Pew Review: Chris Tomlin’s How Great is our God

I’d like to give CCLI users (mostly church musicians, pastors, worship leaders, etc.) the benefit of the doubt and say that a #1 song won’t contain anything overtly unbiblical, and Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is our God” doesn’t. But for being a mainstay at #1, I’m kind of surprised at how…simple it is. I won’t copy the lyrics here, but you can find them with a simple Google search, like here. For ease, I’ll just break down my review into sections.

I like the image that the lyric “He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide” describes, and it also brings to mind the image of God wrapping himself in darkness (Psalm 18:11). God is light, and in him is no darkness (1 John 1). He also has control over darkness and light, which further blows my mind.

This song is also good because it’s obviously not a bad thing to proclaim in song God’s greatness, omnipotence, and control over all things. There’s a lot of pithy truths about God rehearsed in this song: name above all names, time in his hands, beginning and the end, worthy of all praise.

Musically, it’s a singable tune. The verses start in a low range and repeat many of the same notes then builds to a higher chorus that is appropriate for the climatic “How great is our God.” The song is a tad high for me – the bridge especially. Singing in parts would help this, but singing parts is extremely hard to do given its style and the fact that praise songs are rarely accompanied by musical notation. For some reason, it seems like many contemporary songwriters don’t write songs conducive to singing parts.

Not as Good:
The lyric “All the earth will see how great is our God”? Yup, that’s true. Upon the glorious return of the risen Christ, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philipians 2). God’s elect have also already seen how great God is – in and through the person and work of Christ (Hebrews 1:2, etc.). But Christ is strangely absent in this song. True, God is great and majestic as this song proclaims, but he is also incomprehensible to the unbelieving world except as he is known in Christ.

John Calvin writes that apart from Christ, “God’s majesty is too lofty to be attained by mortal men, who are like grubs crawling upon the earth” (Institutes, 2.6.4). I’m not saying that every song about the majesty of God needs to exhaustively rehearse everything about Christ, but my beef with this song is that Christ is not even present apart from the “Father, Spirit, Son” phrase and the cryptic “Lion and the Lamb” phrase – but more on that phrase later. My point is that this song could be made much fuller, richer, and truer if it included even short, simple phrases about the God-man, Christ Jesus.

Also, for a song about God’s greatness and majesty, its simplicity seems inconsistent. It has but two short verses, a simple, repetitive chorus sung at least four times (“How great is our God, sing with me how great is our God, and all will see how great, how great is our God”), and a short bridge. Most lines of the song consist of only four or five words and the whole song seems like the patchwork of a few popular and pithy biblical phrases (slogans?) without much regard for their biblical context or for explanation.

I personally don’t like it when singers at concerts/performances command the audience to do things like “sing it” or “clap your hands” or “rock out.” Generally, out of principle I don’t obey because they do it in a contrived, theatrical way. A related principle I hold to is that I don’t wear the t-shirt of the band I am going to see in concert. I’m not sure this technique works in this song: “How great is our God, sing with me, how great is our God.” To me, in this song, it almost seems like contrived filler, and rings hollow to me. This technique is used frequently in the Psalms (Psalm 34, 98, etc.), but Tomlin’s use of it seems casual and almost flippant compared to the Psalms. Does anyone else think so, or is that my problem because in this song it reminds me of a lame rock singer (especially given the type of music it is)?

Also in this song, Tomlin uses a mixed metaphor that is inconsistent trinitarian imagery: “The Godhead, three in one / Father, Spirit, Son / The Lion and the Lamb / The Lion and the Lamb.” The entire song to this point is about the greatness of “God,” and here the Trinity is thrown in with two short consecutive phrases, and then the song immediately switches to repeating two names of Christ the Son (Lion, Lamb). After this, the verse ends and the chorus begins. This part sticks out like a sore thumb with an inconsistent passing reference to Christ with no further explanation. Makes me think “huh?” whenever I sing it.

Not an overtly bad song, though for a #1 song, I want more. Without Christ explicitly present in the song, the song is incomplete; I’d rather not make something as important as the work of Christ an assumption. Again, it’s not a bad song, but I prefer others that might be more appropriate for the corporate gathering of God’s people at Mt. Zion. Psalm 18, 135, or 145 from the Psalter; or “All Praise to God Who Reigns Above“(#4), “Exalt the Lord, His Praise Proclaim” (#12), or “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (#35) from the Red Trinity hymnal come quickly to mind, though there are many others.

Remember that this is a “pew review” – where I look at the song as someone in the congregation singing it. Others in the congregation might differ from me, and I’d love to hear other views on the song.


3 thoughts on “Pew Review: Chris Tomlin’s How Great is our God

  1. I thought it was a typo when you said you were reminded of “the image of God wrapping himself in darkness,” but I checked the verse. New for me.I agree about the pithy truths. Excellent use of the word.If I were assuming the worst, I would think that contemporary songs aren’t written to be sung in parts because perhaps many “Praise Stars” don’t want to share a spotlight. If I were assuming the best, I would conclude that simple tunes appeal to the lowest common denominator and are much easier to write.What does not wearing a band t-shirt to a concert have to do with not doing what the guy at the mic says to do on a praise CD?

  2. The WHOLE Song Is Good!!!!!!!! When It Says "And All Will See How Great Is Our God" DOES Go With The Bible Verse "And Every Tongue Shall Confess,That Jesus Christ Is Lord" Also,It Stands For The People Who ARE NOT YET SAVED! So It's A Good Song 5 Stars!!

  3. I get what you are doing with this series on worship music. I agree (being someone on a praise team) we should be really aware of what we are singing. However, many praise and worship songs are simple in nature because the majority of the congregation we are leading are not singers. By that I mean they don't read music, they are not singing parts and will not sing if a song is too difficult to follow. Simplicity often encourages those who aren't singers to join in.We have a small praise team (4 regular singers and occasionally a 5th or 6th rotate in). We work out parts during rehearsal and are able to sing parts to songs like "How great is our God". The more technically or lyrically difficult a song is the less likely you will have a full corporate worship. That's not to say we don't include those more challenging songs – we just don't fill up a service with them. We pair them with simpler songs.As far as the lyrics are concerned I see your point. However, I think these songs are written from the perspective of and for Christians who understand. Would a song be more meaningful or worshipful if different phrasing or wording was used? Perhaps. Looking at Chris Tomlin's body of work I see a variety of simple and complex songs. It may be that he felt moved to write a simple song of worship when writing this song in particular.Ultimately, a worship service is not built on or destroyed by one song. A worship minister is going to build one song upon another creating variety and depth. It makes for an interesting worship time that leads everyone to a meaningful worship of God.


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