, he left his ship and took a job onshore.
He then felt a call to the ministry, and was ordained at age forty and assigned to a church at Olney, England. He continued in ministry through the rest of his long life, even after failing eyesight made it impossible for him to read.
In Olney, Newton worked closely with his friend, William Cowper (1731-1800), a popular poet. Newton invited Cowper to collaborate on a book of hymns that was eventually published as Olney Hymns. This collection included a number of hymns that are still sung today, such as “There is a fountain filled with blood” and “God moves in a mysterious way.”
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan