For Independence Day in the United States of America, I reflect on this prayer whose words are the lyrics of the American National Hymn, “God of Our Fathers,” by Daniel Roberts:
God of our fathers, whose almighty hand
Leads forth in beauty all the starry band
Of shining worlds in splendor thru the skies,
Our grateful songs before Thy throne arise.
Thy love divine hath led us in the past;
In this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our ruler guardian, guide and stay,
Thy Word our law, Thy path our chosen way.
From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be Thy strong arm our ever sure defense.
Thy true religion in our hearts increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.
Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way;
Lead us from night to never ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud and praise be ever thine. Amen.
This prayer acknowledges the governance of God and requests his guidance and protection. God refreshes his weary people; his Word has relevance for making decisions in life, in fact is “our law.” God’s character is described as love that leads, “bounteous goodness,” and dependable guardian. In words that confuse those who insist that we live in a post-modern (perhaps post-Christian) world, he prays that “Thy true religion in our hearts increase,” assuming there are standards to which we must adhere to experience peace and justice. The prayer expresses faith in a God who rules, not only the nation, but all the universe.
When we sing this prayer, we ask God to guide us and our nation into peace: we plead that he will defend us from war and disease. We intone words that obey the instructions given in 1 Timothy 2: 1-3:
“I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
That instruction was made to people practicing a monotheistic religion in an empire where polytheism was the norm and where many people worshiped the emperor. It often was a hostile environment for Christians. Yet these verses instruct Christians to pray for a king who usurps the role of God, not that he may succeed in his insurrection, but that he may govern in a way that will allow Christians to live peaceful and quiet lives. This instruction may strike some as bizarre – pray for an ungodly leader. Yet, there it is, and it’s thoroughly consistent with biblical passages like Romans 13:1-7 and the book of Habakkuk that describe God as using even polytheistic and evil regimes as his agents in accomplishing his will.
So we pray for peace and we pray for our nation. We pray for justice; the Bible makes it quite clear that God desires ethical business practices and cares for the poor and the outcast in society. We teach and persuade; we do not coerce. We serve a God who rules all. His ways may confuse us as they did Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Peter, but when we live in faithful obedience to his Word and continue to pray, he will “lead us from night to never-ending day;” he will “fill all our lives with love and grace divine.”