When Worship Began
Caedmon's hymn has a unique place in the worship of the church, as we shall see.
The first Bible character to speak of worshiping God is Abraham (Gen. 22:5). And the first one actually said to do so is his servant, of whom we read, "Then the man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord" (Gen. 24:26). But of course there was worship before that. Though our record of earliest times is scant, there can be no doubt that Adam and Eve glorified God in some way.
Predating human adoration the Word of God tells us at creation "The morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy" (Job 38:7)--the "stars" being a poetic parallel to "sons of God," and both terms signifying angelic beings. For them, creation was an occasion for exulting in the power and wisdom of Almighty God.
But suppose we move forward many millennia to discover where worship began among English speaking people. For a formal expression of praise, we can go no further back than the work of a shepherd named Caedmon, in Northumbria (England). Caedmon lived around the end of the 7th century. His poetry, written in Old English is virtually unreadable today, except by scholars. But the poem called "Caedmons Hymn" deserves recognition, because it is the first example of English literature of any kind for which we know the author.
Until quite late in life, Caedmon showed no musical ability. Sometimes, this became an embarrassment. At times of feasting, a harp would be passed around the company of those gathered, with each person invited to play and sing a song. When his turn approached, Caedmon would make a hasty exit, humiliated because he had nothing to offer. But on one such evening, he went to the stable (for which he was responsible), where he lay down and fell asleep. It is reported-- whether true or not--that he dreamed of an angelic visitor who asked him to sing.
"What must I sing?" Caedmon asked, in his dream. "Sing about the beginning of created things," was the response. And when he awoke, the shepherd found himself able to compose a hymn praising the God of creation. Written some time around the year 680 A.D., it was the first of many offerings from his pen. The Abbess Hilda of a nearby monastery recognized his gifts, and invited him to join the community as a lay-brother. He spent the remainder of his life there, writing poems about events in biblical history. His work captured the imagination of the Anglo-Saxons of that time, teaching some basic truths to people who had no Bibles of their own.
Caedmon's Hymn begins, "Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard, / Meotodes meahte and his modgeþanc..." Strange though it sounds, that is an early form of English! Here is a rough updating of the whole poem: "Now must we praise the Keeper of heaven's kingdom, / The power of the Creator, and His intention, / The work of the Father of glory, how for each of the wonders / The eternal Lord established a beginning. / He first shaped for the sons of men / Heaven as a roof, the holy Maker; / Then the Middle-earth mankind's Guardian, / The eternal Lord, made afterwards, / Solid ground for men, the All-powerful created."
Though difficult to translate smoothly, this hymn expresses a number of key biblical truths. It recognizes the existence of God, His eternality, and His role as Creator (cf. Ps. 90:2; Heb. 11:3). It lauds His power, and owns His sovereign lordship (cf. Dan. 4:34-35). It recognizes His wisdom, and His gracious provision for the human family (cf. Ps. 145:9; Matt. 5:45). Reaching across the years, comes this testimony from a man whose body turned to dust thirteen long centuries ago. And though our language has changed greatly, our worship of God continues, because He is as worthy of it now as when praise began among His creatures. "Let everything that has breath praise the Lord" (Ps. 150:6).