Hymn Story

O Word of God Incarnate

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O Word of God Incarnate

What is the “Word of God”?  In the Old Testament, that phrase was used for the oracles (authoritative pronouncements) of the prophets (Isaiah 1:10; Jeremiah 1:4; Ezekiel 1:3, etc.).

But the New Testament uses Word in a new way.  The Gospel of John opens as follows:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God….
The true light that enlightens everyone
was coming into the world” (John 1:1, 9).

When I was just beginning my seminary studies, I asked the theology professor why John referred to Jesus as the Word.  He replied by asking me a question—”What is the purpose of words?”  I said, “We use words to communicate something from one person to another.”  He said, “Exactly!  Jesus was God’s perfect communication—his perfect Word.  We can look at Jesus and see who God is.  We can listen to Jesus and understand God’s will for our lives.  Jesus is God’s Word—the perfect expression of God’s mind.”

The word Incarnate in this hymn’s title proves that it is in this second sense that the author of this hymn intends us to understand Word of God.  The word incarnate comes from the Latin in+carn—in the flesh.  Jesus was the Word of God in the flesh.

The author of this hymn was William Walsham How (1823-1897), an Anglican bishop who was known as “the poor man’s bishop” because of his concern for the poor—and “the omnibus bishop” because he used public transportation rather than a private carriage for travels around town.

Bishop How wrote a number of hymns that reflect his concern for expressing the Gospel in terms that the average person could understand.  This hymn is a good example.  It speaks of Jesus as the “Word of God incarnate,” “Wisdom from on high,” and “a lantern to our footsteps.”  Doesn’t that capture nicely who Jesus is and what he came to do!

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan