Scratched on the Walls of an Insane Asylum: The Love of God

HYMN_TheLoveOfGod

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell

It has been my favorite hymn for as long as I can remember. I remember singing it as a little girl, learning to play it as a young piano student, and memorizing it as a college kid.

It has traveled through life with me. It has outlived campy songs, sung with clear voices while holding hands with the Boyfriend in Murree; it has outlived worship choruses, sung with sincerity across the globe.

But I didn’t know its history until recently. The words were found scratched on the walls of an insane asylum by a patient. The story goes that he must have scribbled it in one of his “saner” moments.

It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell

I wanted to weep when I read this. These words, poignant words of the love of God from someone who suffered from a disease of the mind. What depth of understanding he must have had of living hell; what horror he must have experienced in the prison of both his own mind and at the will of evil men who find the insane easy prey.

And yet within all that he could pen these words.

To believe in the redemptive love of God through Jesus is to believe in a reordering of life, to believe that things are not as they seem. It is to believe in transformation of the whole person; it is to believe that beyond the ugly is beauty; beyond the broken is wholeness; beyond dementia is a sound mind; beyond sorrow is joy; beyond insanity is sanity; and beyond death is life.

It is to believe that nothing is beyond the redeeming love of God.

To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell;
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled,
And pardoned from his sin

Oh, love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

When years of time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall,
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call,
God’s love so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

27 thoughts on “Scratched on the Walls of an Insane Asylum: The Love of God

  1. Hi Marilyn. God is great! Just reading your blog here for the first time which you wrote over three years ago. F.H.Lehman, a failed businessman, laboring in a orane and lemon packing plant in Pasadena, CA penned this song’s first two stanzas one morning after being inspired by a Sunday sermon. He added this stanza which was penned some two hundred years earlier in an asylum. There are some variable accounts of how it all came about. His daughter, Mrs. Claudia Mays collaborated & added the musicThis was in 1917 and he held the copyright, renewed in 1945. The profound stanza is beleieved to have been written by a German Rabbi in the early 11th century as they are almost identical. Beautiful how over the centuries love works for the glory of our Lord and Savior and the benefit of those who embrace His greatest of all philosophies…”to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

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  2. So beautiful Marilyn…brings back so many memories of sitting on the piano bench and singing hymns with my mother almost from the time I could sit up. Amazing to know the background of this beloved hymn. Thank you for sharing it and your thoughts…

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  3. As good as this song is by many others, find it as done by Armond Morales in a Gaither video. NOTHING can touch it.
    Praise Him!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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  4. I love the words to this song — my husband actually led them at a prayer time yesterday. I’ve always loved that 3rd verse the most. But I didn’t know the background to it. Wow.

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  5. I also first heard this song through the Gaither Vocal Band. I was just looking for songs David Phelps is featured in(him being my favorite gospel singer and all) and oh my word i do love this song so much. If all of the over seven billion people today on earth were to be turned to scribes, and all oceans be turned to ink,scrolls rolled over the plz, the oceans would dry off and the skies would not be enough to write on about the love of God. It truly is am amazing song and you cannot even begin to compare with some of those repetetive chorusfs that have found way in our churches today.

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  6. I first heard this sang by the Gaither Vocal Bank and have fallen in love with it ever since and the Band has since become my permanent companion. I just put it on repeat and keep relishing it especially when I am driving long journeys to and from my home country as I am an economic refugee having to work away from home because of the unfairness of wicked human beings who labelled me many years back the stigma of which, all those many years ago has rendered me an object of political stigmatisation and unable to work in the land of my birth. Like the mental asylum patient who wrote this song on the wall, I have come to realise that only the love of God could have sustained me as, so t say, I went to hell and back and God alone knows how I have survived human wickedness. that brings me to the question, was the author of this song truly insane? I am asking because, my accusers have turned around to label me insane because of my reacting to their in-humanness. I am sure if they had their way, they would have locked me in a mental institution and threw away the keys. Please whoever has more information about that would be mental patient who authored this song, share it with me. I want to read id and appreciate his condition because the sons of darkness do tend to find others guilty or sick when they do not conform to their ways of doing things. It might be that this man has had a high revelation of God. It might be that, like John the Baptist, he spoke our against the infidelity of some powerful person who instead decided to have him confined because I am finding it difficult to believe that the depth of the words of that song could not have come from insanity.

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    1. Leefa – I’m sorry for your story. What deep pain you speak of and with just the small bit you have shared, I see why you love this hymn. I do as well – so much.
      Remember, some who were not insane were put away as insane, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that this is the case. I know the last verse is not from this person, but from a Jewish author. At any rate, that we are known and loved by God, regardless of mental capacity or status, is truth. Thank you so much for reading and sharing a bit of your story.

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  7. Marilyn, this is Aug. 2013 but I just found this lovely blog from a year ago..Sept. 9th is actually Fred’s birthday.
    I, too, have always loved this song and I want to thank you for sharing it’s origin. Oh, how I miss singing the ‘old’ hymns. I do have a friend who plays the piano and sometimes we get together and relish the contents of the old, familiar hymns.

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  8. Greetings from Wordwise Hymns. Your blog caught my eye because I posted an article on this great hymn this morning. (Glad to hear the song’s your favourite.) Where would we be without the infinite grace and love of God?

    Just one further note on the last stanza. It was not original with the unknown patient in the mental hospital–though he may have translated it into English. It was written by a Jewish author nearly a thousand years before. Still, whoever originated it, it provides one of the most stirring and profound word pictures in all of our hymns. God bless.

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    1. Thank you so much for this additional information. Glad to have a fuller story of this hymn and I couldn’t agree with these words more: “it provides one of the most stirring and profound word pictures in all of our hymns.”

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    2. Rcottrill,

      “It was written by a Jewish author nearly a thousand years before.” Sounds interesting but mysterious. Who is the Jewish author? We’d like to find out more about the source, or is this one of those legends?

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