Posted by: Phoebe | March 27, 2009

O God of Earth and Altar

This song was written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton, one of the brightest minds of the last century. It was true then in 1906, and it was true during the Bush years when the phrase “from all that terror teaches” had a new meaning.  But now, with the exponential ballooning of governmental power under Obama, I’m holding on to this song.  I’m trying to trust God with my future in a nation weighted with debt — “the walls of gold entomb us.”  I’m trying to trust God with a nation open to the re-invention of morality — “from sale and profanation of honor, and the sword.” And I’m praying that all would turn to God and choose his “living tether.”

Even though he was a clear-sighted critic of the world around him, Chesterton recognized the sin in his own heart. When a newspaper asked several writers to answer the question “What is wrong with the world?” Chesterton answered:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
Sincerely yours,
G. K. Chesterton

So, following his example, I also realize I need to trust God with my own sinful tendencies, trust Him to keep me and help me follow in Jesus’ steps.  Only when individuals recognize their poverty before God, can their hearts change and their nation change.

(Oh, and another reason I like this song is that it has an English Traditional Melody, harmonized by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Bonus!)

O God of earth and altar,

Bow down and hear our cry,

Our earthly rulers falter,

Our people drift and die;

The walls of gold entomb us,

The swords of scorn divide,

Take not Thy thunder from us,

But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,

From lies of tongue and pen,

From all the easy speeches

That comfort cruel men,

From sale and profanation

Of honor, and the sword,

From sleep and from damnation,

Deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether

The prince and priest and thrall,

Bind all our lives together,

Smite us and save us all;

From ire and exultation

Aflame with faith, and free,

Lift up a living nation,

A single sword to Thee.



  1. What great lyrics to this hymn!
    I’m not familiar with the tune. When I searched it on YouTube, it seems that ironically, Iron Maiden has recorded a version. So strange to me! I vaguely remember this group from when I was a kid. (Sorry to confess!)
    When I try to listen to it on cyber hymnal etc. I can’t quite hear the tune…
    But the words are very nice. (This is one of the ways my husband comes up with new versions of hymn melodies when we aren’t familiar with a tune and I’m not successful in plunking out the melody and chords on the piano with my limited skill!) I do love the hymns’ lyrical richness AND the original melodies, so we’re not usually into rewriting the good old familiar stand-bys as is popular these days, but I have heard some rewrites that are very nice indeed. I’m getting off the topic or point of your post. Oops!
    I love Chesterson’s response to the newspaper’s question! Yeah. Wow!

    • Oh, I hope you can find the original tune, Laurie. It fits so well, though I am sure your husband could figure out something good! If you want, I can mail you a copy. Vaughan Williams actually wrote some kind of chamber piece using that tune, but I don’t know it’s name and can’t find it on youtube.

      That Iron Maiden version is…. ! The tune and words start out as the original…. kind of! But then they go off on a tangent.

      And I don’t mind going off on the subject of rewriting. I’m divided on that myself.

      Have a good day!

  2. I keep singing it to the tune of “All Glory, Laud and Honor” since I don’t know the tune. It works!
    You’re sweet to think of mailing me a copy! I’m wondering if one of these would be the tune:
    (This net hymnal can be helpful, but it is so electronicly weird that it’s hard to hear the melody sometimes.)

    Here is some music. Is this the version?

    That Iron Maiden thing is creepy actually!

    • My computer wouldn’t play nethymnal right now, though I’ve seen that site before. Do you know solfege? The tune I know starts out
      sol-fa-sol-do-re-me-fa-la, sol-fa-me-re-do-te-do.
      I don’t know if that means anything to you… me and te are the minor versions of mi and ti.
      This is kinda like a puzzle!

  3. No, I’m not familiar w/ solfege, but I like the puzzle! That was rather fun!
    But I need you to check me!
    I started with G for “sol” and ended with C for “do”. There was a b and e flat. Right? So the way I played it was in the key of ? I don’t know if you call that b flat major or something else?!
    Oh the ignorance! And if I’m not mistaken, and I surely could be, the last link in my previous comment is the printed music for the tune, but it is in the key of F major??? Now that I see and can hear it, I think I can learn to sing it, if not play it (very poorly) and Mike will be able to play it if I can sing it since he doesn’t read music either! Did I mention the ignorance?!
    But though there is ignorance, it by no means has squelched our appreciation of music!!! God’s grace for such things transcends ignorance!
    So yes, your slofege helped!
    I’m learning the tune and I’m also regretting AGAIN not having piano lessons as a child! I tried as an adult, but I had two toddlers plus two handfuls of excuses for why it was just too hard at that time in my life, so I never really learned! If I play piano, it’s usually “be ear” and poorly because my music reading skills are poor! But in my dreams!!! Thank you for your help, Phoebe! How much do you charge for lessons to an “old dog trying to learn new tricks”? Your patience and understanding is so very gracious!
    Speaking of music (and while I’m on a roll) This weekend (and last) in our town, Lindsborg, is the 128th annual Messiah Festival of Music and Art which includes Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St Matthew Passion.
    Because I am not willing to give up my Sunday afternoons for the practices for several months, I’ve never sung in it and only gone once as an usherette since I was able to go for free! There is a sense I feel I’m missing out, but the trade for spending Palm and Easter Sunday and all Sunday practices with family is for me worth missing out! I always think someday I’ll sing. My blind friend sings each year and loves it! She has sung under three different conductors /music professors at Bethany College. It is so interesting to hear of the conductor’s methods and especially if they have shown/shared an appreciation for the spiritual aspect of the music. If you care to check this link it gives more info. on the Messiah Festival and if you look at the video, you’ll see college students and many older folks joining in for the performance. Some of the folks have made it a tradition to sing, and each year others from the community and surrounding towns join in.
    Sorry I wrote on and on and on!
    Thank you again for your sharing and for helping me with the song!
    I won’t always comment on and on!
    Have a blessed Easter!

    • No, I like your long comments! sorry I haven’t checked and answered yet.

      I tried nethymnal and the King’s Lynn file, and they worked. That’s the tune I know! Excellent job with your solfege decoding, I think you got it right! Most people don’t use solfege anymore, that was just a bit of music major nerdiness. You may feel you are ignorant, but the biggest part of learning is not being afraid to try. A lot of people fall into the “I don’t got talent” fallacy, and they limit themselves. You are learning with what you have, and that’s important.

      The festival sounds amazing. I understand that is would take a lot of time, but it must be an amazing experience for those that do it. There’s nothing like worshipping to such rich music.

      God bless you Laurie, may he give you a deep joy this Easter!

  4. Best you should make changes to the post subject title O God of Earth and Altar God My Grith to something more suited for your blog post you make. I enjoyed the the writing withal.

    • Thanks for your input. I’m not quite clear what you’re trying to say, though? Would you mind rephrasing? Thanks!

  5. An cool blog post there mate ! Thanks for it !

  6. I like it done by Iron Maiden best thank you.

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