I love thy kingdom, Lord

The earliest American hymn still in general use, ‘I love thy kingdom, Lord’ was written by Timothy Dwight (IV), president of Yale College from 1795 to 1817, a Congregationalist minister, and a grandson of Jonathan Edwards and important figure in the beginnings of the Second Great Awakening; his works were ‘well known, and need[ed] no enumeration’ to Julian, even if his star has been eclipsed in the years since that august clergyman’s Dictionary of Hymnology was written.
The hymn was published in Dwight’s own 1801 edition, undertaken on behalf of Connecticut Presbyterians, of Watts’s The Psalms of David Imitated... . Labeled as the ‘Third Part’ of Psalm 137 – though the connections are fairly slight – it is more descriptively inscribed ‘Love to the Church’, and is indeed a tender love-song to the Bride of Christ that follows both a closer paraphrase of the Psalm in question (i.e., the ‘First Part’) and an interpretation of it as ‘The church’s complaint’ (the ‘Second Part’). Only five stanzas (1 and 5–8) are in common use.

          I love thy kingdom, Lord,
          The house of thine abode,
The church, our blessed Redeemer sav’d
          With His own precious blood.

          I love thy Church, O God!
          Her walls before thee stand,
Dear as the apple of thine eye,
          And graven on thy hand.

          If e’er to bless thy sons
          My voice, or hands, deny,
These hands let useful skill forsake,
          This voice in silence die.

          If e’er my heart forget
          Her welfare, or her wo,
Let every joy this heart forsake,
          And every grief o’erflow.*

          For her my tears shall fall;
          For her my prayers ascend;
To her my cares and toils be given,
         ’Till toils and cares shall end.

          Beyond my highest joy
          I prize her heavenly ways,
Her sweet communion, solemn vows,
          Her hymns of love and praise.

          Jesus, thou Friend divine,
          Our Saviour, and our King,
Thy hand from every snare and foe
          Shall great deliverance bring.

          Sure as thy truth shall last,
          To Zion shall be given
The brightest glories, earth can yield,
          And brighter bliss of heaven.

There is much fodder for contemplation here. One is well reminded that the Church is, or ought to be, characterized by ‘heavenly ways,... sweet communion, solemn vows, [and] hymns of love and praise’ (including this one), and challenged to work, pray, and weep for her in an era in which, no less than in Dwight’s own,

Her songs, her worship, they deride,
And hiss thy word with tongues of pride...


Errors, and sins, and follies grow...
     (from the ‘Second Part’)

though the ‘proud enemies’ seem now to come more often from within her own ranks.

The hymn poses an interesting question, however: can not only the Church and Zion, but also the Church and the Kingdom, be equated? If by ‘kingdom’ Dwight intends ‘the Kingdom of God’ or the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ preached by Our Lord and His Forerunner, are the ekklesía and the basileía coterminous?

On the one hand, this seems an exclusivist claim – and it may well have been intended as such by the author. I am not familiar enough with Calvinist or other Protestant theology such as Dwight might have espoused treating the relationship among the ‘visible’ Church, the ‘invisible’ Church, and the historical, institutional, hierarchical Church. In any case, the view I have in mind – one common enough in Evangelical Christianity and the popular view – is that the Kingdom is a largely, or entirely, future entity, ultimately to be populated by the elect, the saved, or the winners, depending upon one’s language of choice. In that sense, the Church, or the ‘true Church’, however construed, is, or will be, precisely the Kingdom.

I wonder, though, whether this squares with Our Lord’s own teaching, which strongly suggests that the Kingdom already exists, that it has come or is coming into being; that it is scattered far and wide and works, like seeds or leaven, in microcosmic ways largely unnoticed by us. I interpret this to mean that the Kingdom, like matter-energy itself, is something we can neither create nor destroy; we only discover it ‘hidden in plain sight’, the very fabric of creation and divine oikonomía, fully potential and fully present and inherent in everything –

The ineffable, supernatural, and divine fire is present, as in the burning bush, in the being of everything that exists.
     St Maximos the Confessor

The world is a mirror of infinite beauty, yet no man sees it. It is a Temple of Majesty, yet no man regards it. It is a region of Light and Peace, did not men disquiet it. It is the Paradise of God.
     Thos. Traherne
     Centuries of Meditations I.31

In this sense the Church seems too narrow a definition of the Kingdom.

Indeed, Our Lord almost never uses the term ekklesía, rather speaking simply to His followers, to whoever will listen: ‘you are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world; you are witnesses; you are the branches; you are my friends’. It seems that the role of any who would follow Christ is thus to point to the Kingdom, to call and draw people to an awareness of the love and ‘sweet communion’ that undergirds all things. But in order to do this, we are summoned, gathered, assembled (this is what ekklesía means), to do and be all the things we have been given to be and do: the Body of Christ; a communion of Scripture and Sacrament; a people of contemplation and action and prophecy and compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation. And in this sense the Church is precisely an outpost of Paradise, like the seed a concentrated instance or microcosm of the Kingdom, which is fully present in every morsel and every moment.

Thus the Church’s mission and life is a continuation of that of Israel, herself an ekklesía constituted by the Lord and called by her prophets to be a light to the world – and in this our hymn can point us to an understanding of the continuity between the Church, the Kingdom, and Zion.

The second stanza is the key here. It contains references to Isaiah 49.16 –

Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands;
     thy walls are continually before me.

– and Zechariah 2.8 –

For thus saith the Lord of hosts; After the glory hath he sent me unto the nations which spoiled you: for he that toucheth you toucheth the apple of his eye.

Both of these verses come from passages not only promising a return from the exile that is the understood context of Psalm 137, but indeed setting forth an eschatological vision in which ‘many nations will join themselves to the Lord’ and Zion will be too crowded to contain the multitudes, and in fact the city cannot be walled round at all, except by the fierce and fiery glory of the Lord Himself,† which will also dwell in her midst. When this is true (and according to the divine time we may believe it to be an already accomplished fact), the Church will be fully coterminous with the Kingdom, with Zion, with Israel, with Paradise, with Heaven, with the Tabernacle, Temple, and Ark, with creation redeemed, remade, reborn: the gathering of all, the dwelling-place of the Most High, the ‘house of [the Lord’s] abode’.

*  A different, and much poorer, fourth stanza appears in some sources; I have not traced its provenance:

          Should I with scoffers join
          Her altars to abuse?
No! Better far my tongue were dumb,
          My hand its skill should lose.

†  One is reminded of the hall of Gjuki in the Edda –

Salr er á háu   Hindarfjalli,
allr er hann útan   eldi sveipinn…

There is a hall   on Hindarfell
fenced around   by a wall of flame.

    Fáfnismál, 42, tr. Patricia Terry

– probably a common image in ancient oral art and literature.