With Fear and Trembling


[20] But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.

Habakkuk 2: 20


One of the more appalling features of contemporary Christianity is our general lack of awe regarding God.  Too often we treat I AM as, at best, a combination buddy/genie who is eager in an almost canine like manner to forgive the most despicable behavior on our part, with no requirement that we “go and sin no more.”  The above hymn is a useful corrective to this contemptuous “worship”.

The hymn Let All Mortal Flesh be Silent is taken from the Liturgy of Saint James, written in the fourth century.  A cherubic hymn, attempting to imitate the worship given God by angels, the hymn itself probably dates back to 275.  It takes as its starting point Habbakuk 2:20 which commands silence before the Lord in His temple.

This is the Latin Text of the hymn, which was used for Eucharistic Devotion:

Sileat omnis caro mortalis et stet cum timore et tremore neve quidquam terrestre in se meditetur. Rex enim regnantium, Christus Deus noster, prodit ut mactetur deturque in escam fidelibus, praecedunt autem hunc chori angelorum cum omni principatu et potestate, cherubim multis oculis et seraphim sex alis praedita, facies velantia et vociferantia hymnum, alleluia.

In the 19th century Gerard Moultrie translated the Greek  original of the hymn into English:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,
As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
Comes the powers of hell to vanquish
As the darkness clears away.

At His feet the six winged seraph,
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
As with ceaseless voice they cry:
Alleluia, Alleluia
Alleluia, Lord Most High!

Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1906 set the poem to the traditional French tune Picardy to produce the modern hymn.  The hymn is a useful corrective to the contemporary popular concept of God, a distortion of the Creator of the Universe that barely rises to heresy.

Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence,) with fear and trembling work out your salvation.

Philippians 2: 12

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  1. Thanks for this timely reminder. One of my all time favorite hymns, too. Vaughan Williams produced some marvelous sacred music, didn’t he?

  2. Beautiful. The imagery is remarkable. I sent this on to many family and friends. I haven’t thought of God in this way in a very long time – a good reminder. Thank you…

  3. GK Chesterton noted that the Church has always stressed the merciful side of Christ in its imagery because (in the language of “Orthodoxy”): the mass of the people have always been poor and the mass of the poor are broken. The image of an awesome and wrathful God (as presented by a Jonathan Edwards) can end up driving people away from His mercy. Yet that more sombre image can’t be neglected, for what is the point of mercy if there is no sin and no punishment for sin? Our soft, middle-class culture needs a reminder of the Majesty that we offend by our sins, but in a way that inspires tears and not merely fear. A good sermon on a hymn like the above could be a great start.

  4. Certainly better than so much contemporary “worship” music which suggests we did God a favor by condescending to be created in the first place.

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