To Thee, Omniscient Lord of All

Our opening hymn this Sunday is by the Norwegian poet and hymnist Magnus Brostrup Landstad. He was born in 1802 in Masoy, Finnmarken, which is at the northern tip of Norway.  The harsh climate of northern Norway and the poverty of his family meant that his childhood was very difficult. He was taught at home by his father and, at the age of twenty, entered the University of Christiana in Oslo. He went on to be Pastor of several different churches throughout the country. It was while he was at the university that he came across hymns by the German hymn writer Philip Nicolai, the author of “Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying”.

Inspired by Nicolai, Landstad began writing his own hymns. His own writing expertise, along with his interest in the folk songs of Norway, led him to publish his own hymnal in 1861. This hymnal became the official hymnal of the country of Norway in 1869. On his retirement, he was granted a pension by the government for his service to the church and his work as a poet and publisher.

The hymn itself, To Thee, Omniscient Lord of All, is a short three stanza hymn. Each stanza is based on a penitential verse from the Bible, one of which is the Gospel text for this Sunday.  Much like a good sermon, this hymn takes those penitential Bible verses and applies them to the singer.  The confessions of Ezra, David, and the tax collector of Luke 18 become our own.


Here’s stanza 1:
To Thee, omniscient Lord of all.

In grief and shame I humbly call;

I see my sins against Thee, Lord,

The sins of thought and deed and word.

They press me sore; I cry to Thee:

O God, be merciful to me!


This stanza is based on Ezra 9:6

“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.

In context, Ezra is praying about the sin of intermarriage. The remnant has returned from exile and now they are disobeying God’s law and marrying people from all the surrounding nations.  Ezra knows that his people deserved God’s wrath and punishment, and this is why he is so ashamed.  If we are truly sorry for our sins, this will be our response as well.  We cry at the end of this and every stanza that God would be merciful to us.

Stanza 2:

O Lord, my God, to Thee I pray:

O cast me not in wrath away!

Let Thy good Spirit ne’er depart,

But let Him draw to Thee my heart

That truly penitent I be:

O God, be merciful to me!

This stanza is based on Psalm 51:10-11

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

Psalm 51 is the great penitential Psalm of David, written and earnestly prayed after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah. David knew that he deserved to be cast off, or thrown away, because of the sins he had committed. He also understood that his sin showed a need for a clean heart. A clean heart can only be made through the work of the Holy Spirit.  Do we really deserve to join in the penitential prayer of an adulterer and murderer? Sadly, yes, because we too have sinned against God and shown our hearts to be unclean. We pray in this second stanza that God would not take His Holy Spirit from us, but continue to work in our hearts.

Stanza 3:
O Jesus, let Thy precious blood

Be to my soul a cleansing flood.

Turn not, O Lord, Thy guest away,

But grant that justified I may

Go to my house at peace with Thee:
O God, be merciful to me!

This last stanza is based on Luke 18:12-14, which also happens to be the Gospel text for this Sunday:

13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Here is our third great Scriptural example of penitential prayer. It comes from one of Jesus’ parables, where he contrasts this prayer of confession with the self-righteous prayer of a Pharisee.  Again the example and parallel to our lives is striking. I pray that we may all take these words to heart! The hymn ends with a plea to God’s mercy, but in a very specific way. The hymn allows us to appeal to the precious blood of Jesus, which was shed to cleanse us from our sins. We know that we are forgiven for Jesus’ sake and that we will leave the worship service justified before God and at peace. Thanks be to God!

But if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. – 1 John 1:8-9


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