Music and Lyrics

This morning, in the MTC Relief Society, we sang “The Spirit of God.” I was struck by the lyrics, “The knowledge and power of God are expanding.” In the past, I’ve interpreted those words to refer to the rather controversial idea of God’s own progress—even if the progress refers to his children’s immortality and eternal life, his “work and glory.” But surrounded by missionaries, I heard it differently today. “The knowledge of God is expanding” and “the power of God [priesthood?] is expanding.” In other words, many are coming to a knowledge of God, and many are receiving His priesthood.

I’m curious about how LDS bloggers interpret these words. Your interpretations?


  1. I’ve always interpreted it that way. Your new way, I mean.

  2. Same here, though I never really tried to interpret them until my mission.

  3. Yes, I think your new interpretation is consistent with the context of the entire stanza. Further, it would be somewhat anachronistic to imply a progressing God theology onto such an early hymn. My favorite stanza is number four (rarely sung these days):

    We’ll wash and be wash’d, and with oil be anointed
    Withal not omitting the washing of feet:
    For he that receiveth his penny appointed,
    Must surely be clean at the harvest of wheat.

  4. My interpretation is a third variation, that the saints are learning more about God and learning to share His power. That seems to follow from “The Lord is extending the saints’ understanding.” But I like your new way, especially in a missionary setting.

  5. I just re-read your post again. I also think that the association of the “power of God” with the priesthood with this hymn is anachronistic as well. True enough, it was only the priesthood who were washed and anointed and “endowed with power from on high” at Kirtland, but this was also a time for very democratic movements in the use of God’s power.

    I think Ardis’s view is also very applicable.

  6. …one last thing…I think it is important to contextualize this hymn with regards to the Kirtland Temple. I implied that in my previous comments, but each stanza really ties into that moment. Splitting the veil, Solemn Assemblies, washings and anointings, Power, etc.

  7. Martin Willey says:

    I have interpreted it to mean that, through the restoration of the true Church, the knowledge of God (through revelation, among other things) and the power of God (including, among other things, the priesthood) are expanding throughout the earth.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    That darn “of” sure allows for plenty of ambiguity in the English language…

  9. “The knowledge and power of God are expanding.”
    I’ve always thought of this line as meaning our knowledge of God is expanding through revelation given through the power of God.

    When I first read your phrasing “the power of God is expanding,” I thought about the power of God as the priesthood of God becoming available to more and more of God’s children. Perhaps it’s just because I associate you with Nobody Knows that the priesthood being available to additional groups of people throughout time came to mind.

  10. Walt Nicholes says:

    I find often in songs that the verse is adjusted to create poetry, and in order to find words with the proper rhythm and rhyme one has often to stretch a bit. Sometimes words are chosen whose primary meaning is not exactly what the writer was looking for, but near enough. (I could give a number of examples, but it would make this post lengthy. Start with “Sons of Michael”)

    As a result, I try to beware of attaching special meaning to the words, but accept them in the most general sense.

    I far that we Latter-Day Saints often try to read things in to songs, and talks and scriptures looking for hidden meaning where none was intended.

    I have heard that the hymns should be accepted as doctrinal, especially since the hymnbook started going through correlation, but there are still conclusions jumped to by some that seem extreme to me.

    I interpret this song as referring to the expansion of the work, without any special hidden meaning. If more meaning is revealed to a particular saint then that is a good thing for them.

  11. Walt: “Sometimes words are chosen whose primary meaning is not exactly what the writer was looking for, but hear enough.”

    THAT is why we have creative writing teachers. Mark Twain had a wonderful line about James Fennimore Cooper, whose writing he despised. I’ll have to paraphrase: “He never chooses the best word, but usually its second cousin.”

  12. I’ve always set it in terms of visions (knowledge) and ordinances of exaltation (power of godliness) that were happening and being introduced in Kirtand at the time.

  13. Even so, Walt, the words aren’t nonsense syllables. If you’re listening to the words as you sing them, those words create mental pictures or have grammatical meaning. That’s all anybody here is doing, isn’t? Trying to describe what is expanding, in whose view?

  14. Margaret, that line is wonderfiul and comes from one of my favorite Twain essays. Those who wish may read it here.

  15. A couple years after Bruce McConkie gave his 1980 talk, “The Seven Deadly Heresies,” I read a copy:

    Heresy one: There are those who say that God is progressing in knowledge and is learning new truths.

    This is false–utterly, totally, and completely. There is not one sliver of truth in it.

    Reading this, that line in “The Spirit of God” came to mind. I asked my seminary teacher about the discrepancy, and he suggested that I should read the whole verse if I wanted to understand the intended meaning of a single line in the middle of the verse.

    There you have it: McConkie, a seminary teacher. A good fat target for those inclined to take a swing at it.

    J. Stapley, thanks for showing us that fourth verse.

  16. John Hamer says:

    This is my favorite hymn. I go to Kirtland often, and I got to live there for a week following the dedication of the new temple Visitor Center last year. We sang this hymn about 5 times over the course of the dedication services and I spent the next week having it stuck in my head while living and working in sight of the temple.

    The Community of Christ way of singing it is much more rousing and much less somber than the LDS way. The Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites) always sing J’s favorite verse because they maintain the Kirtland feet washing ordinance. Of course, they sing the hymn to a completely different tune.

  17. I always interpreted it as God’s glory expands as it is spread to His children.

    God grows in glory through us – much like mortal parents grow in stature through the success of their own children.

  18. Hamer: “much more rousing and much less somber than the LDS way.”

    Every time I have participated in the “Hosana Shout” (which is implied in the chorus) I look around and think, “wow, we are a bunch of stodgy lame-os.” I have to think that the singing and shouting has had better incarnations in Restoration history. Thanks for letting me know that it hasn’t completely died out.

    …and Bickertonites!

  19. John Hamer says:

    I think the other lost verse, stanza 5, which follows on the heels of the feet washing, is also interesting:

    Old Israel that fled from the world for his freedom,
    Must come with the cloud and the pillar, amain:
    A Moses, and Aaron, and Joshua lead him,
    And feed him on manna from heaven again.

    To me this looks like reading a First Presidency model back into the Old Testament. There are a number of places where Sidney Rigdon is explicitly said to be Aaron to Joseph Smith’s Moses — would that make Frederick G. Williams Joshua?

  20. Isn’t that an intriguing stanza? Susan Staker is working on a project probing Joseph’s tracking of ancient prophets, specifically Moses, that should be quite interesting. And true enough, the Moses/Aaron comparison is not particularly new, but you are right that the Joshua thing is very interesting.

  21. Bro. Jones says:

    I’ve always understood it as in #4. The temple is there to arm us with God’s power and knowledge, and the construction of a new temple is a celebration of the expansion of that great work.

    #18 – No doubt, the Hosanna shout is pretty weak. Though honestly I think it arises from the fact the Prophet/Apostle leading the dedication tends to be, um, an elderly fella. They can’t shout like us young’uns can, but unfortunately the audiences I’ve seen at dedications always take the raspy “senior shout” as a guide for the volume and fervor of their own shout. Then we all sound like a cult of fuddy-duddies as we very weakly intone “Hosanna, Hosanna…” :(

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    My first Hosanna Shout was at the dedication of the Chicago Temple. What a disappointment. In my naivete I had thought it would be an actual shout, and I was really looking forward to it. False advertising.

  23. Carlos U. says:

    I’m with 1 and 2.

  24. Left Field says:

    The Encyclopedia of Mormonism says that the Hosanna Shout is to be “given to the full limit of one’s strength,” and I’ve always done so, to heck with whatever everyone else does.

    I was once involved in a discussion on another forum with someone who said that it couldn’t be shouted because you have to be reverent in the temple. Aaargh! I happen to think it’s irreverent to mumble the Hosanna Shout.

  25. I have always thought these lyrics were about the knowledge of God is expanding through the world in the missionary context. Some of the early leaders hypothesised how God’s own knowledge may be expanding. Clearly this was opinion which was cleared up shortly after and more recently in Bruce R. McKonkie’s “Seven Deadly Heresies”

  26. Deacon, I’m not sure that because McConkie classified it as a heresy that that it is particularly cleared up. There is heresy to go around, and he was not immune.

  27. Elder McConkie’s argument is one I find compelling. I also think John Horgan is right about an End of Science.

    Why anyone should suppose that an infinite and eternal being who has presided in our universe for almost 2,555,000,000 years, who made the sidereal heavens, whose creations are more numerous than the particles of the earth, and who is aware of the fall of every sparrow–why anyone would suppose that such a being has more to learn and new truths to discover in the laboratories of eternity is totally beyond my comprehension.

    Will he one day learn something that will destroy the plan of salvation and turn man and the universe into an uncreated nothingness? Will he discover a better plan of salvation than the one he has already given to men in worlds without number?

  28. I’ve loved these insights into the Kirtland Temple and the additional verse to the song.

    I must admit, attaching a number like 2,555,000,000 to God’s supervising the universe seems straight out of _Inherit the Wind_. I think Mormons would tend to think of God’s “progress” as pertaining to the progress of His children. That quote from Elder McConkie doesn’t resonate with me at all–except that it seems harsh.

  29. I love it! you have saved the song for me.

  30. Bro. Jones says:

    Re: #27

    Given that we have no comprehension of the vastness of God’s glory, and only a limited understanding of the physical mechanisms that created and drive the universe, I’d feel uncomfortable placing any kind of stricture on God’s knowledge.

  31. I always thought it referred to revelation and our window into the Understanding of God. The song is about revelation and the magnificent restoration at it’s heart. It makes less sense to think God is changing so much as our relationship to him is.