One of the most beautiful Dutch hymns is titled “Aan U behoort, o Heer der heren.” Below I give the Dutch hymn, my provisional English translation of it, and a condensed version of an article that I wrote for a Dutch church magazine.
Aan U behoort, o Heer der heren de aarde met haar wel en wee, de steile bergen, koele meren, het vaste land, de onzeekre zee. Van U getuigen dag en nacht. Gij hebt ze heerlijk voortgebracht. The earth with all its ups and downs, o Lord of lords, belongs to Thee, steep mountains and cold lakes and lawns, the steady land, th’ unsteady sea. To Thee bear witness day and night. Thou hast created them so bright. Gij roept het jonge leven wakker, een tuin bloeit rond het open graf. Er ruisen halmen op de akker waar zich het zaad verloren gaf. En vele korrels vormen saam een kostbaar brood in uwe naam. Thou callst, o Lord, new life to bound, a garden blooms round th’ open grave and stalks do rustle on the ground where seed itself for dying gave. And many grains though none the same make up one bread loaf in thy name. Gij hebt de bloemen op de velden met koninklijke pracht bekleed. De zorgeloze vogels melden dat Gij uw schepping niet vergeet. ’t Is alles een gelijkenis van meer dan aards geheimenis. Thou hast, o Lord, dressed up the field, to splendid flowers it gives birth. The carefree birds call us to yield that Thou doest not forget the earth. And all this is a reference to mystery that earth transcends. Laat dan mijn hart U toebehoren en laat mij door de wereld gaan met open ogen, open oren om al uw tekens te verstaan. Dan is het aardse leven goed, omdat de hemel mij begroet. Let then, o Lord, my heart be Thine and let me go and see and hear all what is Thine and every sign, with open eyes and open ear. Then is my earthly life so good, because the heavens me salute.
The author of “Aan U behoort, o Heer der heren” is Jan Wit (1914–1980). He has written several hymns that have become well-known in the Netherlands and he has also contributed to a new metrical version of the Psalms. Rich, playful imagery and a wealth of biblical allusions are characteristic of his poetry.
What are Wit’s sources of inspiration in writing this hymn? First, he looks carefully around in this world. As for the “steep mountains” in the first stanza—he has possibly visited the Alps in Switzerland. As for the “uncertain sea”—of course, he does not yet know about the 2004 tsunami that killed more than two hundred thousand people, but the images of the 1953 flood are probably still in his mind.
Second, he takes his starting point from an older hymn, of which the first stanza reads as follows: “This earth is Thine, o Lord of lords! | Thine is its wonderful orbit, | Thine are its mountains, valleys, lakes, | its streams and its ocean. | Thine is the day, Thine is the night: | all only live by Thy power.” Wit has two objections against this hymn: it is too much of an enumeration and the repetition of “Thine” feels cumbersome. He tries to improve it, but the result is a new hymn. Especially in the next stanzas does the difference become apparent: the old hymn offers rather general religious poetry of nature, whereas Wit incorporates numerous Christian motifs.
Third, Wit knows his Bible. The first two lines of his hymn are a poetic rendering of a psalm verse: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Ps. 24:1 NRSV). The line “To Thee bear witness day and night” is also based on a psalm verse: “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge” (Ps. 19:2 NRSV).
The second stanza of the old hymn read: “Thine is this earth, lovely shining, | when sun’s heat melts its ice. | Thine is it, sparkling in the beauty of spring, | dressed with blossoms as a bride, | Thine is it, when the waving wheat field | promises a rich, beautiful harvest day.” “The beauty of spring” and “the waving wheat field” give Wit the clues for his second stanza, which, however, becomes very different:
Thou callst, o Lord, new life to bound,
a garden blooms round th’ open grave
and stalks do rustle on the ground
where seed itself for dying gave.
And many grains though none the same
make up one bread loaf in thy name.
In this stanza, the poet shows his capacity to let normal earthly life be normal earthly life and to connect it with the reality of faith at the same time. “A garden blooms round the open grave”—that refers to the graveyard where we bury the beloved deceased: it is often a beautiful garden, and there we stand around the open grave. But it also refers to Joseph of Arimathea’s garden, where the open grave is not a sign of death but of life. When we look from the perspective of Easter, even the graveyard bears signs of paradise and our blooming garden gives a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth.
When the poet goes through the fields, he hears the rustling stalks and he hears Jesus saying: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24 NRSV). When the poet eats his bread, his daily bread, it reminds him of an early Christian Eucharistic prayer: “Just as this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and then was gathered together and became one, so may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom,” and of Paul’s word: “There is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17 NRSV), and he sings: “And many grains . . . make up one bread loaf in Thy name.”
The flowers and the birds in Wit’s third stanza do not require any comment: everybody knows them, and every reader of the Bible recognizes Jesus’ call not to worry (Matt. 6:25–34). As for the last two lines of this stanza, here the poet summarizes all that preceded. He has looked around and he has seen the things as they are: the earthly things are created by God and refer back to God: “And all this is a reference to mystery that earth transcends.”
Wit’s final stanza reads:
Let then, o Lord, my heart be Thine
and let me go and see and hear
all what is Thine and every sign,
with open eyes and open ear.
Then is my earthly life so good,
because the heavens me salute.
Here the lines of the preceding stanzas converge: the “earth” of the first stanza recurs in the fifth line; the “open grave” of the second stanza leads to the “open eyes and open ear” in the fourth line; the “reference” of the third stanza is here indicated with “sign” in the third line. The hymn displays a clear unity.
However, is it not too farfetched to see a connection between “open grave” and “open eyes”? At first sight it is, but one should consider that Jan Wit was physically blind. When he sings about “open eyes,” this is still in the future for him, but because of the open grave he can already look forward to it—because of the open grave he can already go through the world with open eyes. He who cannot see natural light calls this hymn “an ode to earthly life insofar as it is seen in heavenly light.”
This hymn is beautiful in its description of nature, its play with language and its allusions. The poet has the book of nature and the book of Scripture continually making eyes to one other. It is a charming song. Still, we expect a church hymn to offer more than aesthetical enjoyment only. Beauty can also be deceiving. This desired deepening is offered in the personal dedication in the final stanza (more a prayer to God than a promise from our side), which then influences the interpretation of the entire hymn: “my heart” is at stake. When my heart belongs to God, I do not flee from the world, but I will go through it.
In the end, I have only one problem with this hymn. I called it the power of the poet that he is able to let normal earthly life be normal earthly life and to connect it to the reality of faith at the same time. But is this also true for people in a city like Amsterdam? City-dwellers know steep mountains and rustling stalks from holidays only. Intuitively, this hymn reminds me of the polders of the Green Heart of Holland, through which I used to cycle to school every day. It does not sing spontaneously in me when cycling over Dam square in Amsterdam. For this reason, I suggest that we slightly adapt the final stanza in the context of the city:
Laat dan mijn hart U toebehoren en laat mij door het stadshart gaan met open ogen, open oren om al uw tekens te verstaan. Dan is ’t in Amsterdam zo goed, omdat de hemel mij begroet. Let then, o Lord, my heart be Thine and let me go and see and hear all what is Thine and every sign, with open eyes and open ear. It’s then in Amsterdam so good, because the heavens me salute.
And as for Cairo, even more than by the omnipresent call of the minaret or the demonstrations at Tahrir Square is this city characterized by its zaḥma. This Egyptian Arabic word can be translated as “crowdedness” and does not only refer to the chaos on the roads, but also to the bustle and busyness of life in general with some twenty million people living on one spot. It is in the midst of all of this, even literally in the traffic jam, that one can change the last lines of the hymn again and sing:
It’s then in Cairo’s zaḥma good because the heavens me salute.
This post is adapted from section 6.5 of Willem J. de Wit, On the Way to the Living God: A Cathartic Reading of Herman Bavinck and an Invitation to Overcome the Plausibility Crisis of Christianity (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2011).