Rev Bob Warrick
© All rights reserved
© All rights reserved
Hymn books produced in recent decades have faced many challenges. The Scottish Church Hymnary Fourth Edition observes ‘When the predecessor of this book was published in 1973…the internet had yet to be invented, the Cold War had yet to be terminated…no one had benefited from laser eye surgery … there were no wind farms, personal computers, debit cards... language and the society which articulates it have (since) changed.’
As well, some old hymns had fallen out of use regardless of how fine they appeared on paper, and at the same time a significant number of good songs and hymns had been written. The Introduction to Together in Song reminds us that the language used for God and for each other has also undergone significant change.
There has been a trend to demilitarise hymns and even remove them. In some versions of ‘Be thou my vision’, verse three includes the militaristic sounding ‘battle shield’ which some find uncomfortable. This verse was omitted from the 1964 English Methodist hymn book and is sometimes not sung today.
‘Be thou my vision’(1) is still one of the most popular hymns and is included in over 60 hymn books including Together in Song and Source. Its popularity may derive from its usual tune an - old Irish folk tune, ‘Slane’.
‘Slane’ is named for a hill in County Meath, Ireland, where St Patrick’s lighting of an Easter fire – an act of defiance against the pagan fifth century king – led to his unlimited freedom to preach the gospel in Ireland. But the words also have strong appeal based as they are on verses 11 and 13 in Ephesians 6.
11 Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the devil’s evil tricks…
13 Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. (NRSV)
Here is this ‘troublesome’ verse:
Be thou my armour, my sword for the fight;
be thou my dignity, thou my delight,
thou my soul’s shelter, and thou my high tower:
raise thou me heaven-ward,
O power of my power.
The Greek word, ‘panaplian’ in v11 is translated ‘armour’ in most English versions of the New Testament. The change to ‘battle shield’ has taken place during the history of the hymn. Mary Byrne in 1905 used ‘battleshield’
as did Eleanor Hull in her 1912 version although she prepared an alternative version the same year using ‘breast plate’. The Scottish Church Hymnary uses ‘breast-plate’ while the Canadian Voices United retains ‘battle-shield’. Together in Song along with many others uses ‘armour’.
Ephesians 6 speaks of ‘standing against the wiles of the devil’ and ‘with(standing) the evil day’. The writer is clear that the armour of God is defensive, aimed at protection and is not offensive. This is consistent with The Macquarie Dictionary which defines a shield as a piece of defensive armour … to protect the body in battle.
Those versions of our hymn which choose to use ‘battle-shield’ are thus out of step with the writers of Ephesians and dictionaries.
This statement about seeking the protection of God bears a strong similarity to Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, a prayer of protection attributed to Saint Patrick and later adapted into the hymn
‘I bind unto myself today’. (2)
In 690 it was directed that a ‘breastplate hymn’ for the protection of body and soul against evil powers should be sung in all monasteries and churches in Ireland. Part of this prayer is –
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me –
against snares of devils,
against temptations and vices,
against inclinations of nature,
against everyone who shall wish me ill…
If our hymn is thought to be too long why choose to eliminate verse three? We are in need of protection today. We hear of those offending or being led astray because of pressure from others. A concern of parents is that their children and young people should ‘be careful about who they are with’.
In our world there is a place for a prayer that asks for protection from influences which are harmful or negative. The brief version of the Breastplate quoted above is a prayer for each of us as we make our way through the many pitfalls of 21st century life.
Would it be going too far to say that in depriving our people of verse three of ’Be thou my vision’ we are ‘short changing’ them? Have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater in terms of forgetting the clear warnings in
scripture and rendering ourselves defenceless in a perilous world?
(1) Together in Song, number 547
(2) Together in Song, number 478