The Love of God

The Love of God: A Hymn History Story

The hymn, The Love of God, was written 100 years ago, in 1917, by Frederick Lehman.

When he was four, Frederick’s family had immigrated to America from Germany. They settled in Iowa and Mr. Lehman became a pastor in the Midwest. He was quite musical and enjoyed composing songs. But the family fell on hard times.

In 1917, Mr. Lehman found himself moving crates of lemons and oranges in a citrus packing shed in Pasadena, California. One day on the way to work, he contemplated the preaching he had heard the Sunday before on the love of God. Thoughts of God’s love grew and wouldn’t leave him. Then a song began to compose itself in his mind.

Between breaks at the packing shed, Mr. Lehman pulled up a lemon box, sat down and scribbled down bits of verse. Using a stubby pencil to write on the slats of broken packing boxes, he recorded the words as they came to him throughout the day. After work, he took the broken slats home, sat down at the family’s old, upright piano and put the words to music.

However, the hymn only had two stanzas, and in those days hymns had three. Frederick struggled to write a third stanza, but the words would not come.

Then he remembered a poem he had heard read in church that spoke of the beauty and vastness of God’s love. Perhaps, if he could find the poem, it would give him inspiration. He searched and found the poem—printed on a piece of paper that he had used as a book mark.

Later Frederick discovered that it had supposedly been found written on the wall of a cell in a mental hospital. After the patient had died, those in charge of readying the cell for its next occupant had been inspired by the words and copied them down before repainting.

And the story behind the words had an even deeper history. Evidently the words found written in English on the wall in the insane asylum had been translated from a poem originally written in Hebrew. A Jewish rabbi who lived in Germany, Meir Ben Isaac Nehori, had penned the original poem around the year 1000.

Upon finding the poem, Mr. Lehman discovered, to his amazement, that it fit perfectly with the other verses he had written. Thus it became the third stanza of the beloved hymn:

Could we with ink the oceans fill and were the skies of parchment made,

Were every stalk on earth a quill, and every man a scribe by trade,

To write the love of God above would drain the oceans dry,

Nor could the scroll contain the whole through stretched from sky to sky.

And so today—across continents, across centuries, despite hard times—the vast, timeless, incomprehensible love of God endures.