You are Beautiful Beyond Description (I Stand in Awe of You)

 Sof 621 Mark Altrogge 1987

This is a song of awe and admiration. Singing it personally is a chance to meditate on God’s beauty and unsearchability, his power, his wonder as well as to confess that you find yourself ‘over-awed’ by God. And singing it collectively is similar, but when we sing it in congregation we have to be more vulnerable to one another – expressing that we find God beautiful, in whatever way we choose to understand that. You may be admiring God for his beautiful love in sending his Son, and your pewmate may be in love with the God who makes all things new.

Singing of the beauty of God can feel strange, even after years of adoring him for his ‘majesty’ and his ‘faithfulness’. I suppose the inhibition we can feel stems from our inability to see him with our earthly eyes as well as a hesitation to use ‘romantic’ language to praise God. But this isn’t a modern blending of romantic songs with sacred music – what too many people dismiss as ‘boyfriend songs’ (as in ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’). People have sung of God’s beauty for centuries. I particularly enjoy ‘Oh worship the Lord in the beauty of Holiness’, Monsell’s high victorian hymn that starts with words found in Chronicles 16 and Psalm 96. If you can sing of the ‘beauty of God’s holiness’ in those terms, then you can be reassured that we’re singing of the same thing in Altrogge’s verse.

The music of the song puts it pretty squarely in the ‘less-is-more, speak-the-simple-truth’ camp, not quite at the sparse power of a chorus like ‘I am the God that Healeth thee’, but still within the sing-it-first-timeable. But it’s a song built essentially to contain that cry of the chorus – ‘I stand, I stand, in awe of you’. This song is all about prompting the worshipper to consider their position before God. Worshipping him demands our awareness of his greatness, our littleness, his goodness. Why do we worship him? Because he is the ‘Holy God, to whom all praise is due’.

That chord change beneath the penultimate line throws the emphasis on God in ‘Holy God, to who all praise is due’ and it feels like a surprise to be talking to God himself, strangely supernatural. I love the finishing phrase of the melody as well: the leap to the high note of ‘in’ during the final ‘I stand in awe of you’. Listening to the congregation, this jump often leaves them breathless… which is the perfect time to sing about awe.

In this recording posted by melissaxxdv, and sung by Beth Croft, you can hear the song sung both to express her own worship and to exhort a congregation to admire and express their admiration for an awesome God. The simple piano intro rises and falls like the breath, a little touch of slide guitar pulls our ears into key, and when the vocalist asks ‘Who can grasp your infinite wisdom?’ we should shake our heads and admit that we cannot grasp the wisdom of a God whose ways are so good and so high. The rise at the chorus is a natural encouragement for the raising of hands. That’s not manipulation – it’s invitation by good musicianship. Don’t dismiss the feeling with the thought ‘the music made me do that’. That’s more than a feeling – that’s the reaction of the Holy Spirit within you to the praise of God.

When we really appreciate who God is and what he does, we should really have fewer worries about how we sing and how we live. This is a ‘Turn your upon Jesus’ fact, and singing the simple truth that God is awesome – both good and mysterious – recalibrates, reassures and rests us.

Verses 57-64

You are my portion, O Lord;

I have promised to obey your words.

He is what we are allotted, now; not a thing, but a person, not a future idea or a dream of success but  relationship – this follows on from our promise to obey, and then sustains it – which began by inspiration and continues by inspiration as we give over our will to his spirit in us.

I have sought your face with all my heart

Be gracious to me according to your promise.

The writer’s past has been one of seeking God’s face – can we say it is our past too?  Our heart will divide if we do not give it over to God and still then we have to seek him – like being in love and wanting to see your friend, not being content to know they are there!  But God’s promises of grace from the beginning of all things to now are the things that will allow us to have this undivided heart.

I have considered my ways

and have turned my steps to your statutes.

That really is the only option!  To turn again onto the path and keep walking.  The statutes are a stairway in places, every step forward taking us a step up, in other places a meadow or a rocky cliff-edge.

I will hasten and not delay

to obey your commands.

It is a rush!  Like a man hurrying home, shifting his pack high.  As I read this now, I feel convicted, but I also remember the adrenalin of running after the Lord’s ways.  Do you?  Nothing else feels like that!

Though the wicked bind me with ropes,

I will not forget your law.

Like a man off the path, longing to be walking the high ways, over the hills, even though he is restrained, his mind and his spirit still travel with the Lord.  It’s not the destination, but the company…

At midnight I will rise to give you thanks

for your righteous laws.

Relevant at midnight and at all other times.  Rising in the body is good – it prepares us to rise in our spirits as well.

I am a friend to all who fear you,

to all who follow your precepts.

By virtue of the grace given to all of us – and don’t I love being in brotherhood!  Finding a new brother is sweet, and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the brothers are wise if they set out to go walking together.

The Earth is filled with your love, O Lord,

teach me your decrees.

The view from the top of the hill.  Our response has to be awe: how did you do it, Lord?  Show me what makes you so good.  I want to be where you are!