Thou Who Was Rich Beyond All Splendor
Posted On December 22, 2017
Frank Houghton (1894–1972) was an evangelical Anglican bishop and longtime director of China Inland Mission, the ministry founded by the missionary pioneer Hudson Taylor. Houghton was also a hymn writer and is most famous for his stirring Christmas carol, “Thou Who Was Rich Beyond All Splendor.” The hymn is a reflection on 2 Corinthians 8:9.
Chip Stam, the late director of the Institute for Christian Worship at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tells of the history behind the hymn.
Serving as Editorial Secretary for the China Inland Mission, Frank Houghton made a trip to China in 1934 to see first-hand the progress of the work. This hymn was written at a particularly difficult time in the history of the missions to China. Missionaries had been captured by the communist Red Army and released in poor health after over a year of suffering. Others had been captured never to be heard from again. In 1934 the young missionaries John and Betty Stam (my great aunt and uncle) were captured in Anhwei and beheaded. The news of these sorrows had reached the mission’s headquarters in Shanghai. Though this was a very dangerous time for both the Chinese Christians and the foreign missionaries, Frank Houghton decided he needed to begin a tour through the country to visit various missionary outposts. While traveling over the mountains of Szechwan, the powerful and comforting words of 2 Corinthians 8:9, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor,” were transformed into this beautiful Christmas hymn.
From the first word until the last, this hymn is about Christ. Each stanza explores a different aspect of the work of our Lord: his humiliation, incarnation, and exaltation. Taken together, you are given a breathtaking portrayal of the Christ of Christmas.
The first stanza focuses on the Son of God’s humiliation:
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becamest poor; thrones for a manger didst surrender, sapphire-paved courts for stable floor. Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor, all for love’s sake becomes poor.
The second stanza focuses on the Son of God’s incarnation:
Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for love’s sake becamest man; stooping so low, but sinners raising, heavenward by thine eternal plan. Thou who art God beyond all praising, all for love’s sake becamest man.
The final stanza focuses on the Son of God’s exaltation:
Thou who art love beyond all telling, savior and King, we worship thee. Emmanuel, within us dwelling, make us what thou wouldst have us be. Thou who art love beyond all telling, Savior and King, we worship thee.
The hymn reminds us that Christmas is about a gift beyond our comprehension. In his humiliation, the Son of God exchanged a throne for a manger, celestial courts for a stable floor, and riches for poverty (Phil. 2:5–8). In his incarnation, the Son of God became a man in order to redeem his people from their sins (cf. Matt. 1:21–23; John 1:1, 14). In his exaltation, Christ is the object of our love and adoration (Phil. 2:9–11). This is one of the reasons why I love this carol. It reminds me that the only fitting response to the Christ of Christmas is worship.
Christmas is about a gift beyond all splendor, all praising, all telling. You simply cannot fathom how magnificent this gift is. You see, Christmas is about the greatest, and costliest, gift of all––the gift of Christ himself. As the Apostle Paul states, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
Dr. John Tweeddale is academic dean and professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College.