A Breath of Fresh Air

Which Methodist preacher, sermonizing to small rural congregations, has not read the story of Ezekiel in the valley of the dry bones and not been filled with hope that miracles can happen? That God can bring to life causes that look long dead and buried?

Ezekiel’s story, of course, is about the exiled people of Israel. With their national glory gone, they needed a promise of hope for the future. ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ is God’s cautious question. What follows demonstrates His mighty power when confronted with the most hopeless of situations. Not only can God put the driest of bones back together, His breath of life alone can energise a vast army. Though the house of Israel felt like nothing but a heap of old dry bones, Ezekiel’s vision was a promise that God would restore them to life once more.

The story may well have been in the mind of English scholar Edwin Hatch [1835-1889] when he penned this most haunting of hymns, the only one of his to survive. Edwin Hatch was born on 4th Sept 1835 in Derby, where he attended King Edward’s school in Birmingham. He studied under James Prince Lee, who later became the Bishop of Manchester. It was here that Hatch was noted for his ‘strong mental independence and extreme study habits’.

At Pembroke College, Oxford, Hatch became a dominant figure in ‘The Birmingham set’ or ‘The Brotherhood’, a group of students, mostly from Birmingham, who had studied at King Edward’s school. The group initially met every evening in the rooms of Charles Faulkner in Pembroke College, to focus on their literary interests, particularly Tennyson, whom they admired very much.

Their importance as a group, however was largely in the visual arts and they played a significant role in the birth of the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement. The ‘set’ was intimately involved in the murals painted on the Oxford Union Society in 1857. Other key members of the group were William Morris and Edward Burne Jones.

After graduating from Pembroke College in 1857, Hatch was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1859. He then travelled to Toronto in Canada, where he was Professor of Classics at Trinity College until 1862, before returning to Oxford in 1867. There he became widely known for his scholarship and lectures in early church history, becoming an acknowledged master of historical research.

Hatch embodied that enviable combination of great learning and a simple faith. James Moffatt said of him, ‘Profound as his learning was, his published sermons show that his piety was as simple and unaffected as a child’s’.

The text of ‘Breathe on me Breath of God’ first appeared in 1878 in a pamphlet entitled ‘Between doubt and prayer’ and was originally intended as an ordination hymn. In its present form however, the hymn appeared later in the ‘Psalmist Hymnal’ published in 1886.

In this hymn, Hatch sees the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a deeply personal experience. The Church of England in the mid-19th century, for all its faults, was in a much better state than it had been in 50 years before, when the Evangelicals and the Oxford movement between them had rescued it. It may not have been the nation that needed revival then, but the heart of every Christian instead.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Fill me with life anew,
That I may love what thou dost love,
And do what Thou wouldst do.

The first verse evokes the atmosphere of the upper room when Jesus met with His disciples after His resurrection and breathed on them, saying ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’. Describing the Holy Spirit as the ‘Breath of God’ may seem strange at first but there is no evidence to suggest that Hatch is diverting attention from the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Rather, he is playing on the Greek word pneuma, meaning breath or Spirit, depending on the context.

From the moment Adam was created, he depended on God for physical and spiritual life: ‘then the Lord God formed the man from dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature’ [Gen 2 v 7]. And Just as Ezekiel’s dry bones needed God’s breath to bring them to life, so we need the Holy Spirit to bring us from spiritual death to life. Paul tells us in Romans that ‘If Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness’ [Rom 8 v 10]. The first verse asks the Spirit to indwell us and transform us into the likeness of Christ. To love what He loves and do what He does. This is far more than wanting to speak soft words and do good works!

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Until my heart is pure,
Until with thee I will one will,
To do and to endure.

Stanza two speaks of the process of Sanctification, of becoming more like Christ, begun when a believer is made right or justified through the blood of Christ, but continuing as long as we live in the flesh. John describes it beautifully when he says: ‘Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared, but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as He is pure’. [1 John 3 v 2-3]

But the Spirit needs our cooperation in the process. He can only make us more Christ-like if we commit to doing the will of God and we shall need to ask ‘to be strengthened with power through His Spirit’ in order to achieve this. [Eph 3 v 16] Hatch ties together here the doing of God’s will with endurance, ‘that we may continue to run [with endurance] the race that is set before us’. [Heb 12 v 1]

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
Till I am wholly Thine,
Till all this earthly part of me
Glows with thy fire divine.

Although, as Christians, the Holy Spirit lives in us, He will always be at war with the desires of our flesh. Paul recognised the struggle that would rage in every Christian until our dying breath. And yet it’s a fight we can win, with the Spirit’s help. We can choose the right and reject the wrong by adopting a different attitude. By reckoning our old selves dead and living the new life of the redeemed: ‘So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.’ [Rom 6 v 11] Hatch visualises the completion of the sanctification process when the fleshy part of our nature is totally submerged by the unquenchable fire of the Holy Spirit.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of Thine eternity.

This last stanza looks forward to the resurrection and to the eternal life to come. Spiritual life here and eternal life to come both flow from the working of the Holy Spirit. Through Him, we are brought from spiritual death to life but we can also look forward to a bodily resurrection after death. Just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we shall rise at the resurrection: ‘If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you’. [Rom 8 v 11]

‘Breathe on me Breath of God’ is such a familiar hymn that we perhaps sing the words too easily without contemplating once in a while just how powerful it is. A prayer that God will bring us to the point where we love what He loves and will what He wills ‘until this earthly part of me/Glows with thy fire divine’ is not to be made lightly. And it reminds us that all our evangelistic programmes and social activity need to be firmly rooted in personal devotion to Jesus. We cannot make the world Holy until we ourselves are Holy.

The quiet fervour of the hymn is intensified by the tune Trentham, by Robert Jackson [1842-1914]. The editors of the ‘Psalter Hymnal Handbook’ called it ‘serviceable’ but it has become widely associated with Edwin Hatch’s words. The tune will always remind me of summers at Cliff College because it was on a weekend there that I was standing on a hill, waiting for a celebration meeting to finish, when the haunting sound of this hymn floated up to meet me.

I could almost imagine Ezekiel’s mighty army coming to life there and then in the Calver valley or Jesus standing among his Disciples in the upper room:

‘Son of man can these bones live?’ ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’.

 

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