Be Thou My Vision


Last Sunday I was in church singing Be Thou My Vision when a couple of lines leapt off the page and grabbed my attention:

Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

Be Thou my armour, my Sword for the fight;

Be Thou my Dignity, Thou my Delight

The first two lines are from the end of the second verse and the next two from the beginning of the third. I was entranced. How could I have missed this before? It was about the making of a covenant. It was about oneness, about the exchange of armour and weapons, about offering dignity through the swapping of mantles. An eighth century hymn that preserves the notion of covenant we in the twenty-first century have lost entirely—how exciting!

As soon as I got home, I typed these words into Google and… …how very odd! Not a single instance of them were to be found anywhere in the entire world.

There are nearly 2.7 million results on Google for Be Thou My Vision but not one of them with these exact words. For a moment I thought I was seriously losing my memory but then I decided to change the spelling of ‘armour’ to ‘armor’.

Aha! One result. On YouTube. Hmm, the account was closed. It was just baffling. One occurrence in the whole world and it was no longer verifiable. How could there be just one and no more?

I decided to check out the 2.7 million results for Be Thou My Vision to see why this discrepancy existed—no, not all of them. Just a few. I quickly realised that, in a significant number of cases, ‘armour’ had been changed to ‘breastplate’, ‘dignity’ had been changed to ‘armour’ and ‘delight’ had been changed to ‘might’.

Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.

Does it matter? I think it does. To change the symbols of covenant to symbols of battle results in a profound loss. Instead of being about unity and defence, it’s about force and attack.

Now Google tells me the original version of Be Thou My Vision was written by Dallan Forgaill, a sixth century Irish monk and bard. Apparently it’s the tune that’s eighth century, not the words. If Be Thou My Vision had my attention before, it just upped the intensity considerably. As attested in God’s Poetry, mention anything to do with the sixth century and a name and you have my laser-like focus. And this was very much to do with a name: Dallan means blind. Thus Be Thou My Vision is not simply a song of covenant, it’s a song of name covenant—it expresses a covenant of name, binding the author and God into a ‘heart of my own heart’ oneness.

No wonder this song has survived the vicissitudes of time. I’ve long suspected that, if as a writer you want to write a work which will pass down the centuries, you’d better be writing a work that expresses a name covenant. CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has already survived over half a century and I do not believe it’s coincidence that it’s a novel which explores a name covenant. Lewis, after all, comes from the Welsh for lion.

Now, as it happened, I already knew Dallan meant blind. It’s the name of one of the characters in a novel I’ve been working on for about twenty years. I’d picked it out of a list because I wanted a name to fit a character who can barely see.

So it was a bit disconcerting to realise I’d chosen a name belonging to the composer of one of my favourite loricas. It was a lot disconcerting that I’d never realised before that the original Dallan is probably the instigator of an episode of Irish history that has always fascinated me: the convocation of Drum Ceatt (more on that next time!)

Suddenly I’m beginning to sense why I’ve never felt “right” about the story I’ve had for nearly twenty years and let lie fallow for the last few. I’ve sent it out for several appraisals and they’ve always come back with praise. However, some deep sense in my spirit said it was not ready yet. And as I look at it, I know why. Dallan is there and, to my surprise, the breastplate and the sword and the mantles are, too. But I need to get that ‘heart of my own heart’ oneness into it. That’s what it’s missing.


  1. One of my favourite hymns, Annie. I love that bit about my dignity and Thou my delight. When I was in charge of music in a previous church, I always made sure that was the version used with those words. Though what I have always known from our hymn books was ‘Be thou my battle shield, my sword for the fight’ which came before the dignity and delight line.
    There is now a new version, but in this case I like the old one. I think we often lose a lot of meaning when words are changed and updated.

    • Hi Dale

      Although the version I quoted does not have battleshield, I think that is probably the most correct translation of the original. I looked it the Gaelic and that’s about the only word I could recognise! I had to check on ‘dignity’ and ‘delight’ to see if they were the right translations and, it would appear, that for ‘dignity’ there is no other real option, though there are some for ‘delight’.
      We do lose a lot of meaning when words are updated, changed – or in some cases – ‘corrected’. It’s so easy for editors to take on something of a deconstructionist mindset and decide that, as a modern professional expert, they know better than the author.
      While I don’t think that’s been the case here (more artistic licence than anything), it is a prevalent view elsewhere.

  2. Your thoughts and discoveries are interesting, Annie. I feel that it’s sad to alter someone else’s work — their words were there for a reason and are intrinsic to the hymn.

    I found this hymn in our church’s second hymnal, ‘The Red Hymnal’ we call it, which is rarely used. The lyrics were attributed in this way: ‘
    Ancient Irish, Tr. Mary Byrne, Versified by Eleanor Hall’

    The melody was attributed in this way:
    ‘SLANE, Traditional Irish Melody, Harmonization by David Evans.’ Choral direction is: ‘Unison’.

    The lyrics follow, just because these things are of importance and interest to you (note the absence of weaponry, only a mention of victory):

    Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart,
    Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art —
    Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
    Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

    Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
    I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
    Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
    Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

    Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise,
    Thou mine inheritance, now and always:
    Thou and Thou only, first in my heart,
    High King of heaven, my Treasure Thou art.

    High King of heaven, my victory won,
    May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
    Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
    Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

    These lyrics obviously depart from the original ones in important ways most likely dear to the one who redid them. They don’t seem to speak about covenant, but a relationship of loving dependence upon God.

    Just for your thinking and study of this, Annie,


  3. Hi Maria

    That is so interesting! Thank you for taking the time to share this. I find it fascinating how all these differences reflect a change in thinking over a period of time. It’s illuminating how different ages place such different emphases on particular aspects of theology that they actually lose the understanding of the previous age. While this is an obvious case, I wonder if there are others – how would we know if a song or a hymn has been altered unless we have access to more than one version? And that doesn’t happen very often.

  4. Hi again!

    The only hymn I know of in which there’s a glaring change is “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed?” One critical line used to read:

    “Would He devote that sacred head For such a worm as I?”

    and is now, so I’ve heard:

    “Would He devote that sacred head For Sinners such as I?”

    As I’ve heard someone say, ‘No more worm theology,” or rather anthropology.

    You’re right about the change of doctrinal focus in time, and that we lose much of the thinking of the past, which is lost to us.

    (Soon to read ~Merlin’s Wood~!)

    • oops! I’m tired, Annie: obviously, “we lose much of the thinking of the past, which is lost to us.”


      ha ha!

      • Hi Maria

        This is another excellent example of changing the words because of a lack of understanding of the deeper meaning. There’s a whole wealth of theology in this reference to the worm. In Chuck Missler’s article, According to the Scriptures, there’s some really interesting information about worms:

        On the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22:1 which goes on with an allusion to a worm in verse 6. ‘I am a worm and no man…’ However, as Missler points out, the term ‘worm’ is tolah which also means ‘scarlet’ and is rendered ‘crimson’ 38 times in Scripture.

        This is because scarlet dye was made from a particular worm, Cermes vermilio. The Cermes vermilio pierces the thin bark of twigs to suck the sap, from which it prepares a waxy scale to protect its soft body. The red dye is in this scale. When reproducing, the female climbs a tree (usually the holm oak), where it bears its eggs; the larvae hatch and feed on the body of the worm. It literally gives its life for its children.

        A crimson spot is left on the branch; when the spot dries out, in three days, it changes to white as it flakes off…

        This is summarised in Isaiah 1:18 – Come now, and let us reason together: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

        Thus the worm is a wonderful visual representation of the One who gives His life for us and who also takes away sin. Note also the process takes three days. It’s a resurrection motif!

        Although Missler doesn’t mention it, there’s a very ancient tradition which almost certainly involves this worm. On Yom Kippur, the priests of the Temple would hang a scarlet thread on the outer doors of the court. In three days, it would turn white and the people would rejoice because that was a sign that the sacrifice of atonement by the High Priest had been accepted by God.

        However, according to the Talmud, for 40 years before the destruction of the Second Temple, the thread remained scarlet and did not turn white. As this is the timespan between the death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple, many commentators see this as demonstrative proof that His death was all-sufficient and that the sacrifices of bulls and goats were no longer required.

  5. Annie, we just must be so careful with language. Tinkering isn’t advised. Language is fraught with meaning, much of which we don’t know/get.

    Yes, that’s right — the Lord quoted Psalm 22 from the Cross. And so we know that this was written about His death: “I am a worm and no man.” He became such a vile thing for us. The other image of parental self-giving to the point of death is the famous pelican piercing its own breast to feed its young. I’ve heard that this image is used in windows of older churches.

    The scarlet thread never turned white after His atoning death! This is beautiful and telling.

    Thank you!

  6. Ken Rolph

    “Van Morrison, Rebecca St James and Máire Brennan all have recorded the second version. At this rate, it won’t be long before this is the most common wording.”

    There are two points involved in this. The first is how we handle the past. It seems there is no real past, only the way we represent it in the present. So as the story of the past is passed on from generation to generation it changes shape. One example of this is the way that sayings detach themselves from those who originally uttered them and migrate to someone we recognise as a person who was most likely to have said that particular thing.

    The other is the problem of smaller subcultures versus the general culture. Small groups of people can generate words with particular meanings, but when the topic is picked up by the wider culture it gets distorted. The general culture has the power to smother the smaller one.

    One example is SF versus sci-fi. When I was reading a lot of SF in the sixties we never called it sci-fi among ourselves. In fact we considered it a term of derision only used by people who didn’t understand the genre. Another example if evangelical. When I was at university in the sixties I was part of the Evangelical Union. We looked up to professional people in law, education and medicine who took the Bible seriously, to the extent of learning Hebrew and Greek so they could get closer to the meaning. Now it seems to refer to right wing American Christians who practise believing six impossible things before breakfast.

    I think in the future that the past will have become much clearer. It will be whatever appeared for the first time somewhere on the internet. Beyond that will be quite forgotten.

    A test case? Who originally said “the opera is not over until the fat lady sings?” The internet is quite clear that is was some American sports broadcaster.

    • Hi Ken,

      Indeed, SF itself as a term is now passe and only used by those outside the subculture. It’s now “spec fic” or “speculative fiction”.

      Evangelical is, as you point out, a good case for a cultural shift in perception of meaning, if not the actual one.

      And, as for the fat lady singing, I used to know this one but I’ve quite forgotten.

      • Ken Rolph

        Here’s the story about the fat lady singing as I remember it. This would be from at least the late 1960s, before the invention of the internet. It may be folk etymology, but the story is much better than any online suggestions. But if no one ever typed up the story it would be lost. So the origin of things is now the origin as related on the internet. Anywaya . . .

        Italian mobsters during prohibition in 1920s New York became rich, even though from peasant origins. But they also wanted respectability. One night a group of them were at the opera for the first time. At intermission they saw people getting up and went to leave. But one of the mobsters said that the opera wasn’t over until the fat lady sang. This suggests they were watching Wagner.

        If this saying has such deep roots it would have spread and changed to various forms (church not over, etc). So it would have had a life in the spoken culture before it made it to some recorded form later in the century.

        I have tried to track down the specific reference for this saying. It may be contained inside some biography or social history of the era and that group of people. Havent’ had much luck unearthing it so far. But I do like to think it’s true.

  7. Hi Anne,

    I love hymns, and kind of collect old hymnals. It is amazing how many have been tinkered with over the years. I was fascinated with your conversation with Maria above.

    Thanks so much for this wonderful info about the covenant. Wonderful.

    Ben Nelson

  8. Sarah Gaunt

    Hi Anne
    Thanks for this post. I’m having this song at my wedding and trying to make sure I use the right and best lyrics. One thing im trying to understand is why the battleshield verse is often left out? Was it to do with the war and respect?
    I personally think that verse speaks of spiritual battle and spiritual armour.
    Thanks also for the bit about dignity and delight.

    • Hi Sarah

      The two versions have different emphases.

      The original seems to have been the one which mentioned dignity and delight (from checking the Gaelic). This seems to have been changed, in my view, because people did not understand that these are aspects of covenant.

      Thus the choices are:
      (1) a song about covenant OR
      (2) a song about spiritual armour

      If it were my choice, I’d take the first since it automatically implies the second, anyway. However the second does not, at least in modern thinking, include the first.

  9. Does anyone have the original words that could be posted?


Leave a Reply

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.